Friday, November 03, 2006

The Oddness of Pews

Dan Kimball thought about pews and how odd it is that these items of furniture became fixtures in the Church:

I think my dilemma with the pews is what they communicate and what they teach theologically...How we sit when we gather reflects what we believe is important in worship. The early 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. 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. 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 the church and worship. It becomes more of a sit/watch/listen meeting, rather than an interactive community gathering.

It seems like an odd thing to invite someone into our church "family", bring them into a room and make them sit for over an hour on benches looking at the back of heads staring at the front of the room. I don't think our own families would have a meeting this way. I am trying to imagine Jesus and His disciples having the last supper meal while sitting in rows of pews.

I get his point, but worship services are for worship, and that is best done collectively facing Christ, represented by the cross and altar. Our movement and orientation toward the symbols of Christ treats him as an existential reality and not just a discussion topic. There is a place in our liturgical life for group discussion and sharing meals, but we must also have a place for worship.

Kimball correctly points out that traditional pew arrangement doesn't lend itself to interactivity and that we might end up "looking at the backs of heads". But we shouldn't be looking at the backs of heads anyway, or who are the hand-raisers, or what people are wearing. Our whole attention span should be devoted to God.

Hat tip: Emerging UMC


Richard H said...

I know it's liturgically correct to say that we look forward and see Christ together. But is this spatial model what we see in scripture when it treats the presence of Christ among believers? My read of scripture is that Christ's presence is mediated by the Holy Spirit who dwells in each believer, not in the building, or in some localized part of the building. Certainly not in some distinct location "in front of the pews" like an invisible idol.

Nick Draper said...

As a worship leader, several thoughts collide when I read this post.

I haven't been in all that many pew-seating churches that really draw attention to Christ. In most cases, attention is placed squarely on the performer-pastor.

If worship is something that doesn't require interaction with others, then why is the corporate worship gathering so important in church life?

My guess at an answer, formed in the throes of trying to revision worship for college students, is that a lot more than simple worship of Christ goes on at a gathering. If it is the platform program (and it is at most churches), then it's also the primary time of spiritual formation, of fellowship, and of organizing how this congregation will be an active part in bringing the kingdom of God about. (Well, in an ideal world.)

If our attention span is devoted to God to the total exclusion of everything around us, then why show up on Sunday morning? Why not kneel by the bed for an hour instead?

John said...

I do, I have to admit, like semi-circular sanctuaries for the reason that you get to see other faces, and not just the backs of people's heads. But I don't take it that seriously ....

John said...

I'm content so as long as they don't poke me in the back.

Nick Draper said...

Haha - I hear you about not taking it that seriously. I didn't either, until I was stuck with trying to figure out how to mobilize a congregation. You start doing everything in your power - and trying to make your flagship program less of a spectator sport is one of them.

I got a good chuckle out of that one. Thanks for making my day brighter!

Andrew C. Thompson said...

The most creative sanctuary I ever saw was in a Presbyterian church outside of Tuscon, AZ. The church architecture was influenced in some way by American Indian building (a sweat lodge, perhaps? It's been 6 or 7 years, so I don't remember that well).

Anyway, the sanctuary was built 'in the round,' so that the altar was literally in the middle of the room and the pews formed a circle around it. The pulpit was set up so that all present could see the preacher but also see one another. I have often thought that if I ever get to build a church, I would like the sanctuary to look like that.

codepoke said...

Pews say that the lecture is the primary function of the body of Christ, and that is abominable.

I hate them.