Monday, March 19, 2007

The View From the Back Pew

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.


Cory said...

Wow, what a difference a border and half a continent make... In these parts, any ELCIC church I've ever been to is the other way around, with the kiddlits at the front and the running joke that at a Lutheran church you have to come early to get a back seat. I once even read one about a carpenter who built a church with one two back pews... And as those pews filled up, they would move forward and another one would pop up in back until the church was full.

As for me, indeed, my feeding trough has always been at the back of the church... Currently the back right corner as you're facing the altar. It might, to a large degree have something to do with how I learned very on that it's never a good idea to have my back to any sort of action, what with being teased in school and whatnot.

RuthRE said...

I don't get the sitting in the LAST row on a regular basis when it's not crowded at all in the sancuary....visiting, I get....regular...decades long attendance...I do not :)

Deb said...

I know exactly what you mean about the distance between the back pew and the service. I periodically "have" to sit in the back pew of my UCC church as a "Worship and Nurture" coordinator or to make latecomers welcome or to be able to sneak out during the last hymn to grab an acolyte from Sunday School to extinguish the altar candles during the benediction response. The pastor sometimes feel abandoned also when folks choose to sit as far back as possible. I started sitting in the front under the pastor's nose about 10 years ago when I get to choose. It's a much more intimate service! That's probably what scares folks too! Sometimes we rope off the back pews, especially when we know attendance will be low. We are a small congregation in a very large sanctuary!

Rev Scott said...

I've always thought that the pews in our church should be on a rolling belt. After everyone was in the sanctuary & seated, I'd flip a switch and the front two/three rows would roll under the floor and all the rows behind would shift forward, kind of like a tank track.

I, too, find the during-worship-conversationalists appalling. So far I've managed to keep enough respect that no one talks during my sermon, but I'm sure the day is coming.

The kids, though? I'm usually so glad they're there that I don't mind the noise or distraction. I'm sure that's part of your feelings, too, but I would bet the constant distraction would be bothersome at times.

LutheranChik said...

Our church rose from the ashes of maybe 20, mostly elderly, members on a good day, so we love the kiddos too. I really don't mind babies crying, because it's who they are and what they do; it's the older children who have obviously not been taught how to behave in church, and their parents (there does seem to be a connection between squirmy, yakkity kids and yakkity, inappropriately behaving adults), who bug me. My gladness at having new people in church often bumps against my annoyance with a lack of civility exhibited by some of them. I don't know a good non-offensive way to address that, other than the example of other parents and kids who are "with the program."

Anonymous said...

Besides the kids, we've got the issue of some severely hearing-impaired older folks who think they are whispering, but are not. One of these ladies, now "gone home," used to be the kind who would criticize the misbehavior of all those kids.

RuthRE said...

We have a foursome that sit in the last two rows (older) and then complain that they can't hear! You can assist your own problem here! MOVE! :)

P.S. an after-thought said...

When the young families are towards the front, the kids can see and know what is going on and the parents may try to get the kids settled down a bit more.

If you think you are short and therefore need to be up front, that would apply even more to the kids. Which beats having the kids stand in the parents' laps. That gets old fast.

I learned one time in a class, that people who are more visually orientated like to sit in the back.