Please Be Seated

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

This is the fifth of six consecutive articles as follows:

Introduction: “Body Language Overview”
Audio: “Can You Hear Me Now?”
Video: “Room With a View”
Lighting: “In The Beginning…”
Seating: “Please Be Seated”
Conclusion: “All Together Now…”
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show…

We would never say this verbally in a worship setting, but the seating arrangement and seating types of many modern churches say exactly that.

If worship is participation and the body language of the environment says the opposite – what’s a body to do? We know from recent discoveries in the neurosciences that when the physical human body is positioned one way and the mind is the opposite, eventually the body language will win out. Regardless of gender, race, nationality or culture, the body language always wins.

As we have seen with audio, visual and lighting issues the assembly areas in worship seems as natural and as ancient as time itself. Especially when auditory limitations with no written language was prevalent, we have always been a visual species responding physiologically to natural physical stimuli— as it turns out, from the outside-in. This article will consider the seating arrangement and seating types in worship environments.

For much of history, seating was a moot issue. Worship assembly spaces had either no seating or flexible seating due to the many other uses of churches throughout the week. Some of this was also cultural, where as a sign of respect the speaker was seated and the congregation stood. Once you go back to early history and fast forward to present day, it becomes apparent that fixed seating in worship assembly environments is a very recent development.

Just like the natural room acoustic, visual and lighting qualities, the Anasazi in their chosen site of Chaco Canyon in present day northwest New Mexico fashioned their worship assembly spaces in a natural response to their world view. As previously discussed, their entire world view and in fact their actual physical survival centered on their extensive knowledge and technical application of the cosmos as manifested by both the solar and lunar calendars.

As the cosmos was in constant movement, so was their body language during their times of worship. They were participatory ceremonies integral to the sustainability of their daily physical lives in literally life or death situations.

As has been previously discussed, they chose to build more numerous smaller pueblos and numerous kivas (worship spaces) to maintain intimacy and connectedness. Again, their worship was a type of theatre–but a cosmological theatre that was inherently participatory as opposed to the more current passive performance role. While the kiva’s had a built in seating ledge all around the perimeter of the room, they were rarely seated.

Since all of life and space was sacred, their worship consisted of physical movements such as dance and chanting to mimic the movement of the cosmos. This included the use of foot drums that became a literal form of body language. When they were seated it was to emphasize a break in the movement much as can be seen in kiva worship today.

As far as seating in worship assembly spaces in more recent times, fixed pews really only came on the scene in England in the 1100’s. A great majority of cathedrals and churches in Christian Europe have moveable liturgical chair seating to this day.

In many Eastern traditions there are no seats at all in order to emphasize the connection of the movement of the physical body and the movement of the soul in a call to “actionable faith”. Many churches had a variety of services occurring simultaneously in different structural bays of the longitudinal nave spaces – this so-called “multi-site” thing has been going on all throughout history.

In this country, the more recent blending of performance hall and churches happened when the emphasis in the Christian tradition was placed more on “logos” – word – and the liturgy became passive while even at the same time faith was called to be made manifest in a “call to worship” by action, albeit a personal one. No wonder it is such a struggle to achieve community in today’s post-modern world…

Lights, Camera, Action!
As we have seen thus far in this series, the post-modern day comparison to the Anasazi is Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Indiana. With the emphasis on intimacy and connectedness in a variety of smaller worship environments, the next challenge was to fashion the body language of the various worship spaces and the seating itself to achieve a participatory environment.

Grace has an extensive experience of creating various seating layouts in their existing 10 year old, 1,100 seat worship space including an “in the round” version popular with the congregation. The desire in the new GraceMain space was to achieve better intimacy and connection for 1500 seats from the 1100 flat floor existing space. Due to the popularity of the “in the round” space, the desire was to have an in the round feeling without being exactly in the round in order to have more flexibility on the platform level.

As seen in previous articles, the design concept now under construction includes a new 1,500 seat “main” worship space (GraceMain), a new 600 seat “traditional” worship space (Sanctuary) and division of the current 1,100 seat worship space into two separate 450 seat and 350 seat worship spaces. A high degree of flexibility was desired in all the new worship spaces with a variety of seating types.

It is important to discuss the exact seating types in worship settings today. The two most common misconceptions in worship assembly environments are the infamous “metal chair” and the sloped floor/theatre seat combination. In this on-line connected digital world there is a lack of physical touch, thereby rendering significant importance on the tactile aspect of the sensory environment.

If “doorknobs and seats” are what people touch in our worship environments, then the inexpensive, narrow, flat seat/back (but usually heavily padded) metal frame chairs simply say “we care so much about your time with us that we have provided you with the cheapest seat money can buy…” If it sounds absurd in written and verbal form, “rest” assured it will sound many times louder in the tactile body language world.

The other common theme of a fan shaped, continuous sloped floor with fixed theatre seats is even more vocal in body language form – “sit back relax and enjoy the show”. Is it any wonder that we struggle with getting involvement from our congregation when the body language of the environment is communicating exactly the opposite?

The most significant issue of movable versus fixed seats is typically one of a lack of education as to why the seats would need to be moved at all. Aside from the simple logistical issues of capacity flexibility, weddings and funerals, there are numerous times in the Judeo-Christian calendar where the body language of the space can be arranged to reinforce the faith journey. This alone would be a topic for an entire article.

There are alternatives that realize these challenges in seating concepts. Sauder Manufacturing ( has addressed the movable seating with durable, stackable, wood frame, contour seats and backs in a comfortable 22 inch width in many different styles and all the bells and whistles available in their longer pew cousin version (bookracks, communion cup holders, etc).

Relative to the concept of fixed seating, there are times where a mixture of fixed and movable seats are appropriate, particularly with the use of terraced seating. The problem with fixed theatre seats is the fact that they’re made for theatres and theatres are for performance, not participation. Again the only manufacturer to have recognized this reality is Sauder with their “Clarity” seating that has the body language ergonomics of a pew. As the accompanying diagram shows, “Body Language” Profile, this is a more upright and engaged body position than a theatre seat.

When the body language of the worship assembly environment is considered at the very beginning of the design process with careful study to seat type and arrangement, then it is possible to integrate the corresponding audio, video and lighting technical systems to reinforce the message.

In the Grace project, as in many other current projects, there is a growing awareness and interest in seeking an appropriate body language that reinforces the ministry goals – active participation of all the senses in order to foster and active participation of the mind and body. “Faith in action” is a redundant phrase. To see ways in which we can comprehensively apply what we have learned from this parallel story of the Grace tribe of Indy and the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon tune into the next and last article of this “Body Language” series.