In Praise of Pews
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Perhaps no article of furniture better reflects Christian public worship spaces than the common pew.
Typically 15-25 feet long, made of hardwood, bounded at each end by an upright "end cap" that is at once wall, gateway, and aisle boundary, the pew has received its share of critique by ecclesiologists, liturgists, theologians and worship designers alike in more recent times, myself included.
During the past 50 years we've seen four distinct movements in Western* Christian worship all coming up with a generally negative assessment of pews. The liturgical renewal movement, given a huge boost among Protestants and Roman Catholics alike by Vatican II, called for much more participatory, kinetic, and multi-sensory worship than pews could typically afford. The contemporary worship movement starting in the 1980s, representing a confluence of Pentecostalism on the one hand and evangelical and mainline church growth movements on the other, rejected pews as "seeker insensitive," and also getting in the way of the capacity of people to move and dance as part of worship, and opted for more individual seats. Related to this, the rise of new church starts in "non-traditional" locations (storefronts and schools, for example) and the parallel development of megachurches brought with it the replacement of pews with either folding chairs (for ease of setup and teardown for new churches without their "own" worship space) or theater-style, individual seating. Finally, worship designers across multiple denominations and theological spectra have been calling for greater flexibility in customizing worship space for each "worship experience," or at least for each season or series, something "fixed" seating of any kind generally impedes.
There are plenty of good reasons not to like pews. They're hard. They take up a lot of space. They limit creativity in the design of worship and the mobility of the people, at least to some degree.
But there are also a few things pews offer that just can't be had as in quite the same way in other kinds of seating.
- Flexible seating
Yes, you are reading that right. Folding chairs or theater seating can't make that claim. You either fit more or less on the 18"-24" wide space these typically provide, or you don't. Pews truly do offer flexible seating, at least within each pew. Each person can take up as much or as little space as each needs, with no seat edges or armrests that artificially and uniformly define what that space will be for everyone. This is especially valuable for families with small children!
- A measure of discomfort
I see this as a feature, not a bug! Since worship is to be interactive, you really don't want seating that invites you to "sit back and relax" like theater style seating often does. It's better to have seating that reminds you it's a good thing to stand or kneel from time to time, not just sit!
- Motlier crews
When you're in theater seats, or even in folding chairs, it's just your seat, even if it's in a row of seats. When you're in a pew, you are literally sharing the same seat with anyone else who sits on the same pew. That can create a greater feeling of connection between folks, including folks you might not normally "choose" to sit with as an individual.
- Utilitarian, non-distracting features
Pews provide a place to sit and often a place to hold books or other things you need for worship, and maybe a (golf-size!) pencil to write with a place to hold visitor or prayer request cards. Some pews also have kneelers attached. End of feature set. No cupholders. No moving parts. No adjustments. They're utterly utilitarian, there to give you just the basics. And because everything is fixed in place, you don't even have to think about how to put that hymnal back in the rack when the hymn is over. That's committed to muscle memory. As Linux fans say about they're favorite operating system, "It just works."
- Low maintenance and nearly indestructible
Plain hardwood pews are a sound ecological and economic choice. They need little if any maintenance and can last for hundreds of years. There's almost no amount of surface damage a little sanding and refinishing can't repair. A thorough cleaning a few times per year, maybe a refinish every 10-20 years, and a quick dust over weekly is about the only attention they they require. Compare that to the newer "integrated cushion" pews with fiberboard cores, or folding chairs, or theater seating, and the costs in cleaning, maintenance and replacement (none of these can last more or less as is much more than a few decades) and, well, there's no comparison.
- Reconfigurable, with a little planning and elbow grease
Yes, pews are usually heavy and require at least a couple of fairly strong people to move them. Folding chairs or stacking chairs or chairs of near any kind are much easier to work with! But in fact it is quite possible to re-space your pews to make more room for people and movement between them, or to reconfigure the orientation of your worship space from time to time (paying attention to carpeting, if you have it, of course) or to create "accessibility zones" in the midst of the congregation (and not just at the front or back!) for persons with accessibility challenges. It's just "measure, plan, unbolt (if bolted) and move." You can't do this nearly as easily with theater seating.
- They make a worship space look and feel "like a church"
Anything that's been around for nearly 500 years, like pews have, has to have something going for it. One of those things is no one remembers them not being there, and the vast majority of Christians today have immediate associations connecting the pew with worship space. A study conducted by Southern Baptists a few years ago (2008) about church design revealed that unchurched people (the "Nones" another "Pew" says we're all supposed to be trying to attract these days!) strongly preferred Gothic architecture and traditional interior design (including pews) to more "contemporary" worship space designs by a factor of 2 to 1. When asked why, their answers could be summarized as "It looks and feels like a church."
So there you have it-- seven points in praise of pews.
Are pews the one right solution for every Christian worship space? No, no more than are folding chairs, "pew chairs," stacking chairs or theater seating. If you have pews where you worship, use them to the best advantage you can. If you hadn't considered them, maybe these points (or others) might give you a few reasons to put them on the radar screen the next time you or your congregation are considering seating options.
And as Chuck might say, if you want to know more, ask a church historian.
Or for a contrasting view from an Eastern Christian perspective, ask an Orthodox priest. Tell 'em Taylor sent ya.