Can you imagine not having pews in church? Didn’t we always have them?
Actually, no. It turns out that there is no evidence of churches having any seating at all for at least the first 1,400 years of Christianity. For most of Church history, worshipers stood during the celebration of Mass, because there was so much participation and movement during Mass that no one, including the priest, ever had a chance to sit down.
That means all of history’s well-known Christians – Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc. – very likely lived their whole lives attending churches that were standing room-only.
(If this sounds uncomfortable to you, keep in mind that the idea of sitting in a backed chair being considered ‘comfortable’ is actually a culturally Western notion (and one that we’re currently learning has all sorts of health drawbacks)).
Seating in churches didn’t really become a ‘thing’ until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—or, about the time of the Protestant Reformation.
In order to distinguish themselves from Catholics, Protestants began to jettison everything from our worship, including confession, creeds, communal prayer, weekly Eucharist – everything except long, boring sermons. And when your “come to church” sales pitch becomes, “Listen to me yammer about Jesus for several hours with very little participation on your end!” – the response inevitably becomes, “Uh, can I at least sit down for that?”
Hence, services became more like large lectures, and this allowed for the influx of pews inside of the Protestant Church, and then later into the Catholic Church. Churches even began using pews as a way to raise money for the church, renting pews as a type of fundraiser much like skyboxes at modern sporting events.
Should we re-think our use of pews? Let’s explore 6 impacts of pews on our modern churches:
Pews encourage us to be passive
You might be surprised that pews aren’t even as widely adopted today as we might be led to believe. Many Byzantine and Orthodox Christians do not use pews in their worship and vigorously defend their choice. One Orthodox publication explains the spiritual reasons why they refuse to have pews in their churches:
“Pews teach the lay people to stay in their place, which is to passively watch what’s going on upfront, where the clergy perform the Liturgy on their behalf. Pews preach and teach that religion and spirituality is the job of the priest, to whom we pay a salary to be religious for us, since it is just too much trouble and just too difficult for the rest of us to be spiritual in the real world of modern North America. Pews serve the same purpose as seats in theaters and bleachers in the ballpark; we perch on them … to watch the professionals perform: the clergy and the professionally-trained altar servers, while the professionally-trained choir sings for our entertainment.”
Pews teach us to be spiritual wimps
By encouraging us to ‘sit back and relax’ during mass, pews give the impression that any inconvenience - or even slight suffering - is foreign to Christian life. Pews make it so that Mass has become one of the few times we can take it easy and avoid real life. But is the point of mass really to ‘enjoy’ ourselves? We aren’t coming to church to work, and yet the word ‘liturgy’ literally means, "the work of the people.”
How many us American Catholics today have the "legs of steel" of the old world Church?
"Could you not watch with me one hour?" asks the Lord.
Would we who cringe at standing just one hour be willing to suffer for Christ as millions of our Christian brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers in this very century have had to suffer? Were there pews in Hagia Sophia in 1453, when a Catholic and Orthodox Priest co-celebrated the last formal Divine Liturgy ever to be held in that Church? On the very night before the Muslims took the city of Constantinople, people flocked to the Church to take the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. They stood for what was right until the end and never complained Why should we?
Pews destroy the ceremonial ‘freedom’ in Mass
With the introduction of pews, we miss the ceremonial freedom and movement that used to take place in open-spaced liturgies. Grandmothers lighting candles, children kissing Holy Cards or icons, worshippers gathering around their priest like a family gathered about their father – all of this is gone.
Pews cause us to miss out on the sacred ‘dance’ between the Clergy and the Laity
Pews fill up the open space in the middle of our churches, where the clergy and the people once joined together in a sort of sacred ‘dance’ as the clergy, censing and processing, moved amidst the constantly changing configuration of the Laity. Today, our liturgies are reduced to the priest and servers marching in and marching out with the congregation watching, and only moving to kneel and stand. How can we ‘dance’ with pews on the ballroom floor?
Pews transform worship for us into a formal and frosty affair that reflects the lacklusterness of American mainstream religion. The colder worship gets, the less attention we pay to the demands that religion, as our forebears knew it, put on us.
Pews get in the way of our children’s spiritual development
Some parents who bring their children to church allow, and even encourage them, to play and draw pictues under the pews, where they won’t disturb other or be ‘distracted’ by ceremonies occurring up front. Did not Jesus say that we should have faith or belief just like a little child? What are we telling our children if we bring then to Mass only so they can stay busy coloring pictures and playing games under pews and not bother adults? Are we not telling them that Church is just not that important?
Pews suggest that the Church must adapt to society, instead of the other way around.
Some argue that the Church needs to stay ‘relevant’. The more we can be just like important religions in America, the more influence the church can have, some say. I am not so sure this is the case.
30% of Congress, 66.6% of the Supreme Court, and our current President claim to be Catholic. And yet our nation is no more Catholic today than ever before in the history of our society. With the adoption of pews, we are saying that we are okay waiting for society to change us, when really we shoud be striving to change society.
The Church is not a building, and it is definitely not pews. It is a verb. It is us. We are the Church, and we are not currently getting enough out of Mass. The church should not have pews.