This past Sunday Fellow Traveler and I did something in church we almost never do -- we sat in the very last pew, back by the sanctuary door.
The church was packed for a double baptism, and our usual forth-row pew-spot was taken. (One of our senior saints once whispered to my mother and me, as we all took our favorite places, "We're just like cows in the barn, headed for the same stanchions every time.") But we were not dismayed. You see, because of our small, cramped, user-unfriendly sanctuary with only one central aisle, attempting to leave church at the end of any given service is reminiscent of the cul-de-sac parade route scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. This Sunday, though, if we sat in the very back, we could make a quick exit before the parishoner bottleneck trapped us mid-aisle, zip home, eat our lunch and watch NCAA hoops all afternoon. It was a Sweet Sixteen miracle.
When I was growing up, my parents favored mid-sanctuary -- not close enough to the pastor to make eye contact, but not way in the back with casual attendees and squalling infants. Since I've been old enough to choose my own pew, I've always been a front-of-the-church sitter; well, as front-of-the-church as a Lutheran gets without coercion, which is maybe the third row. As a short person, I like sitting where I can actually see what's happening, and as someone whose dimming middle-aged ears were further compromised by a youth spent around farm equipment and loud rock-and-roll, I also like to hear what's going on.
So I'm a back-bench newbie. And I'm telling you, it's a whole different experience there.
For one thing, I found my location very marginalizing. Even in a tiny sanctuary like ours, the service seemed very far away -- almost in a different room. It was hard to see; hard to hear.
And then there's -- God bless 'em -- the children. We were fortunate in sitting next to two young families with relatively well-behaved kids and well-thought-out coping strategies (lots of snacks and quiet amusements), but even so -- our congregation lets the kiddos run wild and free, so every five minutes we had to move our legs and let the little crumb-crunchers scoot past, up and down the aisle. Other little kids and even older, middle-school-aged kids, were constantly pacing in and out of the sanctuary.
The noise level is a lot higher in the back -- and not just due to children. I'm appalled at how adults who should know better just talk to one another all through the service -- and not sotto voce. And then there was the necessary but further distracting activity of the ushers and other helpers waiting in the wings, as it were, just behind us.
"Tell me again why we're sitting back here," whispered Fellow Traveler during a musical interlude. I pantomimed a dribble and a lay-up. "Oh...right."
Our back-of-church self-exile reminded me of what they told us in catechism class about worship services in the time of Luther -- clueless, mostly inattentive peasants crowded at the back of churches waiting for the Hoc est enim corpus meum and elevation of the Elements so they could call it a Mass and bail.
But I found my experience to be instructive as well. Among other things, it reminded me that those of us who find ourselves front and center need to speak and move in ways that can be seen and heard by the people in the farthest pews. It also made me wonder if there were logistical ways to re-incorporate the back-benchers into the service -- to lessen that seeming psychological distance between them and the worship proper, even in the case of distracted parents and hyper middle-schoolers and blabby others.
I'd encourage any of my good-do-bee readers -- especially folks involved in worship planning and leadership -- who've never spent a Sunday in the back pew to try it sometime. You'll learn something. And it will make you want to gather in the people who stay at the margins of your worship service.