A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Marking Off Our Territory, Or Hey! That's My Pew!

We human beings are an interesting lot. Like so most species in the animal kingdom, we are very territorial. In some instances that is probably not a bad thing, but when a certain kind of inhospitable territorialism infects the church, it undermines the gospel invitation to all persons.

One of the places where inhospitable territorialism can be seen most clearly is in worship on Sunday morning. Most folks enter the sanctuary for worship and sit in their same familiar place week after week. Some persons prefer the back, others the front, and others in between. I have been told that the reason people do this is that the more visually oriented persons like to sit in the back so they can see everything, while those who favor their listening faculty sit close to the front. The individuals who are more balanced sit in the middle.

There is no doubt some truth to that, but that still doesn't explain why most people sit in the exact same spot Sunday after Sunday. I don't know whether it's an evolutionary thing, but territory is important to most of us, even in worship. As a pastor, I don't mind that most people are in the same pew spot Sunday after Sunday, as long as they are OK to give up that spot to a visitor on Sunday morning. Years ago in a previous church I served, our worship service attendance was at approximately 80% capacity Sunday after Sunday, which meant, for all practical purposes, it was full. I attempted to enlist folks in the congregation to move at least a couple of pews forward to save some room for visitors who ventured in late so they could sit in the back and not feel conspicuous having to walk all the way to the front of the sanctuary. Some complied, others balked. One man actually told me that the pew he sat in was purchased by him years ago when the sanctuary was being built. It was, therefore, his pew. He wasn't moving for nothing nor no one.

I used to tell people that just like dogs, human beings mark off their territory. It's just that we are not as crude in how we do it. After that discussion I decided that perhaps some Christians are indeed just as vulgar, if not more so, in marking off their territory. All are welcome to enter the sanctuary as long as they know where their place is not-- in the seats self-reserved by the established "customers." At least, dogs have an excuse. They have no other way to claim their space. Human beings, and Christians in particular, should know better. If there is a "territory" to be claimed, it is kingdom "territory" and it is God who has already staked his claim in Jesus Christ. His followers have no authority to draw boundaries that interfere with the invitation God gives to everyone.

Years ago a bank had as its credit card slogan, "membership has its privileges." Well, in the church of Jesus Christ, membership does not have its privileges; rather membership has its responsibilities. And by membership I do not mean having one's name formally on the roll. By membership I mean being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and therefore part of the Body of Christ, the church, God's Beachhead in this world. In the church, God seeks to enlarge God's kingdom "territory," not restrict it.

In the Body of Christ there is no place for inhospitable territorialism.


PamBG said...

A woman (a former missionary teacher, by the way!) who was a member of one of the churches I served used to tell the story of her first Sunday in that town.

She went to another church and sat down. She was told she couldn't sit there because it was so-and-so's seat. So she got up, moved, and got told the same thing. So she got up, moved, and got told the same thing.

So she got up, walked out the door and walked to "our" church where the service started 30 minutes later. And she's been there ever since.

Donald Sensing said...

Or the old parable about the hippie-looking man who parked his car in the church lot one Sunday morning when a man drove behind him and yelled, "You took my place!"

So the man moved his car and went inside in time for coffee fellowship, got a cup and sat a a table. A woman came up and said, "You took my place."

In the sanctuary the man sat down in a pew and sure enough, a man came in shortly and growled at him, "You took my place."

Etc., etc., etc.

Near the end of the service, the visitor got up and stood before the altar and held out his hands so that everyone could see the nail holes in his palms.

Then he said, "I took your place."
In my church, yes, people sit in the same place every Sunday. But I have yet to see anyone even slightly disturbed that a visitor sat in their place.