There is a running joke 1 about “reserved pews” in many churches. People in a congregation could be welcoming, friendly, and genuinely kind – but sit in their pew and all Christian charity goes out the window. “This is my seat, you have to move!” I wish I could say it’s a worthless cliche, but I’ve both witnessed this in action and heard first person accounts of it occurring.
Many pastors tend to see the idea of the “reserved pew” as being the sign of a “club church.” That is, a congregation which has jettisoned any concept of Jesus’ call on the lives of his followers and gathers simply to be reaffirmed with familiarity.
I’ve heard a number of pastors who identify that particular congregational trait as a target which, if obliterated, would suddenly transform the congregation into a healthier group. The accepted wisdom is “living churches” would never subscribe to that “club” mentality, so shifting away from it would undermine the very foundations of the “club church.” It’s understandable wisdom, and the behavior surrounding “reserved” pews is certainly unhealthy in the 21st Century 2, but the identified root of the behavior is entirely wrong.
The idea of “reserved” pews is not the result of churches shifting from a “living” to a “club” mentality. It was, in fact, a common practice in many churches leading into the 19th Century. Pews 3 were rented to families, and locations were set according to social standing. Those who did not rent pews were left to sit in open galleries, where it was either very hot or very cold. This practice was one of the way churches raised funds to continue their ministry.
Lest people think it was only “dead” churches who ever dared to do such as thing as charge rent for pews, may I point out the image attached to this article was taken in Boston’s Old South Meetinghouse. This was the pulpit which welcomed George Whitefield as he toured the colonies during the First Great Awakening. It was a strongly evangelical congregation, fully immersed in the revivals of the mid-1700’s.
So what does pew renting in the past have to do with the “reserved” pews of today? It seems the behavior associated with rented pews has carried on long after the practice has died out. Rather than simply being a sign of a “club church,” I believe something far deeper in the human psyche is playing out in the “you’re in my pew” scenario – something of which pew renting was only, itself, a symptom. What is it? The deep psychological need for people to know where they are in the social pecking order. That is, knowing to whom they should bow and who should bow to them. If this is the case “you’re in my pew” is more than simply a “club” mentality, it is an manifestation of human sin – that perverse desire to defend one’s place in the social order at almost any expense. Thus, as I consider the idea of “reserved” pews, I don’t find myself pondering how I can change rules about the behavior. Rather, I am inclined to wonder where I am committing this sin by defending my social order turf. I can never forget, as much as I want to be part of the solution, I’m always part of the problem.