The Eccentric Culture of “Where Do I Sit?”

As a part of our regular business practice, we check back in with completed HOW projects to ensure everything is still working properly and that no new issues have arisen that might need attention. Over the decades, this approach has proven to be both helpful in maintaining relationships and also often provides new opportunities to provide services to a facility as their needs evolve and change

Every once in a while during one of these visits, someone will pose a question that seemingly comes out of left field, or appears to be unconnected to anything else we had been discussing. One of the most intriguing of these questions came a few months back and was the trigger for this column.

Here’s the scenario: We were walking the facility sanctuary with the minister of music and his technical director, just checking on the sound system coverage and verifying that everything was working properly — nothing unusual, nothing special. As we crossed over the central aisle, one of the ushers who was replacing books and hymnals, stopped us and said: “Do you mind if I ask a question?”

“Sure,” we all replied.

He said: “I was wondering why we have all these new speakers in the middle of the church, but nobody ever seems to sit here?” From his perspective, it seems as if we were wasting hardware and money on a space that was substantially underutilized most of the time.

It should be noted that this was a long, narrow sanctuary, so the design was ‘zoned’ using three groups of column speakers mounted to the support pillars which ran down both sides of the space. Each pair (zone) could be muted as needed by the system operator depending on attendance and location of congregants.

From an end user’s perspective, it’s a reasonable question and seems perfectly logical, but it’s not. We explained that the design of the sound system had to take into account all possible occupancy scenarios, and even though the area he was referencing was not used regularly, it was when events like weddings, funerals, baptisms or other gatherings brought more people to the church.

We also pointed out that the system was set up so that when those seats were not in use, the speakers could be muted to increase clarity for those seats that were occupied (usually the front half and rear third). After a few minutes, he recognized the arrangement and agreed that we had to plan for all occasions, not just the average everyday situation.

The Scientific Approach to the Problem

The idea that we need to design for full coverage is almost a given in sound system practice, but is it the best approach for the real world? I would respectfully suggest that this “given” needs some re-thinking in 2018.

If you randomly walked into 10 HOW spaces on any given Sunday, you would more than likely find that people position themselves in one of three locations: the front, the back and also scattered randomly elsewhere — i.e. the ushers point above about the empty middle. This pattern seems to be ubiquitous, not affected by denomination, worship style or even sanctuary size and seating plan. But why?

You might assume that there would be serious research on this puzzling conundrum, and lots of studies by sociologists, and other related professionals. You would be wrong! We went looking for exactly that data on HOW attendees and found very little if any specifically focused on worship spaces, lots on academic lecture halls and classrooms, but little else.

It would seem that asking people to explain why they sit where they do during any worship service is viewed by the “academic analysis community” as a somewhat frivolous exercise because it’s not something most people ordinarily actually think about. But is it just random chance or is there a method or underlying human thought process involved?

Well, sort of. How and where people “naturally position“ themselves is actually quantifiable, albeit the influence factors are very subtle and combine both physical preference and personal factors, plus the ever-present weight of the clock (service start time).

Why Does This Matter?

Because if you don’t plan for the reality of congregational seating preferences, you may well end up with a system design that does not perform well under the average attendance conditions or cannot meet the demands of a full occupancy situation or both. Thus this information and its factoring into any design can and will have a dramatic impact on how well any sound system design will serve the needs of that congregation.

And the Scientists Say

What data* was out there clearly indicted three key factors influencing where people sit — when they arrive, the size and makeup of the group and the regularity of attendance at that location. (*For those inclined, there is a list of references and articles on this topic at the end of the article.)

In summary here’s what the researchers who discussed the issue had to say:

  1. When people sit up front, they usually say it’s because it helps them stay focused on the service/sermon/worship leader and that there are fewer distractions. Additionally being closer to the “message” is often perceived as providing better comprehension (anecdotally anyway).
  2. Given the potentially overwhelming visual distractions — cute children smiling over the back of the pew, latecomers, half-asleep worshipers on the edge of a snore, smartphone fiddlers, those who insist on bringing their coffee into the sanctuary and drinking noisily, overly-loud whisperers, candy un-wrappers, etc., the fewer people who are in front of this group, the less likely any of these problems will arise, so up front they go.
  3. The second major grouping is made-up of two subsets — late arrivers and those with toddlers or infants who want a quick exit option. These two groups will be found at the back as they don’t want to attract attention to their late arrival or crying baby.
  4. The last major group is illustrated by the cartoon at the open of this an article — the regulars — those who show up every service and by default or a perceived right claim certain seats or pews as “theirs” and often get ruffled when others sit in those locations.

Now while it is rare in the modern HOW to have “assigned” or reserved seating the practice is not totally gone and some facilities still honor the system. It is worth determining if the space in question uses that method — just to be sure you understand how the congregation operates.

Way Back When

For the historically inclined, it’s worth noting that church buildings didn’t always have pews or chairs. According to doctoral research from John Charles Bennett at the University of Birmingham, Anglo-Saxon churches typically had just a few three-legged stools for the use of elderly or infirm attendees who could not stand for the length of the service. Later, from the 13th to the 15th centuries, benches and stalls became more common. These were usually privately constructed by church members who wanted to ensure themselves a seat in church without having to bring stools or mats from home. If a medieval Christian referred to “my pew,” they probably meant it literally.

Over the next few hundred years, it was common for most American and British churches to install seating throughout the building. These church-owned pews or benches were then most often rented (or “let”) to individuals and families. This became the primary means of funding the church’s operating costs. Historical records show that prices for particular seats were largely determined by the perceived desirability of their location — with front and aisle seats fetching the highest amounts — though nearly all churches also had free seats available for those who could not pay. The practice faded away over the last century or so and is now rare but not unheard of.

So What Drives the Great Seating Mystery?

The scholarly research seems to show that certain features of Christian worship suggest that congregations may be highly susceptible to structuring forces. At its core, the Christian service is a highly formalized, routine-driven activity. While there are certainly variations among denominations, the sociological commonalities far outweigh the variations.

For example, almost all Christian congregations worship facing toward a common center of attention. They are read to and/or spoken to from this center. They face symbolic furniture, usually a pulpit and/or altar. They meet at least weekly, in the same place and same time of day. The precise and specific order of events in any given worship service itself is likely to have obvious variation, but for all congregations, it is put together into a form that varies little each week and thus leads to seating rituals.

The various scholarly research folks (see Some light reading at the end of the article) derived the following summarized conclusions from all their data:

  1. The forward-facing orientation of pews combines with the physical limits of human perception to produce a distinctive front and rear to each worship space and restrict perceptual orientation to the frontward direction. This restriction is amplified by the fact that pews are seldom spaced, as to avoid obstructing the perception of those behind, as a seat in stadiums or theaters.
  2. Worship services are highly ordered with regard to time, usually by a printed “Order of Service” that provides instructions for the coordination of group behavior.

Dealing With the Results

In designing and implementing sound and AV systems for a HOW space, it is strongly recommended that the designer or integrator spend some time observing how that specific congregation conducts its service and how they set themselves seating-location wise. If the work is to be done in an existing space, this can be accomplished simply. If the work is for an as yet-to-be-built space, then going to the location where that group currently conducts its worship service is important as a reference for how they are likely to position themselves in the new space.

Finding out this information will help guide design issues such as zoning, extended coverage area speaker placement, level requirements and similar coverage and system balance issues both in design and in commissioning. If you don’t know how a congregation “functions,” it becomes far more difficult to meet their needs and produce a satisfactory result.

Take the time to do your homework, learn how your “customer” operates and your chances of meeting their real-world needs go up dramatically. By the way, make sure to sit in multiple locations to get a feel for how the service is presented and how people perceive that presentation from multiple vantage points. It will prove useful in finalizing the system’s calibration and tuning.

And Finally

Sometimes seating issues are just so unusual that there is nothing to say but “hmm.” And then there is this old amusing quote, whose origins are obscure: “You should always sit close to the front because the sermon gets worn out by the time it reaches the back.”

Some Light Reading

  • Benedict, R. (1934). Patterns of culture. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Google Scholar
  • Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press. Google Scholar
  • Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Google Scholar
  • Hagerstrand, T. (1975). Space, time and the human condition. In Karlqvist, A., Lundqvist, L., Snickars, F. (Ed.), Dynamic allocation of urban space (pp. 3-14). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. Google Scholar
  • Hall, E. T. (1959). The silent language. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Google Scholar
  • Roozen, D., Dudley, C. (2001). Faith communities today: A survey report on religion in the United States. Hartford, CT: Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Google Scholar
  • Zerubavel, E. (1976). Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and calendars in social life. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. Google Scholar

ALL images/cartoons are copyright © 2015 HarperCollins Christian Publishing and are used for illustrative purposes only.