Thoughts on the Front Row

I have sat in the front row of church now for many years, in all the different locations our church has met in, including a body shop back in the early years. (In those days the men had to move the cars, hose down the floors, and set up the folding chairs!) Lately I have been reflecting on the front row, with some practical and some symbolic thoughts about it.

First of all, in secular events, front row seats are prized. Think about concerts and sporting events: the front row seats are the most coveted seats. But at church, many people shy away from the front row. Now I’m not talking about a conference with a big-name speaker up in front. At that kind of event, the front rows are taken. I’m talking about church. (And I suppose, if a worship service is conducted like a concert or spectator sport, the front rows might be crowded.)  But  how often do most folks shy away from sitting in the front row Sunday morning? And why do they do that? What’s the difference between a rock concert and a worship service? A whole lot, that’s what.

Now from a human level, when you are the speaker, it’s difficult to speak over three or four empty rows. One of the duties of the speaker is to overcome the rhetorical distance so he or she can connect with the audience. But at church, the saints are not an audience; they are worshipers. But if the minister has to preach over a few empty rows, it is more of a challenge than if he has a crowded front row.

The front row is the most vulnerable spot in church. Not only are you under the pastor’s eye, but the rest of the congregation can watch you from the back. It’s much more comfortable in an obscure back row seat. The front row can make you feel like you are exposed. At a concert or a football game, this is not the case. Worship is when we meet with the living God, so it’s tempting to draw back.

But let’s look at this from a spiritual or symbolic angle. When we sit in the front row, we are crowding in to meet with God, eager to be near Him, hungry for His word. Consider these verses:

“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).

“It is good for me to draw near to God. I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all thy works” (Psalm 73:28).

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).

When we sit in the front row (or rows), we are drawing near to God. We are near the pulpit and near the table, eager to receive the Word, hungry for the bread and the wine. We are drawing near to God so He will draw near to us.

An empty front row suggests fear. Or apathy. It could also come from a false sense of politeness: Who am I to sit in the front row? But we are invited to come, so we should crowd in!

Of course we could sit in the front row for all the wrong reasons, and we could sit in the back for all the right reasons. But my point is this: feeling vulnerable isn’t bad. Draw near to God. Sit near the pulpit. Crowd in. Be eager to be fed.

We worship with our bodies: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). We worship with our bodies, and this certainly includes where we put them. This implies a glad surrender, a sweet resignation to God.

You may feel vulnerable, exposed, in the front row. But if you are there for the right reason, you are most protected,  sheltered under His wing as you draw near to Him. And certainly, if you are in the back for good reason, you can draw near just as well, and you should. Wherever we sit, we should be crowding in, eager for His blessing and hungry for His food.

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25 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Front Row

  1. Not that I disagree with anything you’ve said, but there are advantages to sitting farther back, as well: 1) When you’re up front in a smaller setting (this doesn’t apply quite so much at the Logos Field House!), you have to draw really near to whomever is leading the service…and ONLY him, because you can’t see anyone else. That creates a sense of intimacy with him that can be a little uncomfortable. 2) The farther back you sit, the more of the people in the congregation you can see, which can foster a sense of communion and community. I love being able to see all the saints present! 3) Some of us can’t get up from our knees without a chair in front of us to grab hold of!

    All that said, I appreciate my pastor’s frequent exhortation to “Park far and sit near.” Of course in our little worship space, you can’t get all that far away even in the very back! Happily, there are enough of us that the front row is, by necessity, almost always filled. Just not by me. 😉

  2. Some of us middle aged ladies sit near the back in case our bladders can’t make it through a long service, so we can exit and come back in with the least distraction (or so we can get to the bathroom asap after the service. You don’t know how many times I’ve been in the restroom after church overhearing ladies talk about barely making it. :-)). Same thing for people with small children who might need to take them out various reasons. It’s not always a spiritual issue that causes people not to sit up front.

  3. We typically sit in the 2nd or 3rd row. Usually not the very front row, because our church is very crowded and the front row of chairs is very close to the front. If the front row has to be cleared and stacked at the end, so that we can come up and greet a new member, or encourage someone who has come up asking for prayer, it’s hard for us to do that quickly with all of our children!

    We prefer sitting near the front with our young children. It’s easier for them to pay attention and to see. Also for those who don’t like crowds, they don’t feel as crowded in. There’s a span from about 12-18 months when we have difficulties with a child staying in the service well. Typically partway through my husband ends up going and standing in the back with the child and stepping out as need be.

    HeatherHH (mom to six children, ages 1-10, and #7 due in June)

  4. I prefer to sit in the second pew in front of the pulpit so my husband (our pastor) can see our attentive faces while he preaches, but I’ve been known to “mix” it up occasionally. What a stir it causes when we should decide to sit in a midway row on the lectern side!!! :) When my sister comes to visit she prefers to sit in the back so she can escape quickly with her little one. We sit with her back there, but really the best place for little ones is the front so they can see everything. I know it is difficult for the parents, but speaking as one who has walked ALL that way back with a child who needed a loving attitude adjustment… it is worth it in the end. (Mine are 16 and 12, and now a stern look cast sideways does the trick, and even that isn’t needed too often. Having said that, it does depend on your pastor. I’ve seen unyielding ones who have actually announced during a sermon that there is a nursery available and it should be used… yikes! I can understand wanting to escape quickly if that is your situation! In the end… I guess the important thing is that we’re there; hearing and receiving the wonderful gifts of our Lord through the preaching of His Word.

  5. In fairness, I think the not wanting to walk all the way from the front to the back with an unhappy child isn’t always about wanting to avoid the embarrassment, it’s about not wanting to cause the extended disruption that goes with that. Also, I know that some parents of young children choose to sit farther back so that those more bothered by the activity of small children and their parents (e.g., the hard of hearing, parents of slightly older kids who are more distractable) can choose to sit farther forward, in order to be less distracted throughout the service.

  6. I agree. It is much easier for me to pay attention and really worship if our family sits in the first few rows. If we are in the back I tend to get distracted. I know that if I am having a hard time paying attention, it must by nearly impossible for my short children with even shorter attention spans to see and pay attention in the very back.

    But I am pleased as punch that not everyone likes the front row or else (being just-barely-on-time types of people) we would never get to sit up front.

    Maybe a more pressing question is what can we do individually and as a family to make sure that our Sunday worship is meaningful.

    I feel for those addressing empty seats though. Where we attend church, the chapel is full enough to necessitate the usage of all seats, front and back, but our women’s Sunday school class (Relief Society) has enough room that there are many empty rows in front and the back rows are packed. I feel for the teachers trying to teach and be heard in that type of teaching environment. One of the older teachers who has a hard time hearing simply walks down the aisle to the back and teaches from there. :)

  7. Mrs. Wilson, do you have any suggestions how we can encourage our whole congregation to sit closer to the front? We are a small church body in what one time was one of the largest churches in our city, so we are a smaller number spread over a large sanctuary with many folks in the back. My husband has been wanting to suggest that we “rope off” the rear third of the pews to encourage everyone to bunch up but doesn’t want to make the older members (who tend to sit in those back rows) uncomfortable. I hate to say it, but sometimes I think some people sit in the back so they can dash out the door once the service is over!

  8. Amanda,
    As I mentioned in the post, I know it is difficult for a pastor to preach to a scattered flock. The place feels cold and disconnected rather than warm and familial. I would suggest that your husband bring it up in your congregation’s regular governmental meeting, whatever format that is in. He and the elders could ask individual families if they’d be willing to move forward before they decide to rope off the back. Then they won’t be thrown for a loop when they come. In other words, sound people out, and do it judicially. Let others give their input, so it is a church-wide decision to rope off the back and gather in (or some other idea). You also might consider serving coffee and rolls after church to get people to stay around longer.
    Hope that helps!

  9. Thank you, Nancy. What a fine exhortation! As a musician, I’m used to sitting in the front row. It almost feels like “home court advantage.”

    Valerie, thank you for “Park far and sit near.” I love it! The former is a great “my life for yours” statement; the latter is more of a “my life *is* yours.”

  10. I wasn’t sure where to put this comment, but I just wanted to thank you for your article on Desiringgod.org. I really needed the vision of motherhood after a hard day with my screaming baby! Thanks again for the reminder of the greatness of our calling.

  11. Oops, that comment was for Rachel. I didn’t search the blog enough to realize there is more than 1 author before posting!

  12. Our pastor will walk behind our family, wink, and jokingly say, “Sheesh! You back row Baptists!” I find this hilarious because when I was growing up in a Baptist family, my Dad actually preferred for us to sit near the front. My husband and I have found that with two toddler boys and a nursing baby, near the rear is where our family should be for this particular season in life. We look forward to bringing them closer to the front in the seasons to come. :-)

  13. We have always preferred sitting closer to the front, particularly so small children are not distracted easily and can actually see what is going on. We worked with them early, training them to sit still and quietly and participate fully. Though there were times when one needed to be taken out, it was not often. Imagine our surprise when one Saturday evening our (then) pastor called to ask us to sit on the back row. There were other families who had not trained their children so, and they were a distraction to others. So, his method of (not) dealing with one or two families was to ask all those with small children to sit in the back. (This was not a family-integrated church, and he would rather have not had them in the sanctuary at all.) We dutifully obeyed, but not without some heartache. And we did humbly address the situation with him personally that Sunday. It was not long after that other things surfaced to precipitate our finding another church home. As my mother put it, we would have “stayed ’til the cows came home.” It took some very difficult circumstances for us to see the need to find a church where orthodoxy and orthopraxy lined up better with what we were reading in God’s Word. All that to say, we are grateful for the opportunity to “draw near” in a very real way!

  14. I feel for you, Stacey! We were actually barred at the doors of the sanctuary once when visiting a church. The usher informed us that children under four were not permitted in the sanctuary “because they disrupted the television audience.” He assured us that the nursery was top-notch. That Sunday, we “worshiped” from the family room where they kindly teleconferenced the real worship service in for us. Needless to say, we never returned to that church again!

  15. I have an 8 month old son, and we sit in the back so I can make a quick getaway if needed. I am apart of a campus ministry and we don’t have a nursery or family room. I think it is very disruptive to sit with a small baby in the front. If they start to fuss and cry and you are in the back it is easier to slip out without being distracting. But before I had my son, I used to sit in the back and wait for young women who were new or alone and go sit next to them. We are the body, afterall, and making sure others know and understand the love of Christ is more important than where I sit.

  16. I agree with your what you say about the pastor not preaching to a scattered flock but I am guilty of not wanting to sit on the front row. I have occasionally because my husband is the pastor and I enjoy sitting with him during the worship through songs portion of our service. My reason for not enjoying the front row is that I am 6′ tall and with my dress shoes on, most the time I am 6’2 or taller and I always feel like I am distraction to others. (i.e. they can’t see around me)

  17. This is good exhortation, Nancy. I really appreciate this scripture rich post and I love the symbolism. We sit in the second row because the first is taken, so with that regard this is preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, I love that you think through these things. Yes, I do get fed very well at church, but Femina is also used by the Lord to feed people. :-)

    Love,
    Luma

  18. I find that my children behave better and sit still longer when we are in the front row at church. It’s not my favorite place to sit, however. I like sitting more towards the back so that I can make a quick semi-discreet exit should a little one need to go to the bathroom, or if the baby gets fussy.

    Katrina
    They All Call Me Mom

  19. One more reason not to sit too near the front: I was in the third row today (next to a friend who was sitting alone when I arrived), but no one was directly in front of me in the two front rows. So there I am in plain view of the pulpit, and right in the middle of the sermon…I. fell. asleep. Life’s little mortifying moments!

  20. I think the goal is to understand the heart of the post, not the literal “YOU MUST SIT IN THE FRONT ROW IN ORDER TO BE HOLY”. I appreciate it when women are not getting up and down 18 times in the front of the church when their 10 month old child gets fussy… However, the rest of us don’t have legitimate reasons to always sit in the back row. Sitting in the back row may provide us with a view of the whole congregation, but it leaves you less exposed – you’re cutting yourself off from fellowship. Personally, I am a huge fan of the middle – you get to see people in front of you, yet during the singing, you hear the voices of everyone behind you lifted to collectively praise the Lord. Also, you are not only at church for yourself – yes, you are there to be fed, but you are also there to support your brothers and sisters in the Lord as they are to worship HIM. And if that is the case, why wouldn’t you want to be right in the thick of it?
    as for falling asleep – it happens, but really, should you sit near the back just in case you do? Doesn’t that just give you an excuse to give in to tiredness, since nobody will notice?
    We are always looking for excuses for our behavior – I am an expert at trying to justify my actions, and it’s wrong.
    I don’t want to come across disrespectfully, but those are just a few questions I came up with as I was reading the comments after the post.

  21. Cassie, you’re absolutely right about the heart of the post. But I hope that spirit doesn’t mean I mayn’t laugh at myself. And seeing as how I do like fellowship very much, I can’t help but invite others to laugh along with me. I don’t plan on making worship naps a regular habit, so I promise I won’t really use that as an excuse to sit in the back. 😉

  22. Hello Ladies,

    I very much enjoyed this article. We have been having some standing room only crowds at our church in the past few Sundays and encouraging people to take up the open space in the front has been a challenge. We’d like permission to share this blog post or parts of it in our upcoming newsletter. It gives some great food for thought on the subject of seating choices. You can reach me at the email I put in. Thank you!

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