Begin with the obvious: church pews are neither comfortable nor welcoming. At their best, they are butt-numbing distractions from worship and learning. At their worst, they are the symbol of much of the critique of the American church: archaic, irrelevant, and unsuited for our times.
Historically speaking, the pew is a relative newcomer to church furnishings. The early Church met in homes, and the advent of cathedrals did not bring pews; most cathedrals and parish churches were largely devoid of seating. Congregants stood. Only with the coming of the Reformation and the sermon-focused church service did pews begin to appear. Early sermons tended to be pretty long, and hearers needed a place to sit. Hence pews.
Pews were utilitarian and uncomfortable. And – probably after the fact – a theology arose to explain the practice. Pews were uncomfortable because austere and pure faith was hard. God rejoiced in our discomfort, and a sore rear kept our hearts and minds from the easy pleasures of comfortable sin.
Besides, hard seat and straight backs allowed us to be one with the suffering of our Savior. And, yes, I was even once reminded as a complaining young teenage boy that “surely you can do this for Jesus after all he has done for you.” The Baptist version of the medieval penitents.
Really, really bad theology. But that is the faith community of my childhood.
With that said . . .
The prevalence of the pew – and then its more recent demise – may still tell us something about the Church and the rise of “comfortable” faith. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I just want to find a church where I feel comfortable.”
I think there is a metaphor here.
Have we become too comfortable in our faith? Have we become practitioners of a sterile faith, unengaged from the world around us? How can I ask my church to make me comfortable when one child dies every three seconds from hunger-related causes? When tens of millions of little girls sold their bodies last night to survive? When I am the rich man of the parable, and Lazarus lies at my gate?
Following is not a comfortable task. Our faith in Christ and relationship to him demands that we do not take the easy path, instead choosing to stand alongside those who live in contextual pain.
Godliness really can be uncomfortable – even when we aren’t in the pew.
More next week. . . .