Saturday, March 18, 2006

What are these strange things called "pews"?

Dan Kimball has a post at Vintage Faith on "pews." Here's most of his post on their moving into an older "church" building that has pews.
The oddness of the pews
As I look at the pews in the church - and sat in the pews in this church, all these emotions come into my mind. These things are so small. You have to squeeze in to get into them. I talked to someone from this church, who said he can't even sit in them because he is too tall and he sits in the back in a chair. They also are very uncomfortable and creaky. Wooden seats with a little red cushion. Once you sit in them and other people sit next to you, you are stuck. It is too tiny to even squeeze past other people to get out. Kind of like being in the window seat of an airplane and needing to get out and make your way past two other people in the seats next to you is what these pews are like.

It's an issue of theology - not comfortability
However - sitting comfortably actually isn't the issue to me - as 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 head to worship in, and many Christians in other countries don't have buildings at all or are persecuted for their faith - so this is all in perspective. So,the "comfortable" factor is actually the least of my concerns. I think my dilemma and concern of the pews is what they communicate and what they teach theologically.

I tried to do some research on where these strange things called "pews" came from.

The church did not use "pews" for over 1,000 year after the church was born. In the original vintage church, they met in homes, so the feeling was family, community looking at one another, interacting with one another. The first formal building the church met in weekly was in the post-300 AD time period and modeled after the Roman Basilica (law court) and in these buildings people stood the whole time. There were no seats at all. So even standing, meant interacting and the freedom to walk around and not be locked into one place. In the 13th Century, there were backless benches made of stone placed against walls. They are first were placed in a semi-circle around the meeting room and then eventually fixed to the floor.

In the 14th century the "pews" as we know them were introduced, but were not popularized into church architecture until the 15th century. Wood benches with backs replaced stone seats. Remember, at this time period, the Reformation was happening where the pulpit was introduced as the focal point of church architecture - so the pews then became the places where people took seats to focus on the pulpit and the sermon which was shaped into a certain more formal format at the time of Reformation. It was so people of the Reformation and what was happening could sit and listen to a preacher. They didn't have Bibles on their own, they didn't read for the most part, so in response to what was going on culturally in the early Reformation period they made rows of seats to sit and listen to someone preach.

How we sit and arrange a room reflect our values and theology of "church"
The theology in this is fascinating - as how we sit when we meet reflects what we place as important in worship. The original vintage 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 etc. 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 etc. 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 when the church gathers to worship. It becomes more of a sit and watch and listen meeting, than an interactive community type of a meeting.

I say all this, as I love tracing back why we do what we do and why no one questions too often why we do what we do. What we do reflects our theological beliefs and values in many ways - and the pews reflect how we think of what is supposed to happen in worship gatherings. It seems like an odd thing where we meet as a church "family" or we invite someone to experience and be part of a church community, bring them into a room and make them sit for over an hour on these benches crammed in looking at each others back of heads staring at the front of the room. I don't think in our own families, we would have a family meeting and then sit in rows on wooden benches not looking at each other. I am trying to imagine Jesus and His disciples having the last supper meal and sitting in rows of pews as they met. Or as Jesus was teaching them, he made them all sit in rows in pews. It seems His teaching was wherever they were, probably in boats, walking, on hillsides.

For us as a church, pews are almost the exact opposite of how we set our culture to be in worship. We give people the opportunity to walk around, to go to prayer stations, to lay down or sit on the floor if they feel that is how they desire to express worship or pray. To be "respectfully relaxed" when we meet, probably like the early church was meeting in homes to some degree.

We try not to put focus on one person preaching and all seats locked in to face that person the whole time, and we go to extra effort to set up a mix of round tables and chairs to try and create a vibe of community, rather than rows of people looking at backs of heads and sitting stationary like in a bus or airplane or movie theater. So this move to a pew filled room for worship is not very "vintage faith".

Ironically, "worship" is not passive or just sitting down looking in one direction

The common words for worship in the Bible interestingly is "to bow down" or "to kiss towards" which both are actions of the body moving, kneeling, laying down. So the pews actually prohibit that from happening - what worship in the meaning of the word even is.

I guess as I think of pews, I feel restriction, formality, can't move around, can't kneel down, can't leave to go to prayer areas or pray with someone too easily. I think of looking at backs of heads. It seems such a far cry from the original church worship gathering and what we at Vintage Faith are used to.

We have discussed moving the pews out of the sanctuary little by little - and leaving just a few of them, so that will most likely happen in time. We cannot remove them now as to the people who worship there now, they do mean something in terms of what they are used to. So removing them would be too much at first. But - I look forward to the removal of some of the pews. They are very, very odd things and they communicate theologically things about what "church" is, that I find somewhat contradictory to what the vintage values of when the church gathered was about, as well as how we normally worship as Vintage Faith giving a lot of freedom to people. We do have sermons, where people mainly sit - but we do lots of things outside the sermon for people to move about, pray, kneel, participate in prayer stations etc.

Again - this is all said in light of the fact that we should be thankful to have any place to meet or that we are not under persecution, and it petty in relationship to the AIDS crisis and famines and many global issues that make me feel silly even being bothered by having pews. But they are a real thing. And we shall be sitting in them soon.

The oddness of the pews haunts me today. It is raining out. Maybe that is why I am thinking about them right now. The pews. The pews. Oh my.

Dan is right - it'a about theology and how theology impacts what we do. I don't think a lot of evangelicals think about this - we relegate theology to theories about the atonement and the like. But our theology - our study of God - if it is real theology, impacts what we do. It certainly impacts how we "do" and "be" church.

The worship service in most churches is a limited view and aspect of worship. Community limited gets limited to superficial greetings and staring at the back of someone's head - all in the name of this is how we have done it.

Pews are a good way to pack people into a limited meeting space. I'm not sure pews are a good way to build church.

Some will say it's not a big issue - and that's true. It's just that a lot of little issues add up and stiffle God's people - even if it is being done unintentionally.


The Righteousness of God said...

Seating dynamics are often overlooked. It often does expresses the roles and power/control. For instance, some work managers still like to sit behind their desk while the subordinate sits across them feeling open and vulnerable. Other progressive managers will take the meeting to a round table,often to the side, where the seating role implications are much less intimidating.

Trad churches still have a screwball dynamic whereby the 'clergy' (and those deemed laughably... 'good enough to be on the stage) are elevated on a platform. There is no role playing or powerdynamics going on in this setting is there eh?

I find that most aboriginals understand the sense and value the need for equality in community. Often you will see meetings conducted in a circle often seated. This permits everyone to be an equal- all on the same level and all can see all. Sometimes, a feather is held when a person is addressing the community - a symbol, and courtesy, that the person has the floor and has the right to be heard without interuption.

Now take a look at some lifegroups that are held in homes. The best ones are probably done in a circle format. . . say around a kitchen or dinning room table. All are equal and all have a say. The division between the leader and the laity is less noticeable.

A circle does much to tear down the roles that are expected to be assumed by the clergy and laity, at least in my mind.

I find with walking church we start off with a prayer and ask if anyone has a word and this takes place in a standing circle.

I realize that a circle works well with smaller numbers and is unmanageable with larger numbers. Perhaps, the real measure of effective community is how large of circle can be created while keeping the dynamics in tact. If the circle is too large...perhaps this is a natural threshold of a transparent and workable community.

Even family units do not sit in pews while eating supper.


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