Ma’ariv Before Nightfall

Question
At our schul, they daven mincha/maariv together. Many times during the year it seems that we say maariv before dark or before three stars come out. If I don’t say the brachot for the shema in shul, nor recite shema, I will stand out and it will be noticed. Should I rather stay home and daven mincha there and maariv at the proper time? If I do that, I can wear my tefillin for mincha too. I’m not sure what is more important.

Answer
Ma’ariv consists of two sections: Q’riyath Sh’ma and T’phila. The z’man (time) for T’phila begins immediately after sunset, whereas the z’man for QS begins when three stars are visible.
Whereas one can always recite sections from the Tora such as QS at any time, day or night, it is completely incorrect to say the B’rakhoth for QS before sunset – one cannot praise HASHEM for having set the heavens in motion, causing the day to end and the evening to begin, when the sun is still shining.
Some posqim hold that it is possible to say QS with the B’rakhoth after sunset (Rashi, R. Hananel, Rashba, responsum 1:69, in the name of G’onim), in which case one must repeat all of QS, without the B’rakhoth, after three stars appear. It is more correct, however, to wait to recite QS at the proper time (Rav Paltoi Gaon & Rav Hai Gaon (‘Ossar HaG’onim, B’rakhoth), Rosh (B’rakhoth 1:1) Ridh, Tur (OH 235), Gra (Ma’ase Rav 65)), even if this means reciting T’phila (18 B’rakhoth) with the congregation (but not QS) and not juxtaposing the two (S’mikhuth G’ula l’T’phila).
As for not reciting QS with the congregation and standing out – either learn from some other book, or actually recite it with them except for the actual b’rakhot (Barukh Ata HASHEM).
As for Minha – it is certainly desirable to wear Talith and T’philin during Minha (Rambam’s MT T’phila 5:6 & Ssissith 3:12). If you daven at home with T&T, you can pray a second minha as r’shuth (optional) in schul – see MT T’phila 3:3.
Rabbi David Bar-Hayim