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Protestant Churches Join the Fold, Fill Pews With Saturday Services

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three Protestant churches in the San Fernando Valley area are learning what Catholic parishes have known for two decades--that Saturday evening is a convenient alternative to Sunday morning services.

For growing numbers in the three Valley-area congregations--and in several other Southern California evangelical churches--the Christian Sabbath is becoming truly a day of rest.

“It’s the only day my wife and I really get to sleep in,” said Gene Hiebert of Valencia. He and his wife work on Saturdays, then attend the 6 p.m. service at The Church at Rocky Peak in Chatsworth.

Saturday services benefit people who work Sundays, but many parishioners like the schedule simply because an entire Sunday is freed up for leisure and outings.

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“If you go to Sunday school at 9 a.m., then to the 11 a.m. service and leave about 1 p.m., your day is pretty well shot,” Starr Horton said after a recent Saturday night service at Church on the Way in Van Nuys.

The trend toward adding Saturday services “is a mounting wave,” especially for growth-minded churches running out of seating and parking on Sunday morning, said the Rev. Scott Bauer, executive pastor for ministry at Church on the Way.

U.S. Catholic parishes broke with the Sunday-only tradition two decades ago. The Vatican gave approval in 1970 for late afternoon or evening Masses on Saturday, and it is a rare parish now that doesn’t schedule at least one.

The priests at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Pacoima celebrate 11 Masses on the weekend, including two on Saturday. The Rev. Carlos Alarcon, an associate pastor, said that many who attend the Mass at 7:30 p.m. Saturday say they come to avoid the Sunday morning crowds.

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Burbank’s St. Finbar Catholic Church is usually half full with about 500 parishioners for its 5 p.m. Mass in English, according to the pastor, Msgr. Robert Howard. After that, a Mass in Vietnamese is celebrated at 6:30 p.m.

“On some occasions, the Vietnamese fill the church, and many come back on Sunday for an English Mass,” Howard said.

Saturday evening services are relatively new for Protestant churches, but all three Valley-area churches that have started them are reporting sizable turnouts.

Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, which in February, 1990, was the first congregation in this region to launch the experiment, attracts about 650 churchgoers on a typical Saturday evening, according to Pastor Larry DeWitt.

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“I’ve been thrilled with the acceptance,” DeWitt said. “It has opened up Sunday for many people as a family day, and they wouldn’t want to go back to Sunday services.”

The Church at Rocky Peak last weekend counted more adults--236--at its Saturday night service than the 213 who showed up at the 8 a.m. Sunday service. Its second and third Sunday morning services both drew more than 600 worshipers.

Saturday evening worshipers don’t get shortchanged on content. The services, including the sermons, are ordinarily identical to the rites on the next morning.

“I have not allowed the Saturday night services to become the junior varsity version,” said the Rev. David Miller, senior pastor of the interdenominational Church at Rocky Peak.

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Services have a more informal atmosphere on Saturday than on Sunday mornings, notably in apparel. The clergy at the three churches are readily identifiable because they are the only men wearing coats and ties.

“It’s very relaxing,” said Kelvin Y. Siu, 31, who drives from Newhall for the Church on the Way service. “You feel like you know everybody.” A recent Saturday service there was attended by more than 600 people--a relatively intimate congregation compared to the more than 1,000 worshipers that typically pack Sunday morning services at that church.

The expanded schedule makes it a busier weekend for the pastors. “It’s a good thing I like to go to church because I sure do it a lot,” said the Rev. Jack Hayford, who preaches and leads each service at Church on the Way.

The pastors say they are not trying to spoil Saturday night fun for their flocks.

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“The reason we start at 6 p.m.,” said Calvary Community’s DeWitt, “is so people would have time to go to a show or get together afterward.”

Starting the Sunday worship cycle on Saturday evening has been compared by clergy to Jewish holy day services held on the evening before and the morning after.

“But the real reasons for the innovation are practical and social,” Bauer said. “A straw poll told us that 10% to 12% of our congregation were unable to attend our Sunday morning services because of their work schedules.”

Promoting Sunday night services, traditional at some Protestant churches, is not a good step, most pastors say.

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“On Sunday night, people are focusing on the new week rather than on going to church,” DeWitt said.

The Saturday evening option received its biggest boost in evangelical circles from the huge Willowcreek Community Church near Chicago, which launched it in 1987. A total of 14,000 people flock to the Saturday service and two Sunday morning services. A spokesman for Pastor Bill Hybels said that a second Saturday night service will be added next month.

A Southern California church, however, was one of the pioneers of weekend services in Protestantism. Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach began Friday night services in 1977 and added Saturday night services in 1980.

“All five services on the weekend are the same,” said Meg Crowley, a church spokeswoman. “Young people tend to come Friday night and the Saturday night congregation is mostly young families and seniors.”

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Other churches in the region that have initiated Saturday night services include South Coast Community Church in Irvine, Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, New Song Church in Covina and Rolling Hills Covenant Church in Rolling Hills Estates.


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