Where People Sit In Church
Front Quarter 23 percent
Second Quarter 26.8 percent
Third Quarter 26.7 percent
Back Quarter 23.5 percent
When People Arrive
20-29 minutes early 15 percent
10-19 minutes early 25 percent
Just in Time
0-9 minutes early 60 percent
Preachers have long thought that parishioners who prefer the back pews want spiritual distance from the pulpit — and they’ve often joked that a majority of church-goers head for the back.
A Catholic University survey of where people sit in church and when they arrive challenged the latter myth (see chart, right). But it lends credence to the perception that back pew parishioners approach church services as more of a social obligation than a deeper experience of faith, according to D. Paul Sullins, an assistant professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Sullins and his sociology students set out to investigate those preachers’ assumptions, spending three semesters observing where people sit in church and when they arrive: very early, early, or “just in time.” What they found, after tracking the attendance and seating preferences of 3,426 worshippers in a random sample of 35 Washington, D.C., churches, was that even in large church buildings with plenty of space and smallish congregations — where latecomers could easily move up to the front without disrupting the service — they still were more likely to sit in the back.
“Later arrivers are most likely to sit in the rear in the least crowded churches we studied, like small congregations meeting in large church buildings,” Sullins says. “Likewise, if late arrivers chose to sit in the back to avoid disruption, we would expect it to be more pronounced in small church buildings. But we found that the difference between earlier and later arrivals in front-to-rear seating choices is least pronounced in small church buildings.”
Sullins used the research data to draw correlations between where people sat,
when they arrived, and how engaged they were in the service. Single worshippers usually arrived late and sat in the back or on the edges of pews. Groups and families were more likely to arrive early, sit in the front and move to the center of the pews.
“We’ve speculated these are the people who want a meaningful experience of being in church, so they arrive early,” Sullins says, adding that those who arrive later are more likely to sit in the back or on the edge of the pew, where they will have an unimpeded exit once the service concludes.
In the language of costs and benefits, he concludes, later arrivers may seek to minimize the costs of church attendance both in terms of time and participation, approaching it as a social obligation more than a deeper experience of faith.
“They have come, literally, less far into the worship experience, devoting less time and effort; they may be less engaged in other ways as well, as someone who is ‘backstage’ to the worship experience,” Sullins writes in his research summary, which was presented at the August 2001 meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.
“It’s the same thing we observe when people sit in the back of a classroom or a movie theater,” Sullins says. “Most people in the back row of a movie theater aren’t that engrossed in the film.”
The survey of seating preferences tracked several Protestant denominations; Catholic church halls were too large to include in the current research but will be studied later in 2002.
Sullins also has applied the study of when people arrive for church to examine differences among religious denominations. He found that Methodists were more likely than Baptists and Episcopalians to arrive early and worship alone; two-thirds of Baptists worshipped by themselves, compared to one-third of Episcopalians and Methodists who came solo to church. He attributes the contrast to the number of Baptist churches offering childcare and Sunday school, which frees devout single parents to attend church with their children. Episcopalians were the least likely to arrive early, with 77 percent of those sampled arriving just as services started.
Revised: Feb. 18, 2002
All contents copyright © 2001.
The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.