The Oddness of Pews
Where worshippers place their posteriors also shapes their interiors

Some things in life are certain - death, taxes, and cramped seats in economy class. But Cathay Pacific, one of Asia's leading airlines, has announced a breakthrough. They've designed an economy class seat that reclines without intruding on the person seated behind. For centuries church meant fixed seating in uncomfortable wood pews, but breakthroughs have been occurring in church seating as well. We now have theater seats with cup holders. But should comfort be the driving motivation? In this post, Dan Kimball from Vintage Faith Church explores the odd nature of pews, their history, and how church seats reflect our theology.

We were in the middle of moving our church offices and worship gathering location from a very new contemporary building built about 6 years ago to a very beautiful brick church built in 1938. In preparation for moving we had been redecorating and remodeling of the children's rooms, the offices, and turning the fellowship hall into a coffeehouse/art gallery. However, one thing was tormenting me - the pews in the sanctuary. I have never been part of a church that has pews, so these things were very confusing to me.

As I sat in the pews I realized how odd they are. These things are so small. You have to squeeze to get into them. They are very uncomfortable and creaky. Wooden seats with a little red cushion. Once other people sit next to you, you are stuck. Kind of like being in the window seat of an airplane and needing to step over two other people to get out.

However, sitting comfortably isn't the issue to me. Most of the time I sit on the floor at Vintage Faith Church. I also know we are fortunate to have a roof over our heads, and many Christians in other countries don't have buildings at all or are persecuted for their faith. So, the "comfortable" factor is actually the least of my concerns. I think my dilemma with the pews is what they communicate and what they teach theologically.

I decided to do some research on where these strange things called "pews" came from. The church did not use pews for over 1,000 years. The original vintage church met in homes, so the feeling was family - a community looking at one another and interacting with one another. The first formal church building was built in the post-300 AD time period and modeled after the Roman Basilica, and in these buildings people stood the whole time. There were no seats at all. So standing allowed interacting and the freedom to walk around. In the 13th Century there were backless benches made of stone placed against walls. They were placed in a semi-circle around the meeting room and then eventually fixed to the floor.

October 27, 2006

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments

Brad Boyer

November 08, 2006  5:15pm

I have a cent or two to throw in the ring here (to mix a few metaphors!) First, is what has been passed down to me as "The Missionary Nurse in Africa Story" - which is one of those stories that is only a story, so far as I know, but which makes a good point. A fable, if you will. Here's how it goes: "Back in the old days when missionaries boarded ship for the overseas field, a nurse volunteered to go to a mission hospital in Africa. For weeks she was at sea, then docked at the port, and then endured several more weeks of tough overland travel before arriving at her final destination, the hospital. "After some months, her supervising doctor, another missionary, pulled her aside to see how she was doing. "'Horrible!' she replied to his question. 'I'm CONVINCED there's a WAR about to start!' "The experienced doctor was puzzled. He had been 'in country' for years, knew the tribes intimately, and was sure that things had never been more peaceful. 'So what would give you that idea?' he asked innocently. "'Well, can't you SEE how all the natives are treating each other?!' She was quite exasperated. 'Ever since I arrived at the port, everybody's been shaking their fists at each other! It's awful! They're so angry - I'm sure war is going to break out any moment, and we'll all be killed!' "A light dawned on the doctor. At last he understood. Indeed, in this part of Africa, people greeted each other as FRIENDS by, yes, shaking their fists at one another! He explained to the poor nurse that the closed fist said, 'May your wife, children and cattle all cling close to you!' It was a blessing! On the other hand, an OPEN hand - which in the West was the sign of friendly greeting, here meant quite the opposite: 'May your wife leave you for another man, may your cattle run away and never be found, and may your children curse you to your face!'" [Speculation: I would guess that in the West a wave of the open hand meant, "See, I don't have any weapons to hurt you!" and so was taken as a friendly greeting. A closed fist, however, appears as though you are about to be on the receiving end of a beating. NOT friendly!] I usually like to tell stories and let the listener come to the conclusion on their own. However, at this point I'll be a bit pedantic and apply the moral to this situation: "UrL"'s first post cops to the fact that he has matured in a certain, very pronounced and in its own way rigid, church culture: NO pews. So of course pews seem to him "odd" and even suspect. When he steps into his present, be-pewed sanctuary, he is like the missionary nurse recoiling at all those raised fists! The reverse is also true, of course. People raised in pew churches - IF it was a largely positive experience for them - will likely feel quite out of place (literally...!) in a pew-less, "contemporary" arrangement. For example, recently, one of my college kids went out of her way to go to a "traditional" church (in terms of pews and architecture) because several closer but more "modern" structures (and implied ways of "doing church") just didn't feel "right" to her. My first point is, therefore, that this sounds to me like a 1 Corinthians 11, "meat sacrificed to idols" situation. Christian history gives some pretty good evidence that the Holy Spirit is neither bound by nor bound to pews or no pews. The point is: What is the most loving, and most effective, way of bringing changless truth to changing people in changing circumstances? Easier said than done, of course. Second point - a comment on the history of pews/technology: Back in my seminary days, I earned a few extra bucks by serving as a tour guide for the various individuals and groups who would come by for a visit. One week my group included a prominent local architect. He snorted at our recently-completed Gothic-style chapel. "It's not authentic," he sneered. His problem was that the double row of columns on either side of the main sanctuary were only about 1/4 the

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November 07, 2006  11:43am

Very good article...I am serving in a traditional church right now and I have to agree that pews do confine the worship space to one type of format. There is also that subconcious thing in those of us raised in church that intimates that certain ways of worship are done in these "traditional" environments. I love the idea of different arrangements for different foci in worship. This kind of article makes us think about everything we do in trying to impact our world for Christ.

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November 02, 2006  7:26am

Back up the blog a bit, Randy wrote: "but when Jesus taught he spoke was the focal point of the crowds. Granted, the crowds were probably seated in the ground in groups, but they probably all faced Jesus while he spoke from a rock or a grassy knoll or something, sans pulpit." In June this year I was at an open air, promenade passion play ( whole day from 10am to 3.30pm crowds of people walked along following Jesus through his life story. One of the most memorable bits of a stunningly memorable day (and it was blazing sunshine all the time, not the more common Scottish liquid sunshine)was when "Jesus" was teaching us, the Sermon on the Mount. We were in a natural outdoor amphitheatre. People were sitting around in groups in picnic chairs, on blankets, on the grass; shaded unde trees, basking in the sun. Babies and children were doing the things babies and children do; talking; being fed; eating; playing; walking about; sleeping; having a nappy change; being taken for a walk; being taken to the bathroom. Some Big People were also doing some of these things. And "Jesus" was teaching, with words and action. Not just staying still in the one place. And the "disciples" and others were participating in the teaching and facilitating the participation of all of us others. Teaching was not the only thing that was going on. The other "disciples" and people in the story drew us all into the story with them. For me,the experience was an unforgettable picture of what "church" might be like.

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Carl Palmer

November 01, 2006  3:46am

Is there a risk of developing a deep vein thrombosis from sitting in a cramped pew for a long period? Maybe we ought to be issuing support stockings and encouraging the congregation to drink more water during the sermon?

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J. W.

October 30, 2006  5:50pm

I just think the whole debate stinks. ;)

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Mike Coy

October 30, 2006  2:30pm

It's not so much about pews or chairs or stools or how they are arranged, but what draws the faith community into worship. After nearly 50 years as a follower of Christ, I have come to realize that worship begins when God reveals himself to me/us and continues when we respond appropriately to how He has revealed Himself. (See Isaiah 6 and Revelation 1.) But be prepared - God often calls those who worship Him to serve (like Isaiah and John). I believe that when "Christians" gather we just go through the motions of worship unless we come with prepared hearts desiring, craving, begging God to show Himself to us so we can respond in true worship. Regardless of the seating. Or setting. I have experienced worship in a small group setting where we just pulled out the old hymnal and sang the old songs of the faith some of us standing, seating, or kneeling as the Spirit moved. I have worshipped alone in my work cubicle, when I opened the Word and God showed me something new about Himself from a passage I had read many times before. And I have worshipped corporately where God used the planned service to reveal Himself to the body. I have also NOT worshipped in each of those settings when I/we just perfunctorily did what we always do. I also think corporate worship is both personal and communal as I experience both what God shows me and what He shows those ariound me. I can praise God better when I hear those around me croaking out the songs of the faith, see them raise hands of praise or kneel in submission, and hopefully when we receive a joint revelation of the real God who is living and present and active on our behalf. And maybe I can help others into a true attitude of worship if I come with a prepared heart. Pews, chairs, stools, big auditorium, small living room, or prayer closet - I don't care: JUST SHOW ME JESUS!

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October 27, 2006  7:23pm

This reminds me of being in high school (circa 1970) and one of the guys in my SS Class thought we should not only get rid of the chairs, but the speaker should stand behind us. He also insisted we put up psychedelic posters with black lights on the walls to make it 'cool'. The girls all protested and the chairs remained facing front, though those hideous posters remained on the walls. I think that the guys are insisting on remodeling the church since the gals have remodeled the home. Go for it guys and while you're rearranging the sanctuary, I'll paint the whole house pink!

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