October 27, 2006
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.
In the 14th century pews as we know them were introduced but did not become popular until the 15th century. Remember, in this time period the Reformation was happening and the pulpit was introduced as the focal point of church architecture. So the pews became the place where people took their seat to focus on the pulpit and the sermon. They didn't have Bibles of their own, they didn't read for the most part, so they made rows of seats to sit and listen to someone talk.
How we sit when we gather reflects what we believe is important in worship. The early church met in homes, it was communal, looking at each other in small rooms, discussing and teaching Scripture, praying for one another and eating a meal together. You could walk around, have dialog. Then the church moved into buildings where the Table (the Lord's Supper) was the focal point and we stood, moved around the room, interacted. Then we moved into buildings where the pews caused people to sit in stationary positions, not looking at each other, but looking at the pulpit and all facing the same direction. This drastically changes the culture and climate of how we view the church and worship. It becomes more of a sit/watch/listen meeting, rather than an interactive community gathering.
It seems like an odd thing to invite someone into our church "family", bring them into a room and make them sit for over an hour on benches looking at the back of heads staring at the front of the room. I don't think our own families would have a meeting this way. I am trying to imagine Jesus and His disciples having the last supper meal while sitting in rows of pews.
For our church pews represent almost the exact opposite of how we worship. We give people the opportunity to walk around, to go to prayer stations, to lie down or sit on the floor if that is how they desire to express worship or pray. We try to be "respectfully relaxed" when we meet. We go to extra effort to set up a mix of round tables and chairs to create a vibe of community, rather than rows of people looking at backs of heads like in a bus or airplane or movie theater. So our move to a pew-filled room for worship was not very "vintage faith".
Our plan is to move the pews out of the sanctuary little by little, leaving just a few of them. I look forward to the removal. They are very, very odd things.