If you’ve ever own the friendly skies, you know how beautiful an empty seat is. An empty seat on an airplane is a gift from God. If there is an empty seat beside you, you don’t have to share the armrest. If there is an empty seat in front of you, you don’t have to worry about Sleepy Sleeperton reclining and spilling your can of Cran Apple. If there is an empty seat behind you, you don’t have to worry about knees in your back or someone huf ng when you recline and spill their can of Cran Apple. I love to watch the scavenger hunt as passengers emerge from the jet bridge onto the plane and start looking for an empty seat like it’s a sno cone stand in the Sahara. When I book my airline tickets, I often choose an aisle seat with an empty seat next to it, hoping it will stay empty so I can have a little more elbow room and legroom on the plane. But church is different. No minister. No preacher. No missionary. No apostle. No prophet. No evangelist. No pastor. No teacher. No real disciple of Jesus likes empty seats in church. Empty seats in church are like leprosy. They’re the awkward uncle no one talks about. Nobody likes empty seats in church.
I don’t even believe Jesus likes empty seats in church. He came to church one sabbath day, stood up and read from the scroll of Isaiah. After He shocked their tassels off, He looked around until He found an empty seat and He sat down. One less empty seat in church. When we take photos of our services, we take photos from angles that don’t show all the empty seats. Somehow the empty seats always get cropped out. When we show video of our services, we often zoom in tight so you can’t see empty seats. No one likes empty seats. I didn’t think I did, either. But I do now.
Last month, we celebrated Homecoming. It was beautiful to see families who have been away from Mount Vernon come back home for a weekend. It was even more beautiful to see people who have been away from God for a while come back home for a weekend. And it was beautiful to look out into the sanctuary and see all those people filling up those empty seats. On that Sunday morning, Bryan Parkey preached his heart out. And when he finished preaching, he invited people to do what they could do so God would do what they could not. He invited them to the altar to talk with God.
I looked out and saw a sea of people stepping away from their seats and stepping toward the altar. I saw so many responding so quickly. Then I saw empty seats. Empty seats everywhere. If you saw the photo of the sanctuary seats then, you would think someone pulled the re alarm. But no re alarm. No early exit. Nearly everyone was at the altar. That’s when I realized we need more empty seats in church. Because when those seats are empty, our altars are full.
I know God can speak to us anywhere, even outside the church building, but there’s something powerful when God’s people come together to come together to the altar. There’s something powerful when we take a step of faith, step out of our seat, and step toward the altar. We’re showing God we want to spend time with just Him. Away from our phone. Away from your purse. Your tablet. Away from anyone trying to get us to choose between Wendy’s and Taco Bell.
This Sunday, when your pastor or the preacher invites you to come to the altar, walk down the aisle to the altar. If you normally pray at your seat, join in with your brothers and sisters and empty out the sanctuary. At least the seats, and fill up the altars. I have seen God do some of His best work in that little space around the front of the church we call the altar. And I’ve seen people walk away from the altar completely healed, forgiven, and filled just because they had enough faith to empty out the seats and fill up the altar.