Pastors disagree about a lot of things. We can disagree about how big a role the sovereignty of God plays in salvation compared to the free will of man; we can argue about how missions should be supported; we can dispute what kind and how many songs should be a service; we’re even prone to disagree about what ought to be at a potluck (just get a northern pastor and southern pastor in the same room!)
But there is one thing that every pastor and preacher I’ve ever met agree on:
Out of all the doctrines, practices, and preferences involved in ministry, why would something that seems so trivial be the one massive point of agreement? I’ll bet there’s a pretty important reason for it.
And just as strange, although every preacher I’ve ever heard address seating asks people to move forward, not back, in nearly every church I’ve ever been in, more people sit in the back than in the front! I’ll bet there are reasons for this too.
Since I’ve been in both the pulpit and the pew, perhaps you’ll let me carry some thinking from the pulpit to the pew. When pastors ask people to do something, there’s usually a reason for it. Sometimes, the reason is so obvious to us that we don’t think it needs to be explained – but I’ll bet you’re more likely to go along with something, or at least not look so funny at someone who asks it, if you understand why they are asking.
A pastor who is doing his job is thinking about the church’s reasons for gathering, what his purpose is in preaching, who is there, and who the church wants to be there. From every one of those vantage points, he sees that sitting close together toward the front benefits everyone. How so? What are some of the perspectives that a pastor is looking at when he asks his church members to move up?
The Churchmember’s Chair. Let’s start with you, regular attender, stalwart of the sanctuary. You’ve probably been coming so long and spent so many hours in the same spot on the same pew that there’s an invisible but perfect you-shaped indent there, and anyplace else just wouldn’t feel like your seat. You’ve found the precise angle and distance from which the preacher looks as tolerable as you can make him. Why should you move up? Is this just an ego trip by a near-sighted preacher who feels like the crowd is bigger if it’s closer? Or is there really some benefit to you in moving up as close as you can get without tweaking a disk in your neck? Why does the preacher want you up front?
He knows you get more out of the service if you do. He probably went to college. And here is one of the things they told him when he was the guy in the seat trying to learn from the guy behind a podium: the closer you sit to the front, the better you grasp the material, and the better you do in the class. Although you may have never been in the pulpit, he has been in the pew, and he knows this is true. Studies have shown this repeatedly – the farther people get from the front, the less they get out of the class. Here’s a quick summary of one such study:
The closer you sit, the fewer potential distractions there are. You can hear the preacher more clearly, catching nuances you otherwise miss. You get the most benefit from nonverbal communication. When you are close to someone who is talking to you, you get more of what they are saying.
Where you sit is part of the preparation of the heart to receive the Word (a la the parable of the sower). It’s being deliberate about getting as much of the message as you can. When you choose not to, especially knowingly, you send a message to the next person’s perspective.
The Preacher’s Pulpit. What did you hire the pastor to do? What is his primary role?
I’ll give you a hint: you know how people sometimes say that a pastor only works a couple hours a week? Those are the hours he spends preaching or teaching the congregation.
Peter told elders (another title for pastors in that passage) in I Peter 5:2, “Feed the flock of God which is among you.” When you considered hiring him, you probably got his doctrinal statement, so you would know what he would teach, and you probably asked for recordings of his sermons, so you would know how he would do it.
Oh, you expect him (and he expects) to do all kinds of other things too. He might shovel snow in the north and crush cockroaches in the south. He probably prays, counsels, disciples, visits, and administrates in varying degrees. But the man who stands in the pulpit on Sunday morning was fundamentally hired to feed you by explaining, expounding, and applying the Scriptures. He was hired to tell you something effectively.
When you sit close to him, you make his job easier. When you sit farther away, you make his job harder. Most good sermons are actually conversations. You may not speak out loud, but you are still reacting to what he says, speaking to him with body language and facial expressions. He can have the conversation better with you if you are closer.
When you have something important to tell someone, how far away do you want them to be when you tell them? If their life depended on them understanding, wouldn’t you want them close enough that you could tell from their expressions that they were getting it? The condition of the souls of the people in the auditorium may depend on how well they understand and apply what the preacher is telling them – but they often make him shout the crucial truth from 50 feet away. (And then sometimes wonder why the sermons go so long, with so much repetition. Of course he repeats himself, if he believes the truth is crucial, and he can’t tell who has gotten it yet.)
And there is a subtle effect here too that comes right back to who gets the most out of the service. An attentive shepherd gets to know his flock. He knows what they enjoy most and benefit from best. A pastor who pays attention to his congregation will begin to pattern his feeding after the responses that he gets.
The meaningful responses usually aren’t the, “Great message, preacher,” on the way out the back door. What shapes the message are the raised eyebrows at the startling statement, the widened eyes of surprise, the scowl of confusion, the body language showing loss of interest as something familiar is rehashed – the tiny expressions he can see from the people closest to him as he preaches the message. So as time goes on, the sermons are tailored more and more to the people whose feedback he can actually see. The people who sit up front get fed better, because the food is specifically tailored to their reactions to it.
I suspect most pastors have had someone leave their church and give as the reason, “I just wasn’t being fed.” I can’t claim to have a sample size of hundreds or even dozens. But of those who have left the churches where I was pastor or close enough to him to know the reasons people gave for leaving, not one of those who left because they “weren’t being fed” sat in the front and center of the church. Every one of them sat a long distance from the pastor, often in a back corner. Perhaps it’s true that they weren’t getting as much as they should have – and perhaps it’s true that they weren’t getting as much as they could have. This grieves the pastor, because he truly wants the flock to be well fed.
In fact, you might be surprised how this can affect the preacher. We might preach from a pulpit, but most of us don’t want a pedestal. We’re human. We can be discouraged and disappointed. Think about your job for a moment. Supposed you were hired to do something, but when you showed up to do what you were hired for, your employer showed little interest in you actually doing that. Suppose your employer constantly put up little obstacles to you doing effectively what they hired you to do. And then suppose they blamed you for not doing it well enough. This is the situation many preachers feel they are in. They can feel betrayed by the message the congregation gives them.
We know we were hired by the church. (Oh, I know we are commissioned and commanded by God, and we truly work for Him – but that’s supposed to be true of every Christian in every occupation. I know we are the overseers of the church, not simply its employees. But still, the church consists of the humans who called us there and employ us.) We know the people said they wanted us to tell them the Word of God and how it applies to their lives – but then when we actually try to do that, they edge away from us and make it harder for us to do it. Then some complain that we don’t do it well enough, while they are doing things that make it harder for us to do it well!
And on an even more basic level, when you back away from someone while they are talking, you are sending a very strong message. You are rejecting either what they are saying or the person who is saying it. (Whatever the reason for the rejection – boredom, disagreement, busyness, dislike, whatever – distance still says rejection.) And having either himself or his message rejected is pretty rough on a preacher. Just from looking at where you are sitting, he can’t tell if you are rejecting him, Christ, God’s Word, his illustrations, his breath, his ugly necktie – he just knows that there is rejection when you back away from him as he speaks. If the only time you keep such a distance is when he is preaching, then he starts to get a sneaking suspicion that you don’t really WANT to hear the Word of God spoken, explained, and applied. And given how much he loves you and the Word of God, he’d probably rather you were rejecting him.
Should preachers react by feeling betrayed and discouraged? There are definitely more profitable, spiritual reactions that we can have. But don’t delude yourself (or let a smiling Sunday morning preacher delude you) into thinking that the congregation doesn’t affect the preacher as surely as the preacher affects the congregation. We all have feet of clay.
Yet listening to preaching isn’t all we do in a church service, and those other things are affected by where we sit too.
The Singer’s Seat. The attentive pastor is paying attention to the whole worship service, not just the time when he is talking. If it were just about getting a sermon, a video or audio recording might do the job (though not as well as a personalized message to a specific congregation). But we are gathering as an expression of corporate worship. We are saying that we are coming together to praise God and edify and encourage each other. Sitting closer together reinforces the idea of singing as part of the corporate worship service. You get more out of it, and so do the other people clustered around you. Spreading out subtly undermines the expression of unity in worship and in service. Your voice may be nothing special (and it may even be especially bad!), but we all benefit spiritually and emotionally when we join in unity. Sitting scattered and in the back, you feel alone, and you make the song leader feel alone. You rob the other people in the congregation of the encouragement of your closeness.
But the regular church-goer and the preacher aren’t the only people the pastor has in mind.
The Visitor’s Vantage. We all want visitors to come and stay, right? And while we might not buy into “seeker sensitive” approaches or building church services around the unsaved rather than the actual church, it would be foolish to want them to come, then not take them into consideration. When a visitor walks into a church and sees a gulf between the preacher and the people, that gap will speak as loudly as the preacher could shout. It says there is something to be feared or rejected, not desired, up front. It makes it look like we are not at unity and don’t like each other.
Then when they have to walk forward past rows of full pews to an empty one toward the front, they get the feeling they are being sacrificed to the wolves, shoved up toward something no one else wants to get close to.
The visitor can be expected to sit in the back at first. Sure, we can invite them to sit up front with us (which would be great!) But they may not be churched, may not feel a sense of unity with complete strangers in worship, may not know the import of the teaching of God’s Word, and they’ve almost certainly never heard all this. They are still examining and evaluating, so they may want to sit where they can observe the whole congregation. And what will they see? People who value being close with each other and receiving what is given from the pulpit? Or chilly distance?
The Special Needs Situation. Some people really need or benefit from those precious seats behind everyone else. Some parents have small children, and they don’t want to distract everyone, but they may want their children to learn to sit in a service. They may have to get up quickly to take a child out. The pastor doesn’t want them to have to climb over people or walk the gauntlet of an aisle of stares during a service. Latecomers, especially visitors, disrupt a service and embarrass themselves far less if they can simply slip into an aisle seat toward the back. Then there are those few with medical conditions that prevent them from sitting for an entire service.
The pastor knows that all these people exist, and he wants the church to minister to them the best while disrupting its ministry to others the least. And that means moving everyone who can up to the front, so there are open seats, especially aisle seats, toward the back. Otherwise, the church is quietly but firmly saying that it cares more about sitting in its comfort spot than it does the needs and concerns of others who might benefit from those seats more.
Now let’s go back to what you’re paying the pastor to do. A pastor is literally a shepherd – it’s what the word means. Here I have double experience, because I grew up taking care of all kinds of livestock, including sheep.
When someone with livestock goes to feed the animals, the healthy ones crowd up front, to get as much of the food as they can. If he sees some hanging back, not showing interest in the food, he knows there is something wrong with them. The sheep isn’t healthy. The shepherd may not know what the sickness is, but if there is no eagerness for the food, displayed by an effort to get as much as possible, to get as close to the source as possible, he knows the sheep is sick. He is concerned. He does everything he can to get it eating, to get it to show a healthy interest in the food.
So why NOT sit up front? Are you one of those with special needs? If so, that’s understandable, and I’ll bet your pastor understands too. But is it just because you’re not comfortable up there? Okay, that may say something is wrong. But it doesn’t tell us what. Do you not want to get the full impact of what the preacher is saying? Are you not willing for him to see your reactions? Have you not taken into account how your seating choices affect the rest of the congregation? Is there some reason I am missing here?
If the issue is discomfort, it raises questions: do you listen to the Word of God to be comfortable or to be challenged? Is your comfort the primary factor in what you do in the church, or is ministry to others? Jesus, our Great Shepherd, was far more concerned with feeding the flock than keeping its individuals comfortable – and most pastors are too.