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The lure of the back pew

Those who sit there may be keeping spiritual distance

Mike Gray, a local pastor, acknowledges the existence of what is called "the back row Baptist."

The reality, said Gray of the Salt Lake's Southeast Baptist Church, is that some people are just more comfortable sitting far away from the front, with the joke being the last row fills up first and that the minister preaches to the back the most.

This particular seating situation is certainly not just a Baptist thing. It occurs so often at so many different churches, you'd think chapel seats on the back pew or two were cushier, comfier, reclined and had cup holders.

This certainly is not what the biblical phrase about how the "first shall be last" was intended to mean.

So, what does sitting in the back pew or row say about you?

Does it simply mean you were running late or perhaps purposely getting there early? Does it mean you want separation from the speaker? Or maybe a chance to catch some shuteye without being noticed? Extra leg room maybe? Quick access to the exit?

A study conducted in 2001 by the Catholic University of America concluded that the back pew stereotype might contain some truth — those who sit there may prefer spiritual distance from the pulpit.

The study, done of 3,426 worshippers in a random sample of 35 Washington, D.C. area churches, supported the idea that back pew parishioners may approach their church services as more of a social obligation than a deep spiritual one.

Paul Sullins, an assistant professor of sociology at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., used the research data to draw correlations between where people sat, when they arrived and how engaged they were in the service.

Families were more likely to arrive early, sit in the front and also move to the center.

"We've speculated these are the people who want a meaningful experience of being in church, so they arrive early," Sullins said.

Late arrivers may also seek to minimize the costs of church attendance both in terms of time and participation. In other words, they might want to get out the door the quickest. Coincidentally, single worshippers tended to arrive late and sit in the back or on the edges. They're not the only ones in the back, though.

"They have come, literally, less far into the worship experience, devoting less time and effort; they may be less engaged in other ways as well, as someone who is 'backstage' to the worship experience," Sullins writes in his research summary, which was presented at the August 2001 meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

"It's the same thing we observe when people sit in the back of a classroom or a movie theater," he explained. "Most people in the back row of a movie theater aren't that engrossed in the film."

Likewise, the first row at the movies is generally the last to fill up. (And we won't go into detail why the back-row people aren't paying attention.)

The study — which can be found online at publicaffairs.cua.edu/news/02SitInChurch.htm — also found that latecomers were likely to sit at the back even in a large church with plenty of room closer to the front.

"If late arrivers chose to sit in the back to avoid disruption, we would expect it to be more pronounced in small church buildings," said D. Paul Sullins, an assistant professor of sociology at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "But we found that the difference between earlier and later arrivals in front-to-rear seating choices is least pronounced in small church buildings."

Some Utah ministers feel seating is simply a matter of personal choice, not a subconscious spiritual statement. Others would prefer that the front rows would fill first. But don't count on them following the example of local theaters that have put huge bean bags up front.

Gray said his churchgoers usually just sit closest to where they enter. In contrast to the study, he even has worshippers in his parish who will only sit on the front row.

"The back row's not the first one to fill up," Gray said of his congregation. "We don't have a problem with it."

Richard Wolf, an elder in the North Salt Lake congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses, said seating is simply a preference thing.

"Some like to sit in the front. Some like to sit in the back," he said. "We try to reserve our last couple of row for members with young kids."

(And that's not just to make it easier to clean up the spilled Cheerios.)

Richard Ellsworth, stake president for the Lehi North stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said special efforts have been made recently in his 10-ward stake to get more members to sit in the front at Sacrament meetings.

"We're working on it as a stake," he said.

He believes members' tendencies to sit in the back probably come out of a fear of being called on. He also feels it can really disrupt the reverence in meetings when latecomers have to walk up to the front to sit because all the rear seats are taken.

Ellsworth said he has noticed more of the newer members sitting up front in recent years, with the veteran members occupying the rear seats.

President Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve in the LDS Church, has also made special efforts at the start of meetings he has presided over in recent years to encourage members to move to the front seats.

Steve Berven, the Web site, www.divinspiration.com, believes there is deep symbolism associated with where Christians sit in a meeting.

"We need to move forward from the back pews," he advocates, "from the 'safe,' comfortable middle, and into the 'dangerous' ground of the front row."

Then again, the back row is better than a no show.


E-mail: lyne@desnews.com; jody@desnews.com