Why do you sit where you sit in church?



We all know people who are very particular about where they sit in church. We may be such people ourselves. But why do we sit where we sit?

Craig A Satterlee explores this question in this week’s email from the Alban Institute:

“What do you mean, why do we sit where we do?” The group stared blankly at Pastor Mark. “If the sermon was only about interacting with the preacher,” Pastor Mark answered thoughtfully, “you’d all be sitting in the first few pews, right in front of the pulpit. So why do people sit in the back or in the balcony? Why do some members of our congregation sit together all bunched up, while others spread out and refuse to slide over, even when the place is packed? I think it has something to do with the way people interact with one another in worship.”

Fred interrupted, “Isn’t interacting with the congregation during the sermon something you are supposed to do?” Everyone laughed, but Pastor Mark wasn’t giving in. “Audrey sits front and center, her eyes fixed on the pulpit, but Drew seems more interested in having a good view of the cross and stained glass than of me. Eleanor tells us that her Sunday school class looks everywhere except at the pulpit, and kids aren’t the only ones.”

Looking over at Brian, Pastor Mark continued, “I like to look up at Brian in the balcony and catch him checking out the congregation during the sermon. And Eleanor, I’d like to be in on the running commentary that you and the church ladies are having in the back. So why do you sit where you do?”

Asking about where people choose to sit during the sermon and inviting them to become aware of the implications for that choice may at first appear to be a silly exercise, because it is not something most people ordinarily think about. Yet, reflecting on how people position themselves in relation to others during the sermon, and indeed throughout the entire worship service, provides important clues to how a congregation understands itself as a faith community and an expression of the church. Human behavior communicates meaning. Carefully observing and interpreting how people relate during an event as central to a congregation’s life as the Sunday sermon provides insights into the character of their common life. People’s interactions reveal how they order their world. Whether the nature of a congregation’s common life is explicitly declared in a mission statement and consciously nurtured by its leaders or unconsciously expressed in the way the congregation worships together, the kind of faith community a congregation is has important implications for its mission…

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