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Why do you sit where you sit in church?

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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Depends on whether I’m with my wife or not. On one Sunday a month she gets to sit with me in the pew. She likes to be close to the front and center so that’s where we sit.

On those other Sundays, I always sit on the center aisle, usually middle-to-back, the side varies. That way I can (1) step out of the pew so people going to Communion don’t have to crawl over me, (2) still be near the sweet spot of the music, and (3) I get to watch what my wife is doing “up front” (she’s the Head Verger).

Susan Forsburg

St Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego

Verlene Kuoni

I sit in the back corner near an interior exit which leads to the parish daycare room. It is always filled with young families who sit in this area so they can quietly slip out with a fussy baby or child who needs the bathroom. It is sometimes noisy and a little disruptive but alive with parents teaching their children Christian living by example. Watching these little ones grow up is a joy and sometimes more interesting than the sermon ;-)).

Paul Woodrum

Supplying at a large, Victorian Gothic church one Sunday last summer, I noticed the two side alleys were full while the center was spotty. I asked the Warden why. “Because,” he said, “in the winter that’s where the heat is and in the summer that’s where the fans are.” Made sense to me.

Leonardo Ricardo

I always sit in the front (front left, usually). It’s because a priest told me once to do it because people hate to sit upfront (but if they do the whole congregations fills in easily behind them). It works (besides, I too like to watch the visual arts part). Leonardo Ricardo/Leonard Clark


St. Albans, Antigua, Guatemala (mission)


Adam likely has it right.

In my case, there are four reasons why I sit on the far right-hand rear side of the church.

1. The first reason is a habit that is based on a now largely invalid distinction. When I was growing up and my church habits were being formed in the early 50s and 60s, there was still a hierarchy of prestige to the seats. The left side was the “gospel side” and was still considered more ‘prestigious’ than the right “epistle side;” similarly the front of the church was more ‘prestigious’ than the rear of the church. In ‘olden days of yore,’ when people still paid pew rent to maintain the church, there was even a price difference with the most expensive seat being the one on the left (‘gospel side’) front isle and the cheapest being the rear “epistle side” against the wall.

I always try to sit in the least prestigious place I can get. I still feel very presumptuous and uncomfortable taking a more “expensive” seat where I “don’t belong.”

Isn’t there something in the gospels about taking the lowest place at the table until you are invited to a higher place by the host? Well, the “host” here is Christ and he hasn’t invited me to change seats (yet).

2. I like to sing and I have a decent loud voice and can even (sometimes) carry a tune; I’m also a life-long Episcopalian and I know the service pretty much from memory. I sit in the back and bellow away so that other people are supported. This can be counter-productive when (sometimes) I get it wrong.

3. I am partially blind in my left eye; sitting on the right side in the back, my right eye supports what little vision I have in my left; I can see almost everyone in the congregation from the back rear seat. The further to the left and front I sit, the less I can see.

4. We all have an obligation to offer Christian hospitality. I’m not especially shy; if someone looks lost, it’s no problem for me to pitch in and help. But an immediate liking for me is not required for entry through the pearly gates; if you don’t want me ‘helping,’ move further up. I’m not offended.

Also, once upon a time, I was a pretty big guy; I could pitch in physically if the ushers needed help with something heavy.

I no longer sit in the very VERY back. As I get older, I am finding that my hearing and sight are not as good as they once were. I guess that, unconsciously, the increase in need to be closer ‘buys’ me a closer seat. It’s the ‘need’ and brokenness, not the ‘prestige,’ that “buys” the seat.

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