A View from the Pew: What We See in Worship Makes a Difference

Pew_smAs I age, I find myself not only physically sounding more and more like my Baptist-preacher father but repeating his aphorisms.

One of my favorites about church is “You should always sit close to the front because the sermon gets worn out by the time it reaches the back.”

He can’t quote chapter and verse on this particular proverb, but I have to admit that after 40-plus years of attending church, I can’t argue with it. When I sit close to the front, I am less distracted, more focused and better able to engage in worship. It’s church physics: the fewer objects (and people) between the listener and the preacher, the better the message is received.

The visual distractions on a Sunday morning can be overwhelming: cute children smiling over the back of the pew, latecomers, half-asleep nodders, smart phone fiddlers, coffee slurpers, overly-loud whisperers, candy unwrappers and the list goes on and on. Because we often limit ourselves to one or two worship experiences per week, the amount of time we have to give our full attention to a God we profess to adore is precious. But our worship is so often limited by our humanity. What is a faithful church attender to do? Let me humbly suggest three tactics:

First, at the risk of sounding like a Pharisee, sit close to the front. Sometimes fatherly/pastorly wisdom cannot be ignored. With the rare exceptions of bugs or varmints that made their way into the sanctuary, there are fewer distractions when you can see fewer things.

Second, at the risk of sounding like a mystic, find visual elements in the worship space to focus on. I find it helpful to break up my gazing at the musicians or preacher by studying the cross, the Christ candle, stained glass windows, or Communion table. As iconoclasts, Baptists have tended to strip down their worship spaces, removing any symbols or “graven images.” I understand the intent, but sometimes rather than removing distractions from worship it simply opens us up to the hundreds of other visual distractions that being in a group of people naturally presents.

Lastly, I advocate changing your vantage point. At Parkway Baptist Church in Duluth, Ga., where my family worships, the sanctuary is small, and the seating is relatively close to the pulpit, which has a 270-degree range from one side to the other. If you sit in one of the extreme corners, you’re looking at the back of the preacher’s head.

Much has been written about having a favorite seat at church. Rather than rehash old jokes, I’ll simply say that by varying your point of view you give yourself a much better opportunity to literally see things in a new way.

We’ve just come through Advent and Christmas. While my family typically sits on the preacher’s right, closest to the nursery where we still have a five-year-old who must be dropped off and retrieved, on Christmas Eve, the full sanctuary and our relatively late arrival typically sends us to the other side, providing us with a completely different angle of engagement. It’s a small part of what makes that service so meaningful.

In contemporary church parlance, a “pew sitter” has a negative connotation. It’s meant to suggest passivity and a lack of service to the church and community. As a consistent church goer, it can be easy to fall into a rut and miss the opportunity that gathering on a Sunday to encounter the living Christ affords. Truth be told, if we are faithful in our worship attendance, we’re all pew sitters some percentage of the time, and if we are to make the best offering of worship to God on a weekly basis, practical considerations matter.

So next Sunday, try this experiment and see if it doesn’t refresh your worship experience: Find a different seat. Look around the space and take notice of the symbols of our faith. Freak everyone out, including the preacher, by sitting on the front row.

Who knows? You may even remember something from the experience past lunch.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson who works as Director of Communications for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He previously served as Director of Communications with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Lance blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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  1. Sharon Wallace says

    I love the new blog. The only down side of sitting in a different section of the church is that the Pastor doesn’t see you and wonders if you are sick.

  2. Clarissa Strickland says

    Occasionallly, I sit on the opposite side of the sanctuary from where I usually sit. I feel as though I am in a different church. See people I never see otherwise. And the whole worship experience seems new.