When Things Aren’t Normal

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Picture this.

After months and months of not being able to meet together with your church family, it’s the first Sunday that church is finally back on! You pull into the car park. The kids bound out and you catch up with them at the church doors. At first you’re a little surprised. The chairs have been laid out differently, with lots of small clusters throughout the room, each separated by a couple of metres. There are also a number of solo chairs spread amongst the clusters. Welcome to church social-distancing style! Your family makes it way to one of the groups of chairs, sit down together and wave at various other friends sitting in other clusters with their spouse and kids. Sure, it’s all a bit weird. But it’s good to finally be gathering with God’s people again.

Now picture this.

After months of months of not being able to meet together with your church family, it’s the first Sunday that church is finally back on! Because you are single and live by yourself, you are especially excited not to be watching church alone for another week. After pulling into the car park you make your way through the church doors, and then come to a stop. Of course you knew that you’d still need to practice social distancing inside the building but … you hadn’t really stopped to picture it in your mind. You see lots of clusters of chairs which are occupied by mums, dads and kids. You look a bit closer and realise that scattered here and there are some lone chairs. You wander over to one and take a seat, trying to shrug off how incredibly conspicuous you feel. But as the church service starts you can’t help but identify that same feeling which has been your near constant companion for months now. Even here, in the physical presence of your church family, you still feel lonely. 

You see lots of clusters of chairs which are occupied by mums, dads and kids. You look a bit closer and realise that scattered here and there are some lone chairs … Even here, in the physical presence of your church family, you still feel lonely.

Here in Australia, congregations of less than 100 people may be able to meet in coming months. In fact, some churches in the Northern Territory may be reopening their doors in just a few weeks’ time! While we are all (rightly) excited about the possibility of regathering what has been scattered, we will need to keep in mind that things are not going to go straight “back to normal” anytime soon.

However, when things are not normal we find ourselves faced with fresh opportunities. In particular, right now is a time to do what we don’t often get around to doing when things are business as usual. It’s a time to notice some things which often go unnoticed. A time to question some things which are not usually questioned. A time to critique a few of our sacred cows.

An Unquestioned Norm

The undisputed practice of every church congregation I have ever been part of is that, every week, the vast majority of nuclear families and married couples sit together. While it is particularly true of morning congregations, it is also usually true of married couples who attend evening congregations (while their teenage kids look for any opportunity to not have to sit with their parents!). I dare say it’s the practice in your church too. It’s the way we Christians do things. But have you ever stopped to wonder why we do it? Have you ever stopped to think about why this is our practice?

Well, we can easily identify a number of reasonable explanations, can’t we? Of course, the most obvious one relates to the youngest members of our congregations and their tendency to see the church aisle as a racetrack! It seems to make pragmatic sense for parents to sit together in church, matching bookends with their kids sandwiched between them. For others there may be less obvious reasons. For example, there is the wife who struggles with social anxiety, or the husband who has always just felt ‘out of place’ at church. There can be courage in company, comfort in closeness.

And yet, despite these good reasons, we need to ask what our church seating habits communicate about the way we think about church? Or more importantly, what they reveal about the way we think of ourselves as church?

Questioning Our Norms

In her 2018 article, ‘Why I don’t Sit with my Husband at Church’, author Rebecca McLaughlin writes:

The Bible insists on this: We are brothers and sisters in one body […] If we close off in biological pods every Sunday, we leave out singles, newcomers, and others. If we open up, we experience a gospel gift—the body of Christ in all its fullness.

If you are part of one of those biological pods, you may not have ever stopped to consider what it is like to walk into church alone; or for the first time; or when your spouse is rarely able to sit next to you because they are often serving on one ministry team or another; or because you are married to the pastor who is regularly out of their chair throughout the service. You may not have ever stopped to appreciate how confronting it is to walk into a church building by yourself, frantically casting your eyes around for someone you can approach to sit next to. You may never have noticed how often people leave an empty seat between themselves and the person who is sitting alone. You may not have experienced the awfulness of being encouraged to greet the people around you, when there isn’t anyone around you. McLaughlin is right. When we close off in biological pods every Sunday, we are leaving others out in the cold.

And yet, did you notice her dual emphasis? If our churches are places in which nuclear families always sit together, not only do we risk alienating others, but we are all missing out on experiencing what it truly is to be each other’s family in Christ.

If our churches are places in which nuclear families always sit together, not only do we risk alienating others, but we are all missing out on experiencing what it truly is to be each other’s family in Christ.

Yes, it is understandable that families want to sit together for the sake of dampening the chaos of energetic children in the service. And yet, are we not all family? Are we not all called to disciple and spiritually parent each other, and each other’s children? Is it not our children’s privilege to have lots of adults at church who not only look out for their welfare, but love them, seek to grow them in godliness and simply enjoy their company?

Yes, it is understandable why the wife who experiences social anxiety or the husband who never quite feels like he belongs would want the security of sitting with their spouse on a Sunday. And yet, are we not all family? Are we not all called to welcome each other as brother and sister in Christ, to care for the vulnerable, to welcome the newcomer, to embrace the anxious? Are we not to devote ourselves to building relationships of love with each other?

Could something as seemingly innocuous as who we sit next to each and every Sunday ultimately be depriving us of an authentic appreciation of what it is to be each other’s family? Could our unquestioned norm of where we place our posterior be robbing us of experiencing and celebrating the Body of Christ in all its fullness?

A New Norm?

In this time—a time in which things aren’t normal—we have an opportunity to consider what blessings and benefits might come were we to push the reset (rather than the refresh) button on something as simple as where we sit in church. We have the opportunity to do some hard thinking about who we are as a church family, and how our actions might better testify to that truth.

Of course, when church services do open again (whenever that may be!) we may not have the luxury of ignoring pragmatics altogether. For many churches, social distancing principles may mean that significantly fewer people will fit in their building. Having every (adult’s) chair then separated by a couple of metres will only make that much more challenging. So it may be that, after careful consideration, your church decides that it does need to encourage (at least some) families and married couples to sit together, while others sit in lone chairs (though this will still need to align with your state/territory guidelines. For example, as this currently stand churches in NSW will still need to account for 4m2 of space for every person in the building, regardless of whether some of those people will be sitting in household clusters).  

However, if you are a church leader who is considering the impact of social distancing on your Sunday gatherings—or if you are a married couple or family who have always just sat together on a Sunday—please don’t just assume what has always been the case ought to continue to be the case. Think it through. Consider the implications. Put yourself in the shoes of that newcomer; or that person whose spouse never comes to church; or your single brother or sister. And then, even you if it does need to be this way (at least during the coronavirus interim) please be aware of the emotional and spiritual effects it may have for some within your church family—many of whom have been feeling very isolated for many months.

Your church is more than a grouping of individual families and households. It is our true family. How does who you choose to sit next to on a Sunday celebrate that wonderful gospel gift?

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