The Pews Stink (and So Do the Chairs)

There is so much going on in faith communities.girl-church-pews_8615_990x742

…and so much NOT going on…

Arguments pop up all over the place in mainline protestant churches (mpc’s) over the stupidest things: where an American flag is placed, where a baptismal font is placed, whether guitars or organs are appropriate in services.

By and large I look at these things and think, “Holy crap, folks.  We have enough dysfunction in our families outside of the church doors, we don’t need more inside.”

No wonder the rumor is that mpc’s are dying if these are the things they’re arguing about (I say “rumors” because, well, every bush needs some pruning to grow so all the fervor over “dying” is just anxiety over “changing”).

But it is true: I’m not interested in inviting spiritual dysfunction in my life.  I think spirituality is about me and about others and about the Divine.  Too often churches focus on just one of the three (“God loves YOU…it’s all about YOU and YOU’RE decision to invite Jesus into your heart (the physics of which boggle the mind)” or “God loves your neighbor and you must, too!  Community is God and God is community!” or “You owe God a hell of a lot…don’t you feel bad about that?  Don’t you want to ask forgiveness and be shown mercy? God is angry…”)

I mean, there is a lot in all three of those statements, but by and large I find most churches choose one to focus on and ignore the others.  Like churches who only mention “God” or only mention “JEEEHESUS” or only mention “Slain by the Spirit!” and forget about the other two.

As if faith can be parsed so crassly and simply…

But there is one argument I’m wanting to have, but it’s difficult to have.  I want to have it for practical reasons and spiritual reasons.

In short: I hate pews.

They’re uncomfortable.  They’re difficult to navigate (bump your knee recently?). They force you to face only one way.  They’re immovable.

But…I also hate chairs.

They take a long time to set up.  They’re sloppy looking when set up.  Their style doesn’t lend itself to formal settings (no matter how you gussy up that seat cushion).

The church I serve is a cathedral-style church.  A bunch of chairs in there looks like a mistake.  The pews, though, are immovable and too close together and breaking.  But we can’t just do chairs because it wouldn’t work. One of my marginally-churched friends noted one day that they’d far prefer a pew to a chair if given the choice because your butt can take up the room it takes up instead of being confined to a chair seat.

Plus, I don’t want to do just chairs.  They stink just as much as pews.

I know it seems like so much dysfunction to chat about how you sit in a worship service, but I actually think how our bodies are will impact how our spirits and minds are.

Flexible seating disorients us enough that we subconsciously begin to realize that it’s not all about us, or all about our neighbor, or even all about God.  Different arrangements highlight different foci…and that’s an important thing to acknowledge about faith that the church usually refuses to acknowledge: at different points in life faith takes on different foci.

And then I came across St. Peter’s Lutheran in NYC.

St. Peter’s has short pews that can sit three to four butts…and are moveable.

You have to sit close, but you can change the seating.  You can’t think it’s all about you sitting so close (the benefit of a pew), and yet you can use them flexibly (the benefit of a chair).  You can turn them for intimacy at times that call for intimacy.  You can face them all in the same way for times that call for that, too (and, yes, sometimes that is called for, I think).

And for mpc’s that are “dying”, often times the struggle is how to build intimacy in a cavernous space.  When our second service at the church I serve was launched, this was one of the problems for my community.  We had about 30 folks in a space that seats 200.

What to do?

We took out some pews to make some gathering spaces.  And we gathered.  We gathered around the altar for communion.  We gathered in the aisle for prayer.  We gathered around the font for baptism.

We got our butts out of the seats and into flex space.

And, lo and behold, the intimacy created energy…and now we’re at the point where we can’t do that anymore because there are too many people.

…but I still want to.  How to do it now?  I think I have an idea…but it’ll be a hard sell.  Because we like things we can rely on.  We like things the same.

And if there’s one thing most people rely on, it’s that church is a place where they won’t be confronted with discomfort.  It’s all about them, after all.  Or all about community, so they don’t have to deal with their own crap.  Or all about God, and God loves them but is tired of their crap and the community’s crap.

It’s not about the uncomfortable tension that all three of those things combined causes, right?

Pews stink.  Chairs stink.  I want a hybrid.  I want flexibility.  I want to acknowledge that faith in post-modernity must be more flexible than most places want to acknowledge.  The conservative churches want you to think they’re linking you into unmoveable truth tenants, and yet most of them use chairs because they think they can anchor you theologically as long as you can move physically.

A nice bait and switch.

The so-called liberal churches suggest that nothing is fixed and all is fluid…and yet most use pews because you can change your religious views, but God forbid we change how we view the front of the sanctuary.

Mixed signals galore.

In truth, faith is a mixed bag of all that and a lot more…and how our bodies are can affect and reflect how our minds and spirits are (thanks yoga and t’ai chi for reminding the West of this).

So, how about we chop up our pews, un-anchor them from the floor, and start acknowledging something different in our lives? How about we ditch our silo-inducing chairs and start sitting closer so that our neighbor’s faith might affect ours? It might be uncomfortable.

But, hell, I’ve never been in the presence of God and felt comfortable…

6 thoughts on “The Pews Stink (and So Do the Chairs)

  1. I was thinking about this on Sunday too.
    I saw an old church that had pairs of pews facing each other. That way when you had to face the back for a baptism or something, you all could stand up, turn around and sit in the opposite facing pew. It was very ingenious – but of course you could only fit half the people in church.
    What about seats like the Metra trains has, the seat is stationary, but the back can face either way? The ushers would have a nightmare trying to coordinate everyone to do that in the middle of a service!
    I’m thinking…

  2. I live in the bible belt and there are literally like 1000 churches, I’m not going to one right just reading scriptures and trusting in John 14:26. . I love the outdoors so I hold ” church” there. Also online I have met four/ five artists this year they are all christian. For me this fellowship, sharing in God in the arts. I hate pews and I think you make some really good points spiritual and physical.

  3. I was a member of St Peter’s back in the 1990’s. As I recall there were four or five distinct authorized (by the design committee or whoever) ways of arranging the pews. Everything could be turned sideways to face the organ when there was a recital. There was an in-the-round setting with the cross in the center which was used on Good Friday and maybe some other times. And for some services they used a square arrangenent with a long diagonal aisle from the font at the entrance straight to the altar – that was a doozy, with pews at right angles to each other; the ushers kept getting confused and missing people or getting them twice during the collection. Always good for a laugh. Those pews were great! Thanks for the memory…

  4. I love churces with pews that are arranged so there is a feeling that everyone is gathered around the table. The church of which I’m a member now has such an arrangement, so that the choir sitting behind the table is a minature reflection of the congregation. The pews and choir chairs that are near the exterior walls of the church are placed at an angle so that their occupants face in toward the table, while those in the center face the table directly The overall effect is of everyone sitting in a circle with the table as the focus of worship. For me, it’s the most satisfactory seating arrangement I’ve seen in a church.

  5. Pingback: Switching seats: Churches swap pews for chairs

  6. Did you look just at folding or stacking chairs? There are some attractive (and comfortable) cathedral chairs that can be arranged in different patterns or hooked together to mimic pews. Complete with hymnal racks or shelves, kneelers, etc. My former church, a large neo-gothic structure had pews through most of the nave, but the front 6 or so rows were cathedral chairs. For smaller gatherings, we could turn those to face each other or turn them all to face one of the side altars.

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