Worship: What the People Experience vs. What the Pastor Experiences

I first became aware of how pastors and parishioners “experience the worship service differently” when I began regularly crossing over from pulpit to pew in 1996. And spending the last twenty-five years going back and forth between pew and pulpit has only heightened my awareness of these differences. When I shared some of these insights with one pastor, she responded, “But I sit in the pews from time to time.” “True,” I replied, “but when you do, you sit in the front pew by yourself.” She was not amused.

Image of Pastor blinded by the stars

Here are some of the differences, and the difference they make!

The Pastor sees lots of faces.
The People see the backs of heads.

As a pastor up front, I had a better idea of who was there and how people were responding than when I moved to the pew. In spite of being seated together, worshiping in the pew can feel isolated. It happens again when we exit. We follow heads, while the pastor stands and greets face to face.

The Pastor is moving and their adrenaline is flowing (which often causes them to rush certain things).
The People are sitting still and listening when they’re not singing.

And the longer the people sit, the bigger the gulf between the pastor’s energy and the people’s. You see this especially in the Lord’s Prayer which pastors tend to race through because they are excited to pray. But to a parishioner who’s been calmly listening, it’s hard to get up to speed sometimes. Long prayers, and long stretches of sitting in a warm room don’t help.

The Pastor has a lot to do.
The People have a few things to do, mostly along the lines of listening and reading.

The pastor may feel like things have been more participatory than the members do.

The Pastor has seen and probably prepared all the litanies, prayers, and hymns.
The People are seeing them for the first time.

Don’t rush us. Teach us to read the prayers ahead. (Yes, give us bulletins.) And when leading a prayer, for Christ’s sake, SLOW DOWN so we can ponder what you’re saying.

The Pastor has fewer distractions, in part because they can see better and are doing things.
The People hear and see things happening around them and often behind them which they can’t see.

Attention can easily wander especially during a sermon. Do things that pull us back. Move. Change your voice. Keep people from expecting the same old thing.

The Pastor is usually not aware of “time” because they tend to get lost in their own words.
The People are very aware of how much time has passed, and is still left to go.

Never heard a sermon or announcement time or prayer that was made better by being made longer. Achieve brevity. Put a clock on the back wall. Leave people wanting more, not wanting for it to be over.

The Pastor already knows their sermon content and has connected the dots.
The People are hearing it for the first time.

Keep it simple. Edit for clarity. Do things that draw us back in. Recap.

The Pastor wants the people to lead.
The People see the pastor as the leader because they see you up front leading all the time.

Pastors lament “having to do too much and lead everything” …and then put themselves in the spotlight every Sunday (including wearing the trappings of “office” that say “I’m special.”) No wonder people think “the pastor should do it.” Start letting others help lead. Take breaks from worship leadership. Go sit in the back pew every now and then. Start dressing like you believe in the priesthood of all believers.

Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian Minister who has served five churches in various capacities and attended several as a pastor-in-the-pew. His main gig is writing curriculum and occasionally blogging his ridiculous ideas.

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