Imagine two scenarios.
In the first, a couple arrives at your church. They’re on time…early, even. They’ve been a part of the church for years. They serve in various roles. They’re leaders, they’re givers, they’re faithful. And they’re on time…early, even…because they structured their morning to get to church, drop their kids in their classrooms, grab a cup of coffee, and spend time talking to their friends.
And then they hit the auditorium, where they see stanchions set up in the back sections, creating a funnel to push them towards the front. They don’t really want to sit in the front. The auditorium is mostly empty – after all, they’re arriving early – and they want to sit where they want to sit. Not on the back row, necessarily, but not on the front one, either. And so, begrudgingly, they grumble past the barriers and sit where they don’t really want to, because the system said they had to.
In the second scenario, another couple arrives at your church. They’re running behind…late, even. They’re brand new to the church and to your city. They’re trying to figure out if your church is right for them. They’re fragile, they’re nervous, they’re scared. And they’re running behind…late, even…because this church thing is new. They didn’t realize how long it would take to get there, didn’t understand the kids check-in process, didn’t know how to navigate the facility when they arrived, and didn’t realize how awkward it would feel to be in an unfamiliar place with no familiar friends.
And then they hit the auditorium, where they see a worship service already well underway. And while they can spot a single open seat here or there, a seating team member tells them if they want to sit together, they’ll have to find a seat up front. The auditorium is mostly full – after all, they’re arriving late – but they really don’t want to be paraded down front. They don’t want to pick and choose their seats, necessarily, but they don’t want to get escorted past 500 pairs of eyes, all of which feel like they’re on them. But because they’ve gone through this much trouble already, they nervously follow the seater down the long center aisle as the blood travels up the back of their necks, because the system didn’t give them the option not to.
As leaders in church guest services, we are faced with a weekly litany of decisions. We have to decide whom we’re going to offend. We have to determine if we’re going to be friendly or intentional. We have to choose to absorb the awkwardness on behalf of our guests.
But there’s one choice that those who lead guest services (i.e., staff members and volunteers) and those who live guest services (i.e., church members and seasoned attendees) should agree on, every week: we should choose inconvenience. We should park farther away from the building. We should yield our preferred seat so a latecomer doesn’t have to get paraded down front. We should arrive early or stay late so that we can serve other people who are new to the church and could potentially be new to the faith.
Choosing inconvenience isn’t always easy. But it’s easy to see how our inconvenience makes things easier for others.
Posted on April 23, 2021
Danny Franks is the Pastor of Guest Services at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, and the author of People Are the Mission: How Churches Can Welcome Guests Without Compromising the Gospel. Read more from Danny at www.dfranks.com
More from Danny
Maybe the reason the faithful leaders of many years duration want to sit in the back is because THE MUSIC IS TOO DARN LOUD.
At our previous church of 28 years duration, we sat as far in the back as possible to put the greatest possible distance between us and the speakers. After a cross-country move at our new church everywhere is more or less equidistant from the speakers and I’ve settled on wearing ear plugs to keep my tinnitus from getting any worse.
Why do people not like sitting near the front? Two reasons. The late James F White, Professor of Theology emeritus (Liturgical Studies) at the University of Notre Dame found that the closer we sit to the platform, the more we will be engaged in whatever is happening on the platform–singing, preaching, praying, etc. He identified a specific zone of engagement and recommend eliminating seating in the back of the room in order to move the congregation into this zone of engagement. He did his research back in the 1970s. His findings led to the redesigning of church sanctuaries where the congregation sat on three sides of the platform in close proximity to the platform. This not only encouraged greater participation in the service but it also created a stronger sense of community. People could see each other’s faces instead of the backs of their heads. The sound level at the front of the room is also much higher than at the back of the room when the sanctuary is designed like a lecture hall with a platform at one end and the seating in rows facing the platform. Those sitting in front of the room sit closer to the speakers. If the tech team has the sound cranked up, it can be very unpleasant to sit up front. At my former church I sat in the back with the tech team because I had damaged my hearing sitting on top of the speakers at rock concerts and the cranked up sound hurt my ear drums. I eventually had to sit in the lobby during the worship set. The sound level was too painful. I was on the guest services team and I volunteered to work the church’s cafe during the service. Latecomers would stop to grab something to drink and eat before going into the service. We provided the makings of a light breakfast so people rushing to church at the last minute, particularly university students and parents with small children, would not have to worry about breakfast. The cafeteria at the university on whose campus we met did not serve breakfast on Sundays, only brunch.