Excuse me, you’re in my seat!

I had a stream of consciousness moment in church as I listened to the part of the sermon where the preacher comment about how Presbyterians believe in an open communion, that is we believe that any baptized person who trusts in Jesus Christ is welcomed to receive the sacraments at the Lord’s Supper. In fact, I think it is true that Presbyterians engage in “open worship” that is, anyone is welcome. There is no pre-requisite course or action before one can enter into worship. Well… almost!

However, the preacher shared that there was a Sunday when he and some colleagues, who had gathered for a meeting, visited a church. They found a seat together in worship only to have a member of the church tap one of the group and say, “Excuse me, but you’re sitting in my seat!” Awwwkward!

We are creatures of habit. We are somewhat predictable when it comes to life. We find our place, even in church!

Each time I visit a congregation, I am very aware that I may be sitting in someone’s seat. Thus far, no one has tapped me on the shoulder…

“Ahem, that’s my seat!”

…but I suspect there have been a few silently awkward moments when church regulars saw me sitting there. Where’s the “reserved seating” sign when you need it?  (A side bar:  My experience has been that the safest seats in a Presbyterian congregation are those on the front pew!  More later as that matter presents another blog entry idea!)

We may cringe at hearing a story about a visitor being evicted from a seat.  “How inconsiderate that someone would ask a visitor to move!” yet I chuckle every time I watch the BBC comedy Keeping Up Appearances’ Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) shriek “Oh no, not there dear!” to her neighbor who has been invited to coffee and told to “sit anywhere.”

There is something important to keep in mind. My seat in church represents two important things: belonging and connection.  As a local pastor, I come to expect that parishioners will take the same place in worship each Sunday.  Actually its very helpful as I take a mental roll call of members as I lead worship.  When a spot is vacant, I know to make inquiries.  If a spot is vacant too long, I know to express pastoral concern.  Similarly, as a worshipper, I know that others will be looking for me in my usual place. My seat in worship is both self acknowledgement and communal awareness that I am a part of this particular faith community; that I belong!

My seat in worship shows that I am connected to a particular church.  My particular seat in worship is a reminder of my investment in my church.  There was a time when a family literally owned their seat in church.  Many colonial church sanctuaries included family boxes with locked doors to prevent an intruder from taking a seat.  While this practice no longer (or hopefully does never) occurs the boxes represented an investment in a local church; in this case a visible financial investment.  Today the place where I sit in worship is a reminder of the investment I have made in a congregation; financial, emotional and most significantly spiritual.  It says that I am committed to and participate in the mission and the ministry of that particular congregation; it is a reminder that I am connected.

I can belong to a variety of things: the local gym, the art or historical society, the latest social networking website, but “connected” is the key term.  I may belong to the gym but if I never go there is no connection.  I may have season tickets to the college football team but if I don’t attend, I really don’t have a connection.  I may have a seat in the sanctuary but if I don’t attend or if I won’t connect then what do I have?   Attendance, but not presence! Connection therefore is most important and my connection is expressed in varying ways.

September is the month when many congregations begin or re-start programming; educational and fellowship programs that took a summer hiatus resume, mission or stewardship campaigns begin taking shape, and other opportunities to connect with a local church are offered.  I invite you to find your seat in church; not merely a place to belong but a place where you can connect.  I long to hear how you’ve had to either hear or say, “Excuse me, you’re in my seat.  I’m so glad to see you today.  May I join you?”

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2 thoughts on “Excuse me, you’re in my seat!

  1. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a curriculum for teaching tolerance in which Jr and Sr High students host a mix-it-up day in the lunchroom. The idea is to have people sit in a new place and with new people. Some schools do it one day a year, others for a week, others one day a month. The idea has fascinated me and made me transfer the idea to pews. I’ve done it here, in the seminary “lab” but haven’t yet had an opportunity or reason to try it elsewhere.
    You say that people like a spot because they then belong. I think about the difference between belonging to a church and being the church. When we belong, we stake our claim on a space. When we are the church, space becomes much less important.
    That brings me to the question of whether worship is a “sit and get” activity or an active event. If we “sit and get” then space matters. If we are active participants, space again becomes much less important.

    • I agree with you. It is more important to recognize “being the church” instead of just “belonging to the church.” Before a person understands they are the church, they have to see themselves as belonging to a church. When you meet a stranger and want to know their faith history you ask, “Which church do you belong to?” “Being the church” is intertwined with the connection part of my entry. Good thought! Space shouldn’t matter and theologically speaking doesn’t matter, but anthropologically and sociologically and even psychologically space cannot be dismissed. You chose your spot in church for the same reason you chose your home. It made you feel comfortable and gave you a place to belong and connect.

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