Pew Isolationism

Pastor Peters of Grace Lutheran had an interesting post on pew isolationism. He states the following:

I know exactly what this person is talking about.  I see it every Sunday.  It is as if the people in my parish seat apart from each other on purpose.  Perhaps it is an over abundant sense of personal space. Or shyness.  Or maybe fear.  We sit in ways that magnify the spiritual distance between us.

I tend to concur with the observational aspect as its been my own experience and practice for a multitude of years. As far as the why aspect goes, I find I must disagree with Pastor Peters. The primary reason for disagreement is that congregations are typically a mixture of introverts and extroverts.  If a congregation were mostly introverts, Pastor Peters views would make sense. On the other hand in a mixed introverted / extroverted congregation, one might expect clumps of extroverts… but clumping in my experience is even rarer than a church that doesn’t practice pew isolationism.

Rather, I think contemporary Christianities radical individualism combined with the sacredness of worship, brings about desires for a more transcendent assembly than a physical one. In addition,for some, the physical can serve to disturb the transcendent.  If one combines the two, its no wonder that folks tend to physically distance themselves, even though they are connected spiritually. At least this is what I picked up from reading 35 comments across the blogosphere.

As an extreme example of the sacred / transcendent / corporate domain is if I am participating in the daily hours, whether alone, or in the rare church that provide such, it is a massively corporate, spiritually connected event rippling throughout time zones around the world. The same massive transcendence, albeit in more of a gaussian distribution across time also occurs in Sunday worship. The physical and the global transcendence aspects come together at intervals during the singing of hymns and/or choruses, the liturgy or group readings, and the sharing of the peace, the corporate prayers, and the eucharist.

I even saw this connectivity during the opening worship at churchwide assembly this week. Not only were a few thousand folks participating in proximity, there were multitudes of us from afar who were participating via livestreaming and twitter. There was even a photo on twitter of one fellow singing along with what looked like an Ipad hymnal, all the while watching the assembly on a large monitor. Such is a wonderful thing, when logistics, time, and/or economic factors preclude being there in person.

Alas, as wonderful as today’s tech is, or the tv church of the past, one looses the connection to the sacraments, and the physical proximity of other worshipers. Many of us have, or at least abide by a projection of Northern European Lutheran tradition of close, (but not too close) as concerns physical proximity…

And there in lies a few dangers.

  1. If we go too far into the radical individualism in corporate worship, it ends up being a discrete set of concurrent “me and Jesus events”… in physical proximity, but excluding all others, perhaps even excluding the transcendent connection to the saints.
  2.  Hebrews tells us not to foresake the assembly, and we are to encourage one another. Granted, there is a legit debate of whether corporate worship is really the space for such… but it may be the only space a visitor experiences before dismissing a given church as cold and distant. The idea that the church pot luck, the donuts, the small group, the mission project, the Sunday school, or even the fish soaked in lye. is where edification of one another occurs is well established in our traditions… but visitors are likely to be unaware. Even more so, congregational participation in such events if adjacent to worship in the time domain is often times pretty spotty, again a potential negative for visitors.
  3. The tradition of close but not too close works out ok in a homogenious environment… but is contraindicated in a multi-cultural one. Out theology is greater than this, but its something we need to get past or many are likely to self-exclude.

As far as what to do, I look to the examples set by a couple local church founders… Wally at 90+ years old is probably the best Lutheran evangelist I’ve ever come across. He is turned on at nearly every waking moment, and his story resonates in a huge way… No way is a visitor ever going to be ignored, as he once was. Karl, another founder I met over the years practices in a similar fashion. The church Wally founded was not synod driven, nor churchwide driven, or even pastor driven. He took it on himself from the ground up gathering a few others to get rolling… indeed, he was a bold Lutheran.

Wally and Karl also hit on something that far too often occurs in the domain of radical hospitality and how it can ring unauthentic… Pastor Peters hits on this with the following.

A welcoming people are attuned to everyone around them, new visitors and old members, and reach out with friendship equally.  Incidentally, I find that often a “cold” congregation is not simply distant from new folks, those folks are generally as oblivious to the old members around them as well.

Bottom line, this boldness and fire that comes from building a church from scratch is probably the answer. Pew isolationism, style, or even church conflict is no longer a factor when there is a Karl or Wally in the vicinity. A church needs the boldness and fire of a founder who then transitions to an ongoing catalyst to foster scaling. Even as a multi-site musician juggling logistics, or as of late the caretaker who arrives late and leaves early, I find the catalytic action of a Wally or Karl a huge deal. You will be welcomed, you will be invited to participate, its ongoing, and its the authentic real deal.

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