Home Forums Noticings… 190522 – The Back Pew

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    May 22, 2019

    The church I serve has moveable chairs rather than pews. One great feature of that is that we can always make the church feel fuller by adjusting the number of chairs we set up. In my experience, every single church I’ve worshipped in has tended to fill up from the back to the front. “Come early and get a back pew” is an old preacher joke. Funny, because it’s true. So even though I know we’ll need more chairs added I insist that we start with fewer set up. Why? Because I know that those back rows will fill up first. So after those folks have claimed what they think is the back row we add another row or two for the later-comers. I get that people are uncomfortable coming in a little later and moving up front, but they wouldn’t have to if we filled from the front. What is it about the back rows that are so attractive, or about the front rows that are so angst-inducing?

    I shower every morning so it isn’t that! I don’t spit when I talk. I never point my finger and chastise people (well, not by name anyway). I never centre people out, or use them as examples. I never suddenly get a cramp and have to tag out requiring the front row folks to jump up and preach in my place. So what’s up?

    Front row seats at concerts and theatre events are always the most sought after, the most valued. In the front rows one can see better, hear better, and have a more visceral experience. Front row seats at sporting events are the ultimate. Fans say they feel like they’re part of the action, and they can be drawn more into the drama and excitement of the game because they can see and hear things (facial expressions, verbal exchanges, etc.) that people in “the cheap seats” cannot. Sitting in the front is often viewed as a sign of status because the seats cost more.

    Of course, there’s the negative aspect of hero worship, and that’s certainly something a preacher would never aspire to. (Right?) But more than that it’s the desire to be closer to the heart of what’s transpiring in that event, not the supposed celebrity of the players. Even in amateur sports and arts the front seats are the premium seats because they offer a premium experience.

    The back rows have always had a pejorative association to them, suggesting lesser economic or social status. Perhaps the most famous example is that seminal moment in the civil rights movement when Rosa Parks refused to move to the “back of the bus.” She stood up for her human right to be treated equally and not relegated to a “lesser” position.

    So why are church folk so drawn to the back row? Positively, I suppose one could view back pew dwelling as humility, or as a relinquishing of status. Practically, of course, there are issues of needing to withdraw for any number of reasons without disturbing people. Negatively, it might communicate that the person is in, but barely, ready to escape if they don’t like what they hear. Or perhaps it’s about not wanting anyone to watch them? (Back rows of movie theatres are famous make-out spots, but I’ve never seen that in church!)

    Ultimately, I believe it’s probably about our willingness to immerse ourselves and give ourselves over to an experience. In the theatre, the further back you are the more you can see other people, and the walls in your peripheral vision, and you may have a harder time being drawn in and carried away by the experience of fully engaging with no distractions. Same in church! Perhaps it’s subconsciously keeping spiritual experience and immersion at arm’s length? I fear this is often the case.

    I’m happy to stand corrected and have someone offer a robust spiritual defence of the back pew. I’d be even happier if y’all fought over the front rows! And if the next time you walk in you pause to ponder why you’re sitting where you are, I’ll be ecstatic! But in the end, I’m just grateful that you’re even here!

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