by Paul Gregory Alms
There are few things more insignificant than what we sit on in church. Lutherans like to call such things adiaphoron, ceremonies or church usages which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God (FC EP X1). There are few things which are more adiaphora than church pews. We can sit on folding chairs or plush theater-style seats, or we can stand and not sit at all. We could sit on the floor. In the early centuries of the Church, there were no pews. People met in homes. Even later in the great basilicas, people stood for the entire service with no pews. Truly, what we sit on in church is indifferent.
Many churches are rushing to get rid of pews in an attempt to be friendlier, to have a better worship experience. The comfort of the people becomes important. This is understandable and can even be laudable. But I wonder if we are losing something if we ditch the good old church pew. Maybe there is wisdom in keeping this custom and in building churches that have pews.
One thing that strikes me about pews is that they are made for community. You cannot wall yourself off from others in a pew. Pews are designed for six or seven – or 10 to 15 – people. You cannot decide to be alone if some kindly old gentleman scoots past you for the middle of your pew or if a rambunctious family of five parks themselves next to you. You are instantly connected to them. We are not supposed to be in church in airtight bubbles, communing with Christ in meditative solitude. We could do that at home. As we are one body, we share one space. Whoever first decided to plop a bench in church had no conception that a worshiper could be seeking a solitary relationship with God. Pews leave spaces for others beside you. “We are all in this together,” the humble pew seems to say.
Another positive aspect of church pews is that they are uncomfortable. Even when we layer them with cushions and try to hide the fact they are pews, they are still just wooden benches. We are not used to them. We must sit up straighter. We must fit our form to the hard angles. This is not a bad thing. The worship service is not ultimately about our comfort. We are not gathered to see the latest blockbuster movie or a baseball game. Church pews, stiff and unyielding, remind us that God’s Word and presence is here in this place to mold and change us, not the other way around.
There is one more thing in defense of the church pew: It is a tradition. Sometimes Lutherans act as if all traditions are bad, or we shouldn’t have them since Luther got rid of a bunch of them. But in today’s climate, when we rush from one thing to another, having a few traditions to anchor us to the past is a benefit. Having pews because our grandparents had them and their parents before them does not have to be some knee-jerk reaction against change. Perhaps it can be a part of holding on to the tried and true, to see value in times and places besides our own. Perhaps retaining something like church pews can be a statement of humility, saying that we need not be in thrall to a tyrannical present or a despotic rush into an unknown future. Pews say “church” and stability and connection. These are all words we need to know in these shallow and uncertain times.
The Rev. Paul Gregory Alms is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Catawba, N.C.