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Deemed important enough to be in today’s front section of the Wall Street Journal, author Jennifer Levitz dubs it “The Great Pew Debate.” I would suggest, however, that it is only the great debate when churches are asking the wrong questions. For too many local churches, it is as important as re-arranging the pews, err, chairs, on the deck of the Titanic.

This article struck a nerve with me because I am painfully aware of a nice little church in a nice little town that celebrated a great milestone last year by spending almost $50,000 from a windfall on replacing their aging pews. As is true in most cases, not everyone was in agreement about this decision. In the ensuing 12 months, however, the number of attendees has gone down so consistently that they are now struggling to stay alive. Their new pews look nearly perfect, but it is because no one is sitting in them.

Pews or Chairs is a legitimate and necessary question/debate at specific times in a church’s existence. To determine the appropriateness of both, here are a few questions that might be worth asking:

  1. Are we looking for a comfortable place for people to sit or really seeking a silver bullet? According to Jim Collins, the longer an organization remains in stage 4 (like cancer, stage 4 is not good), the more they repeatedly reach for the silver bullet to rescue them. If you think the difference between pews or chairs is going to turn your church around, you probably ought to save the Lord’s money.
  2. Is it a good time to rock the boat? Even ships that are full steam ahead can tip if you create too many unnecessary waves. In another season, the decision to replace the pews could be a no brainer, but you may not have that much trust equity stored up yet. If the guns are already pointed at you, why hand out ammo?
  3. Does the area need to do double duty or can you dedicate space to worship? Most seating, fixed or movable, will require 10-20 square feet per person by the time you factor in common area. Theater seating is the most efficient and can increase seating capacity by up to 20 percent. Theoretically, you can pack the pews, especially when little ones are potential participants, closer than individual seats. Churches that have a high value on an inter-generational model of ministry and worship may find pews the most attractive.
  4. Do you need the flexibility of chairs? If the chairs are just going to be locked and loaded with no place even to store them, are you really gaining anything besides a fresh look by exchanging fixed for movable seating?
  5. Does it match the rest of the building and ministry? Ripping out pews in a stain-glass sanctuary from the 1800’s for chairs makes as much sense as adding an acrylic pulpit to that setting. Look around and celebrate who you are instead of being a poor imitation of someone else.
  6. Cost. When making building decisions, cost is not always the bottom line. It often comes down to either having to make a hard decision once or face the consequences of a poor decision every week. Overall, the scale from $25 to about $150 per seat starts with metal chairs, moves to wooden frame chairs, pews, and finally theater seating.

Every church custodian has walked into the sanctuary to find children standing on the pews. Children, however, are often forgiven quicker than church leaders who decide to take a stand on them.
Phil Wood is pastor of Fellowship Church in Carol Stream and director of Urban Youth Ministries in Aurora, Illinois

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