Pew That Stinks

Box pews at Old North Church in Boston

I am pleased we were able to secure a place on Dr. Amy Oden’s schedule to come and be our next speaker in the Mildred Strokey and Blanche Miller Memorial Lecture Series this coming Sunday.  On April 6.  I say “next” instead of “last” because while the original intent of the memorial lecture series was to underwrite the expenses for two years of quarterly lectures, the patron of the series has spoken with me and would like to continue the series!  I am already looking forward to issuing invitations for upcoming lectures around topics that you might not otherwise have an opportunity to hear about in church.  The upcoming topic is one we should probably hear about every Sunday, but we can always stand to be reminded of: hospitality.

Unfortunately, many of us have a good idea of what hospitality is on account of having a first-hand experience with the opposite—and frequently that happens in a church.  Some of the men in our congregation were talking about this Sunday night at Knotty Pine BBQ restaurant.  Every one of the few I was having a conversation with had an experience of sitting down in a pew at a church only to be told “you’re sitting in my seat” upon arriving at a new church.  How sad.  Those who weren’t told outright were put in the uncomfortable situation of having someone stand at the end of the pew and stare at them until they moved.  One person even had the experience of standing for the opening hymn, only to have the couple who usually sat in that seat literally shuffle into the pew and sort of shimmy behind them to make it obvious that they needed to move out of the way.  What a disgrace.  I mean that literally—what a dis-grace.  I suppose I have been immune to this experience because, well, I usually have a reserved seat—but my wife has also tasted the experience of being “stared away” by a family who apparently felt entitled to the particular vantage point that she was about to have.  Instead of staying, though, she said out loud—“oh, I better go and check on Julianna,” and rushed off to the nursery (rest easy, UUMC, this was at another church), and upon returning found the same family who had stood over her and stared sitting where she had been.  I hope you don’t think I’m being dramatic to say that such behavior is “Anti-Christ.”  (Luke 14: 7-11)

The rise of the sermon as a central act of worship during the Protestant reformation led to more churches installing permanent pews.  Before that, people stood in worship.  Even today, some Orthodox churches have no pews.  (I can just see the Orthodox trustees committee—“you think we’ll go ahead and cave and install pews this year?  Nah, those pews are nothing but trouble-install those and you’ll have people claiming them and thinking they own the place.”)  In the 16th-19th centuries, people actually did own the pews.  They would purchase and install the pew for their family and retain the title as a way to raise funds for the church building.  In many churches along the Eastern seaboard, you can still see evidence of this practice, in that some “pew boxes” (kinda like little cubicles in the sanctuary) actually have doors which can lock and family emblems decorating the woodwork.  For what it’s worth, Methodists throughout history (most notably Bishop BT Roberts of mid-19th century Buffalo, NY) disputed the practice of “pew ownership” or “rent” because of the fact that most usually, families provided for themselves and not for people who couldn’t afford a pew.  This is what drove our founder, John Wesley, to preaching in the brickyards and the mines directly to the common folk who weren’t in church on Sundays because they couldn’t afford to be. 

Nowadays, people who engage in “pew-possessiveness” have retained the sense of entitlement without the actual title.  I would doubt that any generous giver to the church would have that kind of mentality.  I know for a fact that the family who stared my wife out of the pew where she was sitting that Sunday didn’t give squat to the church.  Even if they had been the most generous givers to the church, that would not have given them license to embarrass another person for the sake of their “usual and customary seat.”  As the old song I used to sing in church goes, “and if the Devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack.  (Ouch!)” 

I am fairly certain Dr. Oden will speak to us about how hospitality isn’t just the surface “friendliness” aspect of a sugar-coated spirituality.  It is intentional.  It is pro-active.  It is difficult.  It is sacrificial.  One thing a member of our BBQ group pointed out is that there’s a large void of empty pews at the front of the sanctuary on the liturgist side.  Are those pews haunted?  Are people afraid that the bee-hive that used to be in the ceiling above that section of the sanctuary might suddenly materialize?    Do you think newcomers to the church want to sit there?  Where do you think newcomers like to sit?  Perhaps toward the back 1/3 of the sanctuary so they can get a feel for the place without feeling like everyone is looking at them, is what I’d say.  So—here’s an idea—a commitment to “radical hospitality,” the kind that takes an effort and isn’t just “being nice” might lead some of our committed churchpeople to take the seats in that “void” in order to leave more pews in the back 1/3 of the sanctuary available for newcomers. Perhaps, if you remain toward the back of the sanctuary, you should make an intentional effort to look out for newcomers an greet them with a smile and a simple “welcome!”  Those are practices of churches that have grown tremendously—they make intentional effort and sacrifices for the sake of the newcomer.  That’s practical hospitality—not just an idea.