A Visitor’s Perspective: I Must Be in the Front Row!

October 1, 2007 by

This is part 6 of a 9-part series on attending church from a visitor’s perspective. You can read the original post to get a better understanding of David’s experience visiting churches for the first time.

Imagine, if you will, entering the doors to a new church. Your apprehension is not calmed after being greeted by someone with a nametag designating them as a “greeter” and being handed a bulletin. You hesitate as you walk through the door–and for a moment consider bolting. By the grace of God you enter the room where the service will be and look over a sea of chairs. Which one will you pick?

For those of us who regularly attend church, this is no dilemma. We know where people sit and where they don’t. For someone who rarely attends church, this can make an already intimidating event downright scary.

Naturally you will want to sit in the back. I don’t know if it’s because we are afraid of the pastor picking us out or scared that people will be talking about us behind our back but no one likes to sit up front. You can take one of the seats in back as long as you’ve shown up on time–otherwise everyone else might have taken the prime seats in the back, leaving only the front row open.

The 80% rule states that when a building has reached 80% of capacity it is full. This is because we all have a sense of personal space. Do an experiment: the next time you find yourself in a conversation, note how far away from the other person you are standing and then take a step toward them. When I once did this to a friend he started to stutter and turn red. In the post-experiment debriefing I found out that his first thought was to punch me. I am not suggesting that your visitors will become violent when your facilities are too full, but we all need a certain amount of space to make us feel comfortable. This is the phenomenon that dictates the 80% rule. The compliment of this rule is that the remaining 20% of seats will be in undesirable locations–such as the front row.

One way to overcome this problem is to constantly monitor your church attendance. When you realize you are averaging about 80% capacity, know that you’ve overgrown your current location. In fact I’ve heard some people aim for 75% capacity to give them enough time to plan options for accommodating more people. Solutions to this problem depend on the nature of your facility. If you own your own building, it’s time to start a new service. If you are renting, you need to find a larger location (or you could start another service as well). No matter how you make room be sure you do it before people start punching each other.

The book on church visitors: Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time VisitorsMore:

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David Zimmerman

David Zimmerman is a former pastor who lives in Lake Wylie, S.C., with his wife, Christie, and his step-dog, Murphy. You can also check out his personal blog.
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13 Responses to “A Visitor’s Perspective: I Must Be in the Front Row!”

  • Bill A.
    October 1, 2007

    I kind of agree with the space thing. But I just went to a play in famous theater in Los Angeles. Every seat was full. Not a single empty spot. I think that was the definition of success.
    That seems to suggest space is not always the issue.

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  • Steve
    October 1, 2007

    Bill’s comments are interesting. I just went to a Phillies game in a big weekend leading up to winning the division. Not an empty seat in the house. The difference is that there, closer is preferable (as in a play or concert). For visitors to a church, the front row is the least desirable place because they will be seen by everyone – especially if they are late. I’ve seen a few churches that roped off the back couple of rows until the rest is full to create space for visitors in the back.
    Anyway, I tend to agree that personal space is a big deal in the United States and as church leaders, we need to be aware of this.

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  • Mark Jackson
    October 1, 2007

    Sporting events & theater are NOT the same thing as weekly worship services… when I attend a concert, I expect everyone in the room to be a fan like me. If we intend for our churches to be open to seekers, then by definition they aren’t fans yet.
    Excellent series, btw.

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  • Stewart
    October 1, 2007

    This has been a great series. I wonder how this works for churches which have children in for part (but not all) of the service. Our place is 75-85% full, but when the kids leave we are 65-70% full. 75-85% feels full. 65 does not. In fact, it starts to creep toward feeling empty. We are really trying hard to work out how to create a “cozy” feel without feeling like we are sitting on each other’s laps. Complicated by the fact that attendance can swing 20-30% per weekend.
    Thanks for the great thoughts.

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  • Gabe Smith
    October 2, 2007

    If the visitors don’t want to sit on the front row (and niether to the regulars) for fear of being seen or noticed, I wonder if this means those visitor spots saved at the front of the parking lot seem to stay empty for the same reasons.

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  • Dan B.
    October 2, 2007

    The name tag comment caught my attention. Our church is into nametags — greeters, ushers, council members, elders, pastors. They all have nametags.
    I personally find it goofy. More for the benefit of the tagged person than the visitor, I suspect.
    To tage or not to tag? What’s the difference?

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  • Gabe Smith
    October 2, 2007

    Dan B. mentioned nametags, so I wanted to pass along an experience I had as a visitor.
    I visited a church for a few weeks and they had name tags for everyone that looked identical. From the greeters and pastoral staff to the regulars who were sitting the pews. Not all that remarkable until I discovered that they also printed the same nametags for the visitors. They were at a computer and asked what my name was. I said, “My name won’t be in the system,” but I told them anyway. Immediately I had a tag like everyone else. This really helped me feel like I could see what was going on without having this flashing sign around my neck that said “VISITOR.”

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    • Nancy Bernardi
      October 12, 2011

      Gabe, I would like to know more about how they printed the name tags so quickly. What kind of paper/label paper did they print on? Was it a regular printer or a special label printer? Thank you.

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      • Peter Horn
        January 16, 2012

        Hi Nancy / Gabe.

        I’m just starting to investigate a name tag effort for our church and would love to find any technical details from other’s experiences. What technology is being used (PC+Printer / Engraved / plastic blank + Pin / Card stock in plastic wallet + pin) Any ideas or suggestions out there?

        Peter Horn, Atlanta GA

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  • Josh Nunn
    October 6, 2007

    hah, our church building is terrible as far as room goes, the rows are tiny, and usully during the stand n greet they are PACKED. i kind of notice the discomfort in visitors faces from the lack of space.
    but our afternoon service is in the back hall where theres movable chairs and lots of room, so we have both extremes.

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  • jj
    October 22, 2007

    Zimmermann says “The 80% rule states”. What is his source? Where does this statement come from. I am looking to solidify this as I have heard it time and time again, and found it to be true in our church, and would like a valid, credible source. Thank you.

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  • Sherry
    March 10, 2009

    Our former minister publicly commented on my clothes (I was wearing a lime green dressy sort of top), and I was sitting in the front row. He did this while referring to a Terfullian conception, that pastels were of the devil. He also surrounded the statements about how women were once perceived as evil and misleading towards men.
    We understood the point he was making but it is excusable to point out a person and associate with such a story.
    My husband had taken a leadership role in the church and had also filled in preaching for this minister. When spoken to about it, he made excuses for his statements. There was never an apology.
    This in combination to pushing for money every week as well as very minimal evangelism, prompted us to leave the church.

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