The church I served in Georgia was robbed once. A life-long church member identified the theft on a Sunday morning: one of the church’s thirty-eight pews was missing. These pews were hand-made, painted white and probably dated to the church building’s construction in 1903. Since they were fixed (i.e. nailed down) they were easy to move, and evidently easy to steal. I imagine it was sold or laundered through an interior design firm: pews were very hot as domestic furniture that year.
But since there were more pews than members, the lost wasn’t hurtful, and the portable pulpit furniture wasn’t touched. Plus, they were the most uncomfortable things . . . . In true Universalist fashion, we could be satisfied that the sin was its own punishment.
Pews are strange whether fixed or unfixed, in their usual formation, or “contemporized” into a circle or crescent. “Cathedral chairs” that function as pew-slices no better. They’re strange because they are so identified with church life (in the West anyway) but there’s no theological rationale for them (unlike the table or font) and they can be menace.
First, a truly comfortable pew is as hard to find as hen’s teeth, and there’s rarely a way to settle in a get comfortable. But I’ll cede that as a technical problem and move on.
Second, a large church (with pews) with a proportionally very small congregation looks like Death Incarnate. But thinking of those tourist-destination churches in Europe (or the one up the hill) it is possible to lay out a part of the same large church for a service, and use the rest for individual wandering devotion. Even if nobody wanders, the congregation that is there don’t rattle around like like “bbs in a box.”
Third, nave pews collude in making the congregation into an audience. An audience’s relationship to worship is antithetical to personal transformation. I could say more but that’s a subject for another day.
Fourth, bored children use their boredom and the fixed seating as a challenge. Small children “who don’t belong in worship” will writhe, moan, cry, and scream. Some will crawl under the pews like commandos. Since, in the mainline churches, there’s isn’t any evidence that church school makes future church goers, and since its administration seems to be the bane of many a small church, then why is it seen as such an invariable necessity? First, because church growth people say so. (And I have my doubts, at least for this generation.) And second, because it is a socially acceptable place to deposit the kids who are ill suited to the environment. “Cry rooms” serve the same function. If you’ll excuse a bit of hyperbole, these make me think of a gulag. (“Go now in peace, go now in peace . . . to Siberia!.” Cue wicked laugh.)
Fifth, restless children sometimes become restless – or shy, or bad-backed – adults. If faced with (1) being pinned to a pew or (2) walking away, I wonder if some people just don’t choose (2).
Of course, there are options, but they’d all be considered in varying degrees of radical.
- The lead radical is to make the gulag an intentional destination for persons of all ages. Comfy chairs, the service piped in, and perhaps a coffee table. Also there were have to be social permission for people to talk with one another. Two such destinations would be even better, with the second being for the introverts and those simply wanting a comfortable chair.
- Let the kids wander in the service in or very near the nave of the church. The adults, too. Give them an action to do (private prayers?) and a place to do it (a “station” or chapel?). A handy nap pad (for the kids; the adults can sleep at home) probably wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Pull up the pews. Have a few chairs the those who really need to sit. Let people flow towards the lectern, then the pulpit, then the table. Some others will find a station to pray as they want. I know this can be seen as super-groovy St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Church but there are merits to the idea. After all, who accused the Eastern Churches of being slaves to fashion?
OK: these are radical, or at least (2) and (3) are for most Protestant churches. Perhaps there are other way to make church buildings work. (Leave comments if you have them.) But one things is sure: the audience-system of church attending has to die, and child-segregation has to end if the Church is to survive and be honest to its mission.