On the Seating of the Saints...

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

First off, blessed All Saints Day!

Second, great to see several of you posting things here in the past fews days. Remember, this forum is ours-- all of ours. Please use it to comment and post new threads.

Here's one I ran across today... over at the Leadership blog, Out of Ur, a piece from Dan Kimball about "the oddness of pews"...


I've sent in a reply... sometimes they post these replies, sometimes they don't. So I thought I'd share it here in case it doesn't show up there. Part of what "emerging" is, it seems to me, is a faithful examination of everything we do, whether in worship, spiritual formation, works of mercy or works of justice in the world (to use more or less Wesleyan categories!).

I'd be interested in your feedback if you have some...

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Thanks to Dan for sharing this provocative reflection, and to the editors of Leadership and this blog for posting it. I think the questions around the physical realities of how we gather in worship are important for us to consider as churches-- whether we consider ourselves emerging, or "contemporary" or traditional or whatever.

In the workshops I offer across our denomination (United Methodist), the issue of how we arrange "seating" is one of the topics I address from a number of different angles.

One of those angles is that Christian worship is to be the work of the whole people of God, not just the "folks up front." If our seating is arranged in such a way that 90% of people are almost always facing a "stage," in effect, then what does that say about worship as the work of the whole people?

Another angle is that from everything we can see in scripture and early Christianity (and still in many places in Christianity today, worldwide), worship is a whole-body action-- not just that of the whole gathered body, but that of each person as well. Worship is not just about pouring more information into our minds, and certainly not about entertaining us-- but about offering all we are and have to God because God in Christ gave us all things and himself for us. Loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and mind, and strength calls us to do more in worship than sit or stand or, if there's room enough between the pews or chairs (often there isn't!), kneel. There's nothing wrong with any of these as postures for worship, but the range of expressiveness that we could have can be deeply inhibited by a space that, in effect, corrals folks in like cattle or mere spectators. Even sports stadiums know they need to give folks more room and flexibility than that-- and sports ARE a spectator sport!

Finally, there is the issue of the assembly's sense of itself as an active body. One of the ways I describe our basic order of worship, which follows the historic and ecumenical pattern of Entrance-Proclamation and Response- Thanksgiving and Communion- Sending Forth, is to think of it as a series of assemblies of the people around different focus points. At Entrance, we have an assembly around the font, if you will-- because it is through God's grace offered to us in baptism that we enter the body of Christ. In Proclamation and Response, we have an assembly around the Scriptures, listening for and celebrating the work of God in the past and in our midst, and responding with confessions of faith, prayer, testimony, and invitation to discipleship. In Thanksgiving and Communion, we have an assembly around the Table of the Lord, an assembly full of thanksgiving, indeed our sacrifice of thanksgiving, for God's salvation in the very Christ who, by the work of the Holy Spirit, now comes to us in bread and wine, body and blood, to "make us be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood," as we pray in our liturgy. The Sending Forth is then an assembly of the re-membered body of Christ sent from the Lord's Table, through the word, and past the font to live as Christ's body in the world.

If we take this kind of sense of ourselves as body seriously, what might our worship space need to look like to enable us to embody ourselves as active, participating individuals AND community, disciples AND body of Christ? If we are not just "theoretically" assembling around font, scripture, and Lord's Table, but actually doing so as well in our worship, what might we want to do with the arrangement of furniture and "holy things" like font, and Lord's Table, and the stand or place from which scripture is read and proclaimed?

I raise these issues as questions... and leave the ways in which congregations will wrestle with them or seek to live into them more deeply up to each of them. Different missional and cultural contexts may design different ways to do these things faithfully. Some designs of past generations may still be helpful today. Pews may even work well in some contexts. Other designs or solutions of the past may need to be rethought or repurposed. But the questions are not about comfort-- either temporal physical comfort or emotional comfort of things being as they've been before-- but rather about usefulness to the congregation's ability to offer its worship as fully and faithfully as it possibly can here and now and for years to come.