by Tom Raabe
As Lutherans, we are a distinctive people. Certainly, with the great body of Christendom we hold much in common, but as Lutherans, all would agree, we have our particular emphases.
Who could not, for example, think of Lutheranism without calling to mind justification by grace through faith, the three solas, or the distinction between Law and Gospel?
Likewise, who could think of Lutherans without thinking of a people possessed of an unflagging, unabating, almost obsessive desire to sit in the back of the church during worship?
Methodists don’t cluster in the rear as we do. Neither do Presbyterians, Reformed or Episcopalians. As for Baptists, they tuck their Bibles under their arms and march right up to the front — even when they’re not late.
But we Lutherans, we find a pew way in back and we hunker down — no matter if we’re early or late, if it’s Sunday or Wednesday night, if it’s a wedding or a funeral. We just do it; it’s part of who we are. It’s one of the things that makes us Lutherans — along with sitting in the same pew every week (but that’s a different column).
Why do we sit in the back? Perhaps we take Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to heart. We seek only to emulate the humility and penitence embodied in sitting as far away from the place of honor as possible. We are not Pharisees; we are publicans — or, at least, patrons of publicans (historically, anyway).
Other explanations are less flattering. It could be that a preponderance of law-oriented sermons over the years has driven us to the back. Or maybe a different biblical citation is apposite: “The last shall be first” — to the parking lot and coffee-and-donut feed, that is.
Whatever the reason, pastors, understandably, seem always to be complaining about it, seem always to be beckoning their recalcitrant charges forward so they don’t have to project their voices across a dozen empty pews before their words find a living eardrum.
And ushers can be very wily in their attempt to people the vacant frontward pews. They frequently cordon off back pews, or they plant themselves way up front, with stacks of bulletins in their hands, and then refuse to move. I guess the premise is that once we traipse up to the front to get a bulletin, we are either too lazy or too weak-willed to shuffle all the way back to sit down.
Shame. Humiliation. Guilt. Usher-led schemes. Pastoral begging. None of it has carried our feet forward.
So, what’s the answer? Tiny hymn boards with tiny hymn numbers located only in the front? Inflatable dummies in the back pews? The reverse psychology of roping off the front pews?
No, what centuries of practice have rendered immutable tradition cannot be so easily deprogrammed. If the people won’t come to the pulpit, perhaps the pulpit will have to go to the people.
And for this, we can tap the always-advancing field of technology. Holographic preachers have already made their appearance in certain high-tech sanctuaries: Techies can capture a preacher’s voice from past recordings to construct a digital replication and make the hologram say whatever the board operator types into the system. The image can be projected to a spot in the middle of the chancel, where the virtual pastor stands to deliver his sermon.
But that’s still up front. And we’re still in the back. The problem remains. One option would be to construct a dozen virtual pulpits and station them all about the sanctuary. Each holographic portal would “house” a holographic image of the preacher holding forth, all of these images speaking the same words at the same time.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that would creep me out.
What I’m suggesting is that, instead of the holographic images all preaching at the same time from a dozen virtual pulpits, a single hologram would be moved randomly about the holographic portals, appearing here in this portal, appearing there in that portal, popping up Jack-in-the-box-like in any one of the twelve positions, constantly in motion during the sermon.
Sitting in the back would lose its attraction; there would, in effect, no longer be a “back” of the church. The problem would be solved.
Now, about that issue of how we sit in the same pew every week . . .
Even though he writes allegedly humorous articles about breaking Lutherans of their back-sitting proclivities, Tom Raabe still, unrepentantly, sits near the back of Christ Church–Lutheran in Phoenix on Sunday mornings.