Why Not To Go To Church: Is This Pew Taken?

Disclaimer for Members of St. Luke UMC and Shipman Chapel: This musing arose from a comment I heard outside of the church earlier this week. This comment was not about a specific congregation or a particular pew. It was a general observation. I will not ask you to change seats this Sunday. I will not institute assigned seating. This is the first in a series of posts intended simply to make all of us, in local churches and beyond, think about why so many people choose not to attend church.

“I know how churches can be. I wouldn’t want to take anyone’s pew.”

I hear a lot of reasons why people don’t go to church: everything from theological differences to work schedules to football games to a desire to sleep late. What I did not expect to hear was this statement: a fear of entering a new place with new faces and sitting somewhere that someone else regularly sits. Many of us churchgoers probably have stories of being on one or both sides of the pew: as the person uncomfortably sitting where someone else is staring or the person uncomfortably staring at the person who is sitting.

Why do we in the church care so much about where we sit and stand?

Some of our answers to that question are practical. Those with hearing difficulties want to sit closer to the speakers. The person who has to leave during the final hymn to help direct traffic in the parking lot wants to sit towards the back for a less disruptive exit. The parent with a young baby in the nursery wants to be close to the aisle in case the nursery worker comes looking for him or her.

There are also sentimental explanations. The grieving widow wants to sit in the place where she sat for 50 years with her late husband. The great-granddaughter of a charter member sits on the pew given in memory of her relative. We want to sit with our longtime friends, some of whom we only see on Sunday morning.

We also love “our” pews because they are as familiar to us as the Apostle’s Creed or the Doxology. To sit in the same spot with the same people and sing the same songs can be spiritual comfort food. The world may be rapidly changing, but on Sunday morning we discover familiarity in our traditions—which come to include our seating.

All of this to say: I understand why we love our pews. The explanations are as complex as we are because human beings are complicated. But….

Do we love our pews more than we love the people who sit on them?

Are we more concerned with familiarity than we are with hospitality?

I am immensely grateful for the honesty of the non-churchgoer who told me why she didn’t go to church. We laughed about the way we can be about “our” pews. We confessed to the ways that both of us have been territorial about “our spots” in classrooms and churches. But there was a deeper truth in her observation.

She was afraid of causing a disruption.

She halfway expected rejection.

She saw herself as an outsider.

We in the Church have an awesome and difficult responsibility to counter these preconceptions of fear, rejection, and exclusion.

Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. (Mark 4:36, New International Version)

Just as he was: A weary Jesus gets in the boat with no façade.

Just as he was: The disciples welcomed him and organized their journey.

All Jesus needed to be was “just as he was.”

The church needs to be a place where we can be just as we are—and welcome each other just as we are. Through worship, God transforms us to be more than we could be on our own. Worship is not about our power but rather God’s power imparted to us as his hands and feet in the world.

There were no pews on the disciples’ boat, but I do wonder if they had their favorite spots. I wonder if they argued as much about who got to sit where as they did about who would sit at Jesus’ right hand.

A storm arose. Jesus told it to be still. The wind ceased. The water obeyed him. A powerful stillness settled around the boat. The exhausted man who had been sleeping next to the disciples was now the same voice that spoke the water into being at Creation.

When they reached the shore, I doubt that they discussed who had been sitting where.

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian