To Pew or Not to Pew

My little church has been blessed with a coveted piece of property and the county’s permission to construct a church building on that parcel of land. We are a small, winnowed congregation, gone from around 150 ten years ago to around 30 now. There are many reasons for that (several former members are now clergy with their own congregations), some of which, it is argued, are Gideon-like in God’s design and providence. For example, if your goal is evangelization and the new property is smack dab in the middle of a new development in a largely self-satisfied, under-churched area, then that leaves more room for new converts.

However, one of the ongoing discussions surrounding how to outfit our relatively small (less than 200 fire code occupancy) stone church (the person who gave the property wants a stone church) relates to pews or no pews. Most new churches, especially if they are nondenominational, are “no pew” spaces. Whether it is chairs, theater seating, or sometimes bleacher seating, pews are out.

We are an interesting denomination (Charismatic Episcopal Church – CEC), that combines the liturgical, charismatic, and evangelical streams of expression. Those with a primary liturgical bent feel comfortable in pews (we sit on chairs in a VFW hall now) and it imparts a sense of sacred space to them. For them, pews say CHURCH, even though these regulated benches are a Reformation innovation. It was the need to focus on a single preacher, with the pulpit being the center of the “new church,” that fostered the original pews.

Before the Reformation, people stood or sat and knelt on the floor of the sacred space. Most of the traditional Orthodox still stand. After Constantine adopted Christianity, things got crowded and the Church moved from homes, where things were obviously more casual, into congregational buildings initially modeled after the Roman basilica, which usually housed a courtroom or assembly hall. There was no general seating and things pretty much stayed that way for 1200 years.

One of the problems we continually confront is that anything and everything in a Church makes a statement, both functional and spiritual. It is part of the nature of sacred spaces to give weight to everything that touches them. This is not surprising, considering the elaborate structure and intricate requirements God placed on the sacred space of Israel, the Tent of Meeting and the Tabernacle. Everything in that Hebrew context carried multiple meanings: functional, spiritual and sometimes prophetic. So, when we discuss pews or no pews, chairs or no chairs, seating of any kind or any means of organizing the congregation, we are not just being practical, no matter what we tell ourselves. We are speaking to God, to ourselves, and to those who come into the sacred space. Everything matters, yet in a strange sense, nothing matters.

Let me explain. The Temple veil was rent and God moved his “official” residence from the Holy of Holies into the center of life, the human heart. Paul makes it explicitly clear that we, our physical selves, are the new temple, the new Holy of Holies.

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

The Jewish Temple, therefore, was not the model for the Christian church. It was the Jewish Synagogue from which the early Church took some of its ideas. If it had seating at all, it had benches along the exterior walls, and a large congregation would have several rows facing to the open inner space. Medieval Churches sometimes had benches along the outer walls, similar to ancient synagogues. These were used during teaching and instruction, not during prayer and worship.

So, how do pews or chairs or whatever fit into Christian worship? While, as I argued earlier, everything speaks on multiple levels in the sacred space, Christianity has never had any set rules for those spaces, other than treating everyone equal (see James 2:1-7). The Bible focuses instead on the people, their conduct, their hearts, not the space they are in. That freedom is, from my perspective, just that, freedom. There is no “right” decision or way to create the physical sacred space. What matters is that whatever you do, you do unto the Lord, and that it reflects the heart of your congregation and in no way demeans or diminishes your corporate worship.

So, do we have pews, folding chairs, cathedral chairs, or nothing at all? Not my decision, but one thing I am sure of, it is not the physical area that God has chosen to focus on. He is instead concerned with the hearts and the lives that fill that space, not so much how they posture themselves once they are in it. All things in decency and in order, yes, but that leaves a lot of latitude for congregational expression, and, freedom from the judgment of others.

Dear Lord, may we continue to focus on you and your demands on our lives and not get ourselves hung up on majoring in things that in the end are not even the minors to you. May agape guide all of our decisions and may they always be made to your honor and glory. Amen.

Update: I had a thought this evening that I think wraps this whole thing up with a nice tidy bow. Psalm 128:1a says “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” That applies to our church building, our church family, and the temple of the Holy Spirit, our living selves. Time to turn our focus back to majoring on the majors.

  2 comments for “To Pew or Not to Pew

  1. November 1, 2006 at 11:05 am

    Our church has also recently undertaken a building project, and I’ve thought about these things as well. One thing I really like about pews is that it makes a statement that we are there to worship together. We are the community of believers that God has gathered here, not a bunch of individuals who are each here on our own. Pews say that we have a connection and familiarity with the people next to us. In our current age, when the church is racked by gnostic tendencies to overemphasize the individual, I think pews make a good statement. But ultimately, I would agree with you – this is not the Temple, and God gave us no explicit blueprints on how we must build a church.

  2. jan
    November 2, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Hi William,

    We have about finished a two-year renovation. Our old seating was theatre seats that had replaced straight-backed, wooden bench pews about fifty years ago. The theatre seats didn’t meet new fire codes and were bolted in pairs of five to the floor. We decided on the flexibility and comfort (elderly members have special needs as well) that chairs give us and have been satisfied. Most chair systems can be given the option of being linked in rows with fittings for an extra cost. My picture gallery has some interior shots of the new chairs.

    We can seat 85, 95 in a squeeze.

    As to atmosphere, that changes with various seating arrangements. The older folks do not like semi-circle discussion style, the younger do. We have settled into traditional rooms simply because the room is not designed for anything else, at least not for the numbers we have now. So, we have gone the pragmatic route, adapting to the room, the numbers, and our traditional style of worship. But on occasions such as prayer meetings and discussion / teaching formats, we can and do pull the seating into a circle.

    Having said all that, my personal preference is to worship in the open air, a very common experience between Jesus and his followers.

    I agree that the New Testament does not lay down seating or pulpit arrangements, being more concerned with character, order, and attitude in the presence of God. I’ve found “tradition” can have a very wide meaning and easily distort the truth.

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