AS South Church in Andover, Mass., was debating when to hold an alternative worship service, the question wasn't which day is holy. Instead it was: When do people have nothing else to do? A market survey gave them an answer: 5 p.m. Saturday.
"It integrates nicely into the normal schedule, after the day's activities and before dinner," says Tom Jones, a member who helps plan the United Church of Christ service. With sports leagues and other things competing for weekend time, he says, "there's nothing sacred about Sunday morning anymore."
Across the country, churches are bending schedules to make encounters with the holy more practical, even if the new timing reflects a society's collective downtime rather than a liturgical calendar. With the shift, especially evident as Holy Week ushers in Easter, purists lament the loss of religious tradition while pragmatists applaud the popularity of flexible worship times.
At the core looms a perennial but primal question: Are churches transforming timetables to fit the world? Or are they transforming the world by bringing more people into churches through better timetables?
"If you do everything according to convenience, Lent will be 40 minutes instead of 40 days," says the Rev. Michael Driscoll, associate professor of liturgy at Notre Dame University in Indiana. "But if you're too purist, people just won't go [to services]. They'll vote with their feet."
Faced with this dilemma, religious communities are often choosing to hold services at times when the greatest number will attend. For example:
In 2001, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to allow celebration of the "Ascension feast" on a Sunday rather than the traditional Thursday because of dwindling attendance.
Presbyterians (USA) increasingly "roll Good Friday into [Maundy] Thursday night" rather than expect attendance on both days, says the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, national worship advisor.
Sparse attendance at weekday services has pushed one quarter of the nation's 34,000 United Methodist churches to recount the passion story on the Sunday prior to Easter.
Instead of convening as Sabbath begins at sundown Friday, Reform Jewish congregations in suburban areas are holding services at 8:30 p.m. or later to accommodate long commutes and relaxed meals with families.
Time-slot adjustments generally do increase attendance. The most vital and well-attended congregations are the 31 percent who have changed how or when they worship within the past five years, according to a 2001 survey by the Hartford Institute of Religion Research (HIRR). One example: When St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco moved its Maundy service from Thursday to the more convenient Tuesday, attendance doubled. It now draws 120 people.
"Anything that gets people into the community should supposedly be a good thing," says David Roozen, director of HIRR. "Churches are beginning to struggle with changes [in the world around them] and doing something about it."
But some fear that in departing from sacred times, churches are compromising too much for numeric growth. "If you're already accommodating to their worldview, will there ever be a transformation?" asks the Rev. Daniel Benedict, worship resource director for the United Methodist Church. "If there's no transformation, then what's the point? You gain the whole world, but lose your soul."
In Islam, the dilemma doesn't exist, because sacred time can't be compromised. Community worship is required once a week between noon and 2 p.m. on Friday, and work is no excuse to miss. "People say [to employers], 'I'll come in early or stay late, but this is something I have to do,' " says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Somebody might be weak and make an argument why they can't, but the religion wouldn't allow for it."
In Mr. Roozen's view, time slots number among many factors that Christian and Jewish congregations manage in crafting a niche for themselves in a religious marketplace. Types of music and degrees of formality also differentiate one from another.
Ironically, as congregations cater to the different demands of worshippers, some are rediscovering their deepest traditions and embracing them. In Reform Judaism, for instance, being flexible on worship hours has helped believers find time to be steadfast on two timeless essentials: a seventh-day Sabbath and family time.
"We're trying hard to at least make it possible to have a meaningful dinner together ... [while] not compromising some fundamental things like moving the Sabbath," says Rabbi Kim Geringer, a worship adviser at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York. "There's a point beyond which no religious leader would go. At some point, if the boundaries are erased, you lose all sense of distinct identity, and anything goes."
FOR Catholics, Saturday masses began in the 1970s as a concession to public convenience, according to the Rev. Joseph Nolan of Boston College. But some Catholics and Protestants alike see this Saturday's pre-Easter vigils which last as long as three hours as a sign of commitment, not convenience. "It's not responding to a culture that says we want a shopping mall open all the time," says Mr. Benedict. "It's an ancient ritual that attracts young people who want to be part of something that really matters, and they don't want it to be easy."
Then again, tastes vary. At St. Gregory of Nyssa, 500 worshippers will use this Saturday to celebrate until 1 a.m. with a "joyful procession, jubilant dancing and resurrection eucharist" followed by "savory finger food." Anyone who shows up on Sunday will find doors locked and a sign directing them to a park picnic. After such a Saturday night, says church member Margaret Lukens, "nobody is really fit to do church on Sunday morning."