Tomorrow’s church – Part 3: Rethinking the seating arrangement.

The first rule of design is “form follows function.” If an object or building has a purpose, the design should first and foremost achieve that function, before considering aesthetics. On the front cover of Don Norman’s book, “The Design of Everyday Things”, is a picture of an unusable teapot. It’s a visual story of how we can get things wrong.

Like any designer, the question we need to ask ourselves is, “What is the function of church?” How do we design a space that meets that function? If you can answer that question, you can creatively rethink the layout of your meeting space. Do you believe that churches should be designed for performance? For entertainment? For an individual worship experience? Or do you believe the church is called to be a body, a people, a community, a fellowship? Is the purpose of our gatherings to encourage each other, teach one another, minister to one another? If so, there is a significant problem with the current layout.

Winston Churchill famously said; “first we shape our buildings, then they shape us”. He couldn’t have been more right about the designs of our churches. Walk into any church and I’ll guarantee you that more than 99% of the time, you’ll find rows of chairs, facing forward to draw all attention to the stage at the front. It doesn’t matter what denomination, size of church, age-group or cultural background – any deviation from this pattern is the exception, not the norm. Sure, the newer churches don’t have wooden pews anymore, but the people still sit in rows and focus on the front. The space we meet in is preventing God’s people from connecting, participating or contributing.

Just like the unusable teapot can never be used to pour tea, seating people in rows can never be used to build community, fellowship or interaction. We can never build a culture of connection unless we are willing to rethink the seating arrangements and allow God’s people to meet face-to-face.

Tomorrow’s church is going to allow far more interaction and participation than yesterday’s church. Many churches are already creatively rearranging the seating to better fulfil the function of fellowship. Some churches meet in a large circle, some sit around tables, some encourage people to converse in groups of 2-3.

Form follows function. Changing the seating WILL NOT change your church culture. However, if you change the church culture to encourage connection, interaction and participation, at some point you will have to redesign the seating.

This is the third post in a series of 12, titled “Tomorrow’s church: A new formula for a new era.” “Rethinking the seating” is one of 9 adaptable strategies churches can use to change church culture from within. The next post will be about sharing stories to connect people to each other and to God’s Story.

The following posts in the series are now up;

14 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s church – Part 3: Rethinking the seating arrangement.

  1. “…seating people in rows can never be used to build community, fellowship or interaction.”
    While rows may hinder, they can also provide a safe and familiar setting for a start. It is the ATTITUDE. especially of whatever leadership there is…that shapes the group.

    Oddly enough, it seems to be the groups perspective on the Old Testament that does much of the shaping. It they have a “Sanctuary” and an “Altar” and feel the space must be preserved as holy they are less likely to become a community of equals. The priesthood of believers notwithstanding, they will look to their ‘priest’ to call the shots.

    • Thanks Tom,

      I agree that attitude is far more important than the seating. In fact, there is nothing more awkward than sitting in a circle and doing “passive church”.

      – Kathleen

  2. Thank you for this thought provoking post. Most new houses of worship definitely fall into the “design for entertainment and performance” category which sadly reflect the attitude of many church attenders these days. The mega-multi-site church phenomena has instilled in us the idea that the “stage” is for the performers, complete with back door exits and staging areas for the concert musicians, rock star bands, and celebrity pastors. You have given us much to think about.

    • Hi Angela, thanks for your comments,

      I think people in church are only given one option today – the sit/sing/sermon model. Big churches and smaller churches all offer the same formula, and in the end, the mega-churches are better resourced to deliver a better product, which is why many of them are growing and thriving. In fact, recent studies have shown that mega-churches (and small churches) are more spiritually “healthy” than medium-size churches – very interesting information.

      I don’t want to bag mega-church at all, because I think it is a model which is around for some time to come, and appeals to many people. However, an increasing portion of the population are ready to take a more active, involved, participatory role. Many of God’s people long to be connected, engaged and empowered, not just ministered to. We’ve seen what church looks like when we move away from sermons to inductive Bible exploration, and it’s exciting. It’s not that hard to achieve for any church – but it starts with a shifted mindset.

      Blessings in your ministry,

      – Kathleen

  3. Thankyou for your hard work in thinking through some of the challenges that face the modern church.

    Let me push you a little on a couple of your points as I am interested in the underlying theology that your thoughts are based upon:

    1) You write early in your piece that we need to ask ourselves “What is the function of church?” which is of course the central question. The answer you then supply is that you “believe the church is called to be a body, a people, a community, a fellowship.” You go on: ” Is the purpose of our gatherings to encourage each other, teach one another, minister to one another?”

    I wonder about this answer as it seems to leave out perhaps the most obvious ‘function of church’ which is usually articulated along the lines of ‘to worship God’ (or some other combination of words meaning the same thing). Of course within any gathering of the body of Christ one would hope that encouragement, teaching and ministering would happen – but are they the primary function?

    Throughout history, I think that it is this ‘worship of God’ that has been the primary and central focus, and this has lead to particular building design etc etc. Has the advent of the internet et al changed this focus? I’m interested in your response.

    Of course – the ability for a building to then be set up in a differnt format for “small groups/cell groups” which seems to be what you are describing is certainly an advantage – but usually these take place in people’s homes.

    2) An earlier poster, Tom Schultz, wrote:
    “Oddly enough, it seems to be the groups perspective on the Old Testament that does much of the shaping. It they have a “Sanctuary” and an “Altar” and feel the space must be preserved as holy they are less likely to become a community of equals. The priesthood of believers notwithstanding, they will look to their ‘priest’ to call the shots.”

    Some of this directly relates to what I have asked above. However, I wonder at the comment that general setup of 99% of churches as you suggest is motivated by “the groups perspective on the Old Testament”. Of course we are influenced by our perspective of the OT – the mainline traditions of Christianity are very clear about this because in the OT we see the significance of what it means to be a “passover lamb”, a “scapegoat”, a “sin offering” etc etc. Without the OT, these references to Christ, and indeed his manner of death would be robbed of enormous significance.

    BUT

    I don’t think, perhaps outside of some very high Roman Catholic Church, that many people from the mainline traditions look toward the front altar because they believe that the space itself is somehow more “holy” and needs to be preserved as such. In fact, it has nothing to do with the altar. It has everything to do with what is placed upon it – the Eucharist. That is what everyone is looking toward – that is what everyone files up to recieve – that is what everyone is commanded by Christ to partake in.

    I wonder how in your particular expression of Church, this particular Sacrament is dealt with – and the manner with which it is dealt with. Does it happen often/all the time/not at all?
    The reference to “the priesthood of all believers” interests me in this context too. Can any believer administer the body & blood of Christ? And what do they have to do or say to reserve the physical substance to be a sacrament?

    Also, with regard to this particular phrase:
    ” It they have a “Sanctuary” and an “Altar” and feel the space must be preserved as holy they are less likely to become a community of equals”
    If indeed the space, or front, or altar, or sanctuary, or whatever, is considered reverently by those that participate (as opposed to preserved as holy as I don’t really know what that would look like?) how does this in any way mean that the group is “less likely to become a community of equals”. Just because one is reverent is hardly likely to be the catalyst to inequality. Are you suggesting that because such reverence invariably means that people don’t skip into the sanctuary, and yet the Priest can walk in and out as he/she pleases, means that there is an increased chance of inequality? I would welcome clarification as I am struggling to understand the thrust of this line of arguement!

    Anyway – many questions for your and your contributors. Thankyou again for the thought provoking piece.

    • Wow, Stephen, lots of questions for me to respond to there. I’ll leave the second set of questions for Tom to answer, as they relate to his comments, not mine.

      Worship is the centre of everything we do. If it’s not about God and Jesus, then it simply isn’t church. “Worship” isn’t a single act – it isn’t singing, or ceremonies, or a solemn atmosphere (although these things are significant to some people). Worship is about our heart-attitude towards God. It’s about putting Jesus in his rightful place – as the head of the body. It is possible to worship God in an interactive, participatory setting – in fact, the early church operated from this model, as evident in many Scriptures (Acts 2:42, 1 Cor 14 and Eph 4 are a few). If we take the “body” analogy seriously, it will reshape the way we meet.

      The connection era, brought on in part by the internet, does not and must not change the “focus” of church – but it may change the “formula”. I’ve written more about that here; http://www.churchinacircle.com/2012/08/30/how-media-shaped-the-church/ The designs of churches in the past effectively communicated the splendour and awe of God to a predominantly illiterate, icon-heavy society. As we move into the “visual revolution” (Google it), these iconic churches, art and architecture will become dear again to many of God’s people. Other people will be more drawn to relational, empowering, participatory communities.

      If you want to read more theology/ecclesiology, try John Howard Yoder’s “Body Politics”, or Alan Hirsch & Michael Frost’s “The Shaping of Things To Come”, or Loren Mead’s “The Once and Future Church”, or Frank Viola’s “Reimagining Church”, or Neil Cole’s “Church 3.0”. Come back when you’ve read them, and I’ll give you a few more suggestions (just kidding :-)!) You might not agree with everything you read, but they’ll get you thinking – and asking even more questions about the way we do church today. I would highly recommend following Alan Knox’ blog, “The Assembling of the Church” at http://www.alanknox.net. He’s great at pondering big theological questions and presenting them in bite-size chunks.

      I’m deliberately choosing to write about practical suggestions for the church in this blog, rather than arguing theology. I do appreciate you raising the questions though – I would hate for anyone to “take my word for it”, rather than searching God’s Word for themselves. That’s at the very heart of “Church in a Circle” – we are all allowed to ask questions and contribute our thoughts.

      Thanks again for your questions. I hope I’ve answered them – if not, I’m perfectly willing to admit I don’t know everything! 😉

      – Kathleen

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  9. love read your posts, although don’t always fully agree with them, but understand for your need to look towards the extreme.

    two thoughts to add to the mix. a round church may help in some areas but will hinder in others. how would mission and the gospel fit in the round, as surely by its structure it exposes people and makes it very hard for someone to come and just watch and start their journey of faith.
    also there is a need in the church to make men feel more at home in church, as church can often be very feminine in nature (song lyrics, decorations, roles) and I would guess a lot of men would find a round church hard to cope with.
    there is also the space issue- circles are full of gaps and we have to have rows to fit everyone in the building

    I agree in some part for the need to make sermons more active, but having spent 20 years in teaching before leaving a church realise that this is a very demanding skill and for some would require a lot of training and development.
    I try and always build in a small discussion point in all my talks, the triple of think, discuss, share works well (as it helps all kinds of different learners become involved)

    thanks again for your challenging thoughts.

    • Hi Mark, thanks so much for your questions and comments.

      Your questions are very good, and I certainly would not advocate changing the seating in a church without changing everything else. I would NEVER encourage anyone to seat people in a circle, then follow the conventional church format (sitting passively, singing songs and listening to a sermon). This would be awkward beyond measure. This approach needs some good facilitators, and an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging, lots of laughter and fun, and lots of faith in the Holy Spirit to speak to God’s people gathered in community. It’s a radically different way to do church, far beyond the seating arrangement.

      It sounds like you are already incorporating “circle thinking” into your approach. Your teaching background has led you to implement “think, discuss, share” – which is allowing God’s people to be involved, engaged and heard. That’s exactly what I’d love to see happening in every church.

      I completely agree that facilitating in this way is a demanding skill and takes a great deal of training, experience – and emotional maturity. Not everyone can do it well. Not everyone “gets it”. It’s still a journey worth pursuing.

      We have a lot of men in our community – tough dudes, covered in tattoos, sitting next to sweet grandmothers. We meet in a community building on a weekday. There’s no singing, just loads of honest, deep sharing, and affirmation and acceptance. Every community is unique – but I completely agree that church has become “effeminate”. I would suggest positioning men to always be passive followers, rather than active participants, is part of the problem.

      As you say, I do tend towards the “extreme” position in my posts, simply to offer an alternative vision for churches and to challenge people to be creative. Thanks for reading along and tracking with me in this journey.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

  10. while it’s an interesting note for ‘tomorrow’s church’ I find it more closely relative to physical changes that will make a better connection between people and their distractions than focusing on the message the anointed leader was assigned by God to give.
    like in any learning center or environment, it’s more productive to receive the lesson first, the points and truths or wisdom and applications and relate them to ourselves first and then later we can share them in fellowship with one another in another more face to face setting.
    your ideas are interesting presentations but I wonder if it’s in the fluidity of influences in the wrong or right direction.
    each era of God’s people who went with the way things were working around them or influenced by their neighboring cultures may have related to one another better but found themselves further from God.

    I believe there needs to be changes in the church from the old stale traditional sense of irrelevant religion but there are landmark convictions built on spiritual principals that govern the way heaven works and how we are to reflect those ways in terms more relevant to our era and less our era’s reflection onto heaven.

    I believe however the changes are many but mostly in principal. and whatever changes one might consider to actually be God’s will, shouldn’t necessarily make it easier for people to be people but for us to be more 1-relative to God and then 2-our neighbors and in so doing, 3-less like the world but focusing on the first two making the last a non issue.

    if I were to suggest changes to the church for a new era, it would begin in the leadership’s qualifications not being more academically focused as more effective for the changes people come to church for. the evidence would be better quality of life for the general congregation, expert counseling on the issues people bring for closed sessions which bring solutions and not more questions and answers more than religious traditions for the people who take the time to listen.

    I think the seating arrangement won’t matter relative to real change just like another governing policy will make America better.

    when there is a true man or woman of God speaking God’s truths, there isn’t usually a time frame for one’s brain to measure because a spiritual connection to an anointed vessel goes far beyond our brains and into the spiritual mind of Christ who, like Mary, Martha’s sister will choose to sit and hear anything that sort of shepherd would share.

    good stuff. keep it up.

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