You’re in my seat

Pew receipt from Old South Meetinghouse in BostonThere 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.

  1. “Joke” in that you have to laugh at it, or you’ll end up in miserable tears. 
  2. Truth be told, it’s been unhealthy for over a century, but Christians are often slow to catch on. 
  3. Typically pew boxes. 

6 Thoughts

  1. Or for an alternative motivation as to why someone might be attached to a particular seat…

    Thinking back to when I used to go to church on the regular, I wouldn’t have said my attachment to the seat I sat in every week had anything to do with perceived social standing. The years I was attending church were in the height of the social anxiety disorder I had been diagnosed with, and where I sat was a big part of the personal ritual designed to self-soothe and center myself while I anxiously awaited a church service to begin.

    When I came to church… I’d come in, sit in the same spot, spend the time pre-service quietly meditating or reading my Bible to stave off the extreme anxiety I was experiencing from just being there in the first place.

    Where I sat was something I could control. It was something that made me feel safe amidst the social anxiety I was experiencing at the time. I would never have been so bold as to have confronted anyone for taking my seat, but on the occasions that it happened… it was much harder quiet the anxiety because the one thing I could control and predict… my seat… was taken.

    Was my attachment to a particular seat inherently sinful? I don’t know, and quite frankly… I don’t think it matters. I was in the midst of some highly disordered thinking at the time, and just doing the best I could muster.

    1. That is certainly another motivation for sitting in the same seat. There is also just them fact that people are just creatures of habit. But as neither the typical creatures of habit nor yourself would fall into what I’m speaking about here.

  2. In addition to confronting the sin, encouraging the good is another way to foster what is right. Especially when we are dealing with a specific behavior that may or may not arise from a sinful disposition (thank you Nikkiana for the clarification with a voice that is often unheard). So many specific behaviors can be labeled good or evil because of logical deductions (going to movies, playing cards, drinking alcohol, makeup and jewelry, checking your iphone during a conversation, spending a certain amount of money on a car or house, getting a tattoo, bottle feeding your newborn, etc etc etc).

    Although a specific behavior may be rooted in our sin nature (and I believe pew reserving most often is a symptom of power/pride dynamics), we may be wiser to encourage the good more than confront the evil. i think about the wisdom of Jesus as he instructed his disciples to allow to let the tares grow among the wheat. Waiting for the angels is a way of letting the good take over and thus reveal the evil.

    On a practical level, that might mean lifting up and honoring the person of low status. Making real the practice of the last becoming first, and then by default, the first lose their place and go closer to the end of the line. When the host places the stranger at the head of the table (a place he would never assume to be reserved for him) everyone learns about living with greater respect for all people and develops a fear of assuming him or herself to be something special above other people.

    It’s not easy to know the righteousness or unrighteousness of certain actions. It’s even harder to be sure we are helping when we focus on outward signs of the inward heart. That applies as well to actions that are regularly considered good, since these may have their source in our sin nature.

    Great post,, Wesley. Your writing always makes me think.That’s why I try not to read it too often.

    1. Good thoughts, Ron.

      I agree emphasizing a positive is a wonderful way to subvert a destructive dynamic. What I have witnessed, however, is how doing so in a way which proclaims “this is the good!” will quite often lead people to double down on the destructive dynamic. We seem to enjoy the sense of “righteous so-thereism” which comes from living in opposition.

      So I identify myself as the problem and try to gently nudge people in a healthier direction. This works because once people trust I’m not “shouting down” at them, as I live out every bit as a destructive dynamic as anyone else, folks tend to become more open to broadening horizons.

  3. A dear and very elderly friend of our family once said, “I sit where I sit because it’s here that I can see, I can hear, and I feel surrounded by love.” I don’t know of a soul who argued with her.

    1. As I have said, the problem is not with people sitting where the are accustomed. People are very much creatures of habit and there is nothing wrong with that. I know where to look to see where most folks at Central are sitting, in fact.

      The problem is when someone who is “other,” like a visitor, sits in that spot and the person accustomed to sitting there orders them to move or sits in the back telling everyone they know how someone is sitting in THEIR seat.

      It’s more common than folks might think.

Comments are closed.