A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a Robert Frost poem in this column. Today, I’ll share the one other poem I remember having to memorize back in high school, a poem by Joyce Kilmer, titled “Trees” You probably remember how the poem begins as well. “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” That vivid line has been coopted in countless ways by numerous groups. But perhaps the best job of revising Kilmer’s poem for other purposes I’ve seen was what one church published in its weekly bulletin, which they titled, “The Perfect Church.” It goes as follows:
I think that I will never see
A church that’s all it ought to be.
A church that has no empty pews,
A church where people never get the blues.
A church whose music is always great,
A church where people are never late.
The poem goes on to lament how no such church exists, though I’m sure the poem’s revisers only meant to motivate its members to strive to become more of a “perfect church,” even though they acknowledge the chances of rising to that level of faithfulness is zero, especially given how we Christians are, as one theologian put it, a “being-redeemed people.” We are a people “in process.”
While a “perfect church” may only exist in God’s New Jerusalem, an “exemplary church” is surely a possibility. There are many ways to define such a church, and I am taking the time at each Deacons meeting to describe in more detail my vision of what such a church looks like. This past month I talked about “inspiring worship.” An exemplary church provides attendees a worship experience that is transformative. People leave the experience better than they came.
The conventional wisdom is that the responsibility for making such an experience possible falls to the worship leaders. If the preacher does a good job and the musicians do a good job and the choir and vocalists do a good job, then people will be inspired. I wouldn’t argue the point. Worship leaders do bear a heavy responsibility to do and give their very best. But because of how worship is a corporate experience, those who gather for worship also play an important role in how the experience goes.
When attendees participate enthusiastically, others are inspired. When they greet newcomers with smiling faces, others are inspired. When they move to the front, others are inspired.
That last example qualifies as meddling to many of you, I know. You have your space and you’re sticking to it. I understand. But when in a sanctuary as spatially generous as ours we have empty pews in the front, it doesn’t inspire because it doesn’t make us look our best.
This observation was brought to my attention by our Vision 2020 Implementation Team. As you know, we have a group of members who are working diligently to make sure that we take our vision plan seriously. Our plan is divided into six sections – Worship, Discipleship, Outreach, Missions, Fellowship, and Structures. The team looks at our strategic objectives on a regular basis and makes recommendations on what we need to emphasize or improve.
At their last meeting, they brought up the matter of the empty pews at the front of the sanctuary in the traditional service. Their particular concern was that those empty pews are glaringly obvious to any who may be viewing us on our live stream. Since many prospects view our live stream before deciding to attend, the empty pews could give the mistaken impression that no one is present and nothing inspiring is taking place. So, they asked me to bring it to our church’s attention.
Here, then, is what I’d invite you to prayerfully consider. I’d invite you to consider moving a pew or three or four closer to the front. Yes, the more people we get closer to the front, the better the appearance will be for those who watch the live stream. But I also see some benefits for those of us in the Sanctuary.
For one, having the front pews more occupied will also create a greater sense of inspiration for those of us in attendance. No matter the gathering, whenever the front seats are taken, people get the impression that the gathering is a worthwhile one. If everyone sits in the back, it’s a non-verbal cue that people really don’t want to be present. I don’t think that’s the case in our church.
Another benefit is that it leaves the pews toward the back for guests who come our way. Each Sunday we are blessed to have new faces in our worship. Because new people are always concerned about “taking someone’s pew,” having some empty spaces in the back makes their first-time experience less stressful. Trust me, I’ve taken someone’s pew before in another church where I was a guest, and it’s not a pretty picture, at least not for the guest.
Lastly, the move will prove much better for those who have problems hearing in our church. Our Sanctuary has an incredibly resonant sound for music, but not so for the spoken word. We’ve had numerous experts study the situation and spent lots of money to correct the situation, but as long as we have the slate floors in our Sanctuary, we’ll have audio challenges. And we will have the slate floors for the foreseeable future. So, if hearing is a concern for you, move up; and if you still can’t hear, keep moving up. I promise you that if you get close enough to the front, your hearing problems will disappear. That’s a fact that’s been verified by some in our church who have made this move.
Let me say one other thing. This request doesn’t apply only to our traditional worship. Though we don’t stream the contemporary service, the dynamics of having people in the front still apply. So, if that’s your service of choice, prayerfully consider moving up a row or two there as well.
I know that everything I’m asking you to consider goes against the grain for all of who grew up Baptists. We pride ourselves on being back-seat participants. But maybe it’s time we change. Maybe we can do better. Maybe we can be better. Moving forward isn’t the total answer to our becoming an “exemplary church,” but I promise you it’s a good start. And at the end of the day, I think we all would agree that it would be a lovely thing for others to see us do.
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).