Everybody wants to fill the seats. Last week an article in The New York Times referred to a Senior Marketing Manager at Carnegie Hall whose job responsibility is “seat retention”. The employee described his assignment like this, “Once we get them there we want to get them back.”
Congregations use language that is less direct; our words are churchier. But we hope the pews are full, too. Here are a few of our approaches:
THE NOBLE CALL: “We are trying to create committed disciples of Christ. Being faithful in a little thing will prepare you to be faithful in larger issues.”
THE GUILTY ACCUSATION: “Followers of Jesus don’t let rain or heat or minor emergencies keep them from regular worship. You made a promise to be here. Christians don’t break vows.”
THE ENTERTAINMENT PLOY: “You won’t want to miss this Sunday’s ‘special’ service when we’ll have the Gospel Singers Four here to provide a never-to-be-repeated praise concert. You’ll want to be here early to get good seats.” As if every worship service isn’t special.
THE SELF-HELP TACTIC: “Come to church for a seven week series on how to be the best parent. We’ll follow that up with a 5 part series on how to stay happily married. Later this fall we’ll tell you how to escape depression, guilt and anger.”
THE HEAVY HANDED THREAT: “If you don’t come to church you are going to hell.” Okay, most congregations don’t actually put it quite this bluntly, but churchgoers know how to read between the lines.
We can chuckle about invitations like these because we’ve all heard them and some of us have used them. We’ve done so with the best of intentions. We want to change lives and transform communities and so we urge people to become faithful in their worship habits.
Although we would never use the crass phrase “seat retention” there usually comes a time – even in the life of the most committed congregation – when people ask, “Why aren’t more people coming to church on Sunday morning?” We ask because almost any gathering – political rally, symphony or rock concert, athletic contest, public lecture or worship service – feels better when the room (no matter the seating capacity) is comfortably filled.
Who is in charge of “seat retention” in the local church? The easiest answer is to point to the preacher. That’s a good starting place, at least in the Protestant church, where the pastor has a key role in church health.
But it doesn’t stop there. Everything from the church nursery, the accessibility of the building, the national denomination’s position on social issues, the kind of music the congregation offers, the graciousness of other church members adds up to full houses. Finally, although few people want to admit it, the responsibility of “seat retention” rests primarily with each individual member. Faithfulness in worship is one of the most basic requirements of following Christ, a conclusion that falls somewhere in between tactic No. 1 and No. 2 above.
Creede Hinshaw is a retired minister in Macon.