For pastors, one of the unsolvable mysteries is this: Why are the first pews empty during Mass? or rather why do people prefer the last seats? Could it be that our parishioners literally practice the words of Jesus in Luke 14:10 – ‘take the last seat?’
Another interesting feature is that the first-class seats are at the end of the pews. Are not the end spots on a pew for those who arrive after us? Wouldn’t those who choose the middle of a pew boldly testify that they are expecting more people to join them?
Churches did not have seating arrangement at least the first 1,400 years of Christianity. Pews are recent invention and didn’t even originate in Catholicism. It is a tradition adopted from the Protestant Reformation to relieve worshipers of the need to stand during long homilies of the preachers.
Due to the expensive nature of pews, individuals and families were encouraged to construct or purchase pews. Later churches began to “rent” pews for additional income. Until the mid-20th century, ‘Pew rental’ was common in Catholic churches.
Nowadays pews are neither purchased by nor rented for individuals or families. Yet, in almost all churches first few pews are left empty as though they were ‘rented’ by somebody.
Why? I have not yet found the right answer. Can you help me? Please give your comments.
I would like to cite a study just for brainstorming. This study conducted in 2001 by the Catholic University of America on Catholic and Protestant churches concluded that the ‘back-pew stereotype’ might contain some truth — those who sit there may prefer spiritual distance from the pulpit.
It also found correlations between where people sat, when they arrived and how engaged they were in the service. The study also highlighted the following factors:
- Back pew parishioners may approach their church services as more of a social obligation than a deep spiritual one.
- Single worshippers tended to arrive late and sit in the back or on the edges.
- Newer members sitting up front in recent years, with the veteran members occupying the rear seats.
These conclusions have been questioned by some scholars and pastors. The findings may not be applicable to our situation. Yet, this can lead us to further discussion and enable us to find answers.
Four types of proxemics are mentioned by Edward Hall: public distance, social distance, personal distance and intimate distance. Space does communicate non-verbally. Intimate distance is characterized by 0 to 2 feet of space between two individuals (i.e. husband and wife) while public distance is measured at 12 or more feet between persons (i.e. strangers).
I wish our parishioners move from public distance to intimate distance and communicate their relationship with God in the tabernacle.
When you sit in the front pews you come closer to the altar and the tabernacle. Although the people of God pray together during the Mass as one assembly, every individual soul is touched by God’s grace. Nearness allows easy access to divine rapture.
A closer look at the altar, the celebrant and all that happen during the Mass enable maximum participation.
Children learn from us by observing what we DO. Late coming, back pew choosing, pew end picking and less participation of elders will be imitated by the younger ones in future.
Next time when you come to church, consider all the factors mentioned here. Every step we take in spiritual life brings us closer to God. Your coming closer to God is revealed non-verbally and spatially. Come closer!