Who’s in the Back Row?

Recently I read a post at bob.blog about a quote that categorizes church attendees into 3 categories, observer, consumer, and participant.

This guy isn’t a participant!

I have been thinking about this a lot, particularly the participant and observer categories.

I understand the desirability of participants from the leaders’ point of view. When the focus of the church is to fulfill the vision of the leadership, participants are an asset in accomplishing that purpose.

This makes sense when building an organization. Leaders embrace those who share their vision and are ready to move forward in helping to accomplish that vision. They grudgingly accept the un-involvement of observers who tend to sit in the last few rows.

As a full-fledged participant during my church-centered life, I had a complete lack of understanding about those who were not interested in participating.

However, now I have moved from the role of participant to that of observer. Bob suggests that those who have been hurt assume the place of observer while they find healing. While the label “wounded” may have described my back-row position at first, I don’t think it applies now.

After reading the post, I questioned whether my lack of participation was still because of hurt or fear. Honestly, I think I am an observer now is because I can no longer put my heart and life into being involved in an organization. Is there a place for observers in a church community?

It boils down to the fact that my ideas about church have changed. I now believe the purpose of a church community is to support individuals in the accomplishment of their life mission rather than to use them for the purpose of accomplishing the mission of the organization.


13 thoughts on “Who’s in the Back Row?

  1. I think those labels are pretty good. I’m not sure if they couldn’t be subcategorized a bit but I think/hope more people can be ignited by the Holy Spirit to move from one to the next.

  2. Yesterday, I was having a wonderful lunch time with two of the guys in our fellowship, and we were laughing about how we suddenly feel like we are now part of the “target group” of most of the institutional churches around us — or at least the purpose-driven or seeker-sensitive ones! We are now the “unchurched” (by the institution’s definition), and when I do attend an IC service, I definitely feel like an observer.

    What’s humorous to us about that is that it shows how inaccurate all of those “profiles” can be.

    All that to say that I’m not sure there is really a place for an observer (at least not long-term). They will either finally leave, or they will push their thoughts aside (whatever is keeping them an observer now) and participate…perhaps out of peer pressure.

    I actually wonder how long you’ll be able to stay in that situation. But I know that if you follow the Spirit of God, you will not go wrong!

    steve :)

  3. I think in the end, it boils down to the fact that my ideas about church are different. In my opinion, the purpose of a church community is to support individuals in the accomplishment of their life mission rather than to draw them in for the purpose of accomplishing the mission of the organization.

    Well said, Grace. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think when it is all about the “vision” for the church or the “mission” that the Pastor sees as the priority, we will end up with people like you and I.

    I wonder what all this makes me? I am none-of-the-above.

  4. There can also be a large number of ‘observers’ who are in fact fully committed to the pastor’s vision, but he is simply not able to see them. As always, the outgoing, well-spoken types get all the attention; the single mother of three – whose life is already plenty full – well, she’s an observer. And I wonder if it will ever occur to Driscoll – or all the other pastors lamenting the participant/consumer/observer syndrome – that the ‘structure’ of church makes these types of categorizations inevitable. Perhaps, when we find consumers and observers in our church, we might do well to consider what we’ve done to create them.

    Or not. ‘Cause everything’s fine with us. It’s them, you know. They’re the problem.

    As an aside, that might sound angry on my part, but I’m not (it’s that ‘tone’ thing I have trouble with on the interwebs) It just that this amazes me to no end. For years I’ve been in a fruitless search for a place in which I can be fully engaged, and am now seriously considering just creating that place. So if I do would I be a participant or a consumer?


  5. Is it possible that my personal mission could coincide w/ an institutions mission? I imagine it’s rare, but there are definetly people out there who seem to be living that out. I’ve experienced that for brief periods of time.

  6. These categories are interesting to me. For most of my adult life (and thus, all of the time I’ve been a parent) I have felt like a consumer. I have 6 kids, ages 3-14. For almost the entire past 14 years I have not had the time, energy, or anything to really help in any way at church. When I had 3 babies in 3 years that was doubly true.

    I am looking forward to the relatively near future when we will be more of a powerhouse of help in our church. We are now able to help in some ways with most or all of our kids assisting as well. Once they get a little older we should be in a good position to be more participants.

    I have felt myself an observer mainly at churches where I did not believe most of what they taught. It was more of a fact-finding mission and people watching. (a very rewarding pasttime at a charismatic revival meeting! ;) ) I am glad I am not just an observer right now, as it doesn’t seem to breed community, which is what we’re after right now. (and finding)

  7. I agree with Lily. I think your insight about what church is really suppose to be about is dead on. Unfortunately most churches are just the opposite.


  8. “I questioned whether my lack of participation was because of fear or hurt.”

    I am currently an observer and a large reason for that is a FEAR OF BEING HURT again! I don’t want to invest too much of myself only to be trampled on again. Also…there is the fact that our current place of worship still feels like a stop-over for us, a temporary home where we can (hopefully) heal before moving on to someplace more permanent.

  9. i wanted to be a participant in my church, but i’m a woman and i’m way too young, even though i’m now 35. so, i found a different church. after all, if i’m 35 and my voice doesn’t count, how much less will the voice of my 10 year old boy count? he has said so many things that have made me stop and think, but he’s “too young” to participate in our church. not anymore

  10. inheritor,
    A limitation of the categories is that while someone may be only an observer at church, they may be a 100% participant outside of church activities.

    I can certainly relate to what you said, and I smiled at your wondering how long we’ll be in this situation. I wonder too. :)

    I think when you begin measuring with a different kind of ruler, none of the old markers make sense any more. I no longer see participation as the top notch of the measuring stick.

    I think structures do create the results that we get. If you created something, that would make you the Leader, and we could call you bishop or pope or grand poobah, or something like that.

    I think that is very possible, and hopefully that organization will recognize and encourage the personal mission of others who are involved. That’s really what I’m getting at. I’m not opposed to organizations, just the idea of everyone existing for the sake of the organization rather than the other way around.

    Perhaps finding something one believes in is the key to moving from observer to participant. I agree that community is hindered in the role of observer.

    It seems like it would be such a simple thing to change, just change the focus.

    I have always felt like our current place is temporary also. I don’t know yet about my ability to fully risk and invest again because I haven’t had to yet.

    Ideally every voice is valued, especially those of children. I’m glad you found a place you can participate.

  11. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. I find most church leaders, like most managers, strive to make themselves irreplaceable instead of redundant.

    Grand Poobah does sound kind of nice. Apostolic Grand Bishop Poobah – now that’s groovy!

  12. You astound me, Grace. I’m lovin’ it. Keep it coming….

    Yes, there is a place for observers- without observers there could be no performers.

    You are right in saying that church should be about building individuals not an organization. :o)

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