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