It’s something we learn early in life; “Don’t sit in the front row! The teacher will call on you!” Plus, you couldn’t pass notes (an ancient method of texting) or draw doodles because the teacher would see you!
If you were someone who seemed to want to sit in the front row, well then you must have been the teacher’s pet. That was a dangerous label; leaving you open for all sorts of taunting and schoolyard abuse.
The lesson carries through life. When I went back to school at age thirty, I staked my position in the rear-right of the room early on. Whenever I attended training classes and work seminars, I avoided the front at all costs. I didn’t want to be seen as too enthusiastic. Club meetings usually found me in the back row, if I sat at all. The front seats were almost always empty in all those places. And then of course, there is church.
If you’ve ever shown up late to a packed service, you may know the conflict of an usher excitedly waving at you to take an available seat up front. I have had panic attacks at the thought of leaving my secure spot against the rear wall to partake in the walk of shame toward the front row. Not only will everyone know I was late, but they will giggle at the fact I am seated in the front row; pastor’s pet no doubt.
Reasons for our front-row aversion may change over the years. Personally, when someone tells me they recognized me sitting up front, I immediately assume it was by my ever-growing bald spot. I really don’t like to think about that.
Other days, I may plan to leave a little early; but sitting front and center of the pastor and the entire congregation makes that a little tricky. And how am I going to get out of the parking lot before the crowd if I have to wait for everyone behind me to leave first? The front row of church can be as bad as the back row of an airliner!
Front-row phobia was the topic of a great article I read a few years back. An accompanying photo showed a lecture hall where the first row consisted of plush leather semi-reclining seats. They were the only empty seats in an otherwise-packed room of plastic chairs.
My old sociology professor moved his podium to the rear or either side of the class each day, so no one could tell if they were in the front or rear until he started teaching. A local preacher starts his sermon while removing all the empty chairs up front so that somebody was sitting in the new front row by the time he got into his topic.
When I started presenting classes and lecturing, it did kind of change my thoughts about the front row. To see people excited and listening to your words is quite uplifting. The thought that everyone wants to hide behind someone else so they can snooze or play with their smart phones is equally deflating.
When I went to see friends preach or teach, I started making it a point to sit toward the front.
For some reason though, I maintained my traditional seat in the rear-right section of church services. If I showed up late and those pews were full, I would scan every possibility further back and laterally before I would even consider going forward. Our church had a “second deck”. Quite often I would find a spot up there, sometimes even on the floor, even if there were plenty of open seats toward the front down below.
Then one day, that changed. I had been attending this church for a couple of years. They had taken me in and re-introduced me to Jesus. My first mission trip had already happened and I had given whatever life I had left to Jesus. That church had become the focal point of my previously solitary life and I called the pastor a friend.
But personal issues outside the church found me at odds with some others who also happened to be members. My anxiety over the matter made it hard to pretend everything was alright on Sundays. I seriously considered looking for a new church home.
Not a big deal for some; but my anxiety also made it very difficult to introduce myself to new communities. If I work with you or we are in any shared situation for some time, I will eventually open up (and some!). I had no fear of public speaking, but one-on-one interaction was harrowing to me. I had a real fear that if I left that church, I would go back to my solitary “spiritual but not religious” life and never find an accepting Christian community again.
So one particular Sunday, I showed up a little early for the service; thinking that this may well be my last day in that building. Research of other churches near my home yielded a list of places to visit in the following weeks.
My heart ached at the thought of losing my community. For reasons I still do not understand, I walked past my usual pew and took a seat in the third row from the front, dead-center of the church. I was soon lost in a cloud of prayer and heartache; alternately asking God what I should do and then for help in finding a new church home.
Suddenly a voice broke through the haze, clear as a bell. “Pat,” it said. “If you leave, your journey here will have been for nothing.”
The pastor was preaching away, which means it must have been a good twenty or thirty minutes into the service when I came back to reality. We made eye contact and smiled, but it wasn’t his voice. I glanced around. There was no one in front of me, but the church was filled all around me.
Although I aimed for row three, I wound up in the front row. Teacher’s pet? Who cares? He didn’t call ON me. He called TO me. Not only did I realize this was going to be my church home for the foreseeable future, but my anxieties about the other issues melted away as well.
Turns out the front row is not as scary as it seems. The real teacher in our church is not the preacher passionately explaining history and parables. It’s not the person reading the Gospel or the folks leading us in song.
Jesus is the Messiah, our greatest Teacher. The One who came here to show us how to live and then left us redeemed. He is why we are in church, in a Christian community, being who we are; and He is right in front of us every time we present ourselves in worship.
I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than the front row. Can I save you a seat?