Think about the last time you were part of a roaring crowd at a concert or the big game. Do you remember the energy in the room? How you cheered and shouted more boldly than you would ever do in “polite company”? Do you remember how you felt this strange connection to everyone around you?
Believe it or not, a big source of your delight was the seating arrangement.
Well-designed seating makes a room come alive! It creates momentum and makes everyone feel like they’re a part of something big. Ineffective seating makes a room feel distant and dead. There’s a loss of connection and everyone can’t wait to get out of there.
Don’t believe me?
Think about the last time you were at a game in an empty stadium. It’s the same product on the field, but the feeling of being alone in the stands is nothing at all like being part of a roaring crowd.
A rookie mistake would be to deduce that a bigger crowd brings more energy and a smaller crowd bring less. But the truth is that it is not the size of the crowd, but the size of the crowd compared to the amount of available seating.
For example, I was at a baseball game and nobody came. The stands were empty and I felt like I was trapped in a tomb. The “crowd” that day was a measly 15,000. “Hold a second!” you might say, “15,000 sounds like a lot more people than ‘nobody’.” And that’s true, but it felt like nobody was there because the stadium had another 40,000 seats that were empty that day, and because the empty seats greatly outnumbered the seats that were filled, the stadium felt like nobody came.
For a counter example, I had 12 people in my living room the other night and the place was packed!
Here’s the big idea:
It’s not the size of the crowd, but the size of the crowd compared to the size of the seating that gives the room energy.
How do we use this to our advantage?
Get rid of fixed seating
Fixed seating only adds energy to a room when the room is full. In every other situation fixed seating will suck the life out of your church.
Most people don’t want to awkwardly stick out – so they don’t sit near the front. They hate to encroach on the personal space of others – so they spread out as much as possible. This means that when a room with fixed seating isn’t full your people will be spread out as much as possible in the back half of the church.
The end result is a significant number of serious drawbacks we get from fixed seating solutions:
-It makes the place look empty because most people will see rows of empty seats in front of them.
-It diminishes the importance of anything that happens on stage because no one sits anywhere near the front.
-It decreases the level of participation because people can’t hear the sound of others singing around them making them feel self-conscious about singing themselves (the exact opposite of the joining in with the roaring crowd effect).
-It limits the flexibility of the room greatly increasing building costs. You’ll have to build an entirely different room to have a banquet or a gym.
-It’s difficult and costly to keep clean.
Install flexible seating instead.
The single biggest advantage of flexible seating is that you can consistently optimize the amount of seating for the size of crowd that day. If you have 50 people you can put out 65 chairs. If you have 500 you can put out 650. Keeping the room 75%-80% full is ideal. Any much fuller than 80% will lead to overcrowding where a family of 4 will not be able to find seats together – though with highly trained ushers you can get closer to 90% without feeling overcrowded.
There are several advantages to be had here:
-People sitting closer together will increase participation through the “roar of the crowd” effect.
-People sitting closer together will increase their connection to each other both psychologically by being near, and also socially by being able to talk to each other before and after.
-People sitting near the front give the impression that what’s happening on stage is both important and exciting.
-Psychologically, a full room gives the impression of success and that you’re playing for a winning team – this increases morale.
-Flexible seating allows you to use the room for a number of purposes without spending an extra few hundred thousand in building a gym and/or a fellowship hall (plus utilities and maintenance).
-Flexible seating is easier and cheaper to clean.
-Flexible seating is less expensive to replace in the future so you don’t get stuck with dated looking seating.
Fill the empty spaces
But what do you do when you only have 50 chairs set up in a room that will fit 200? You fill the empty space.
There’s several options you have to fill the space left behind from reduced seating.
a) Use the space to put in a church café
This is a great place for people to stay and hang out that makes your church a safe place where relationships are valued.
b) Fill the space with alternative seating styles
Turning your church into an Alpha-style church where people sit around tables rather than in rows. This allows for a more communal feel and allows you more interactive sermon options.
c) Use the space as your next steps center
You can fill this space with sign-up booths for small groups & volunteers, put in a welcome centre for people who are new, promote church ministries, etc.
When you move to flexible seating I strongly recommend that you get multicolored chairs.
Even when a room will eventually be full it starts off empty. Being the first people to sit down can feel very awkward so people will often hold off until the room starts to fill, which means that the room often won’t fill until after the service starts (sound familiar?).
However, multi-coloured chairs create an optical illusion that makes the room more full than it actually is. This is why new sports stadiums do this in order to improve the optics and make the place seem less empty.
Leading front to back
People can only see what’s in front of them. Unless you’re a mother of toddlers, you simply don’t have eyes in the back of your head. This means people are only influenced by what’s in front of them.
A passionate and expressive worshiper will have a positive engaging influence on people sitting beside and behind them, but not on anyone in front of them. So having a pack of expressive people in the back of the church will influence no one. However, if you have expressive people in the first couple of rows, they will create a domino effect and influence the whole church.
All we have to do to achieve this is have our pastors, leaders, and most passionate worshippers sit in the front. For example, I tell our worship teams that are not on this week’s schedule to sit in the front – they can often lead the congregation with more influence in the front row, then they can from on stage.
Seating front to back, not back to front
One of our issues is that people don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb so they often prefer to sit near the back. As the room fills up the only spaces left will be the ones near the front. This creates two problems. One, is that late comers (and often first-time visitors) will not be able to physically see that there is still room for them and may turn around and leave. Or two, they do sit at the front, but to do so they have to endure the “walk of shame” and walk by the entire congregation in order to find their seats. This is an intensely embarrassing situation that they will not want to repeat.
The way to solve this problem is to have the room fill up front to back instead. This means that the last seats to fill up are the ones in the back which are easy for latecomers to see and will allow them to take their seats without disrupting the service.
How do we get people to go against human nature and sit down front to back?
There are several ways we can do this:
- Have your more passionate and committed people sit in the front. As mentioned above, they will have a positive influence over the entire room. AND, they will fill up the front rows leaving the back rows available for late comers.
- Train your ushers to usher. Far too often we have untrained ushers who merely hand out useless bulletins and don’t help seat anyone. Actual ushers usher people. Sure, when the room is empty they can simply act like an extra team of greeters. But as the room starts to fill a trained usher acts just like a maître d’ and asks for how many and them takes them to their seats – filling up the front of the room before the back. Like this: “For three? Come right this way. I’ll get you the best seats in the house! You’ll have an excellent view and you won’t miss anything!”
- Set up fewer chairs than you need. People can’t sit down in chairs that don’t exist. So if you only supply 80% of the seats you need and only after they are filled add an extra row at the back you will always have room at the back for those who arrive late. Easy peasy.
Effective seating can’t make a worship leader sing in tune or make a bad preacher good. But it can dramatically add energy to a room and amplify the good stuff you’re already doing.