The Pew

The Rice family pew (Photo by Gary Rice)

If church pews could only talk...

Ever think about all of the church pews in Lakewood? It seems as if they might soon be on the endangered species list. There once were plenty more of them than there are now. It seems somehow, in the last 20 years or so, that both churches and their pews have fallen on hard times. Even with those churches that have not closed around here, their trustees and other powers-that-be have been taking a hard look at the hard surfaces of those well-worn wooden pews. The latest church fad seems to be to replace those old pews with movable chairs so that sanctuaries can occasionally be re-purposed easily, and also so that people will feel more comfy, welcome, and private, with those padded seats and their fortress-like arm rests.

Churches these days seem to forget that the original purpose of a hardwood pew was twofold. First of all, you weren't supposed to feel too comfy in church. You were there to reconcile with a loving God. Your creature comforts were not the priority for that hour of worship. As well, pews were intended to be communal and not individual, as chairs are. You were supposed to share your pew, as well as your faith, with other parishioners. Chairs can bring to mind individualism and separation. Pews, on the other hand, symbolize unity, and communion with others.

Constructed in the days when it was nothing to fell mighty domestic first-growth oaken timber and rip those trunks into heavy lumber, many of those old pews comprise an amazing snapshot of time in America. That was a time in this country when faith in God ruled the roost, and there was little concern as to what the long-term effects of deforestation might do to the environment. There was simply so much timber around that people thought nothing about an America that seemed to go from tree to shining tree.

That, of course, was then.

Nowadays, while fierce political debates continue to rage concerning the effects of global warming on the environment, nearly everyone is in agreement that, in past times, we simply have not managed the earth's resources as responsibly as we otherwise could have. A great deal of that environmental depletion came as a direct result of the 20th century world wars, when countries began their mad scramble to attain raw materials- when it became critically apparent to each of them that the possession of those materials meant power and earthly wealth beyond measure. In that mad scramble, matters of God and faith were put on the sidelines in favor of fossil fuels and minerals, not to mention guns and ever-bigger bombs.

In World War II, wood was still fairly plentiful in our country, but was being used more and more for any number of critical wartime necessities, not the least of which was paper. My WWII veteran father well remembers his Army unit traveling all over the country in a "Salute to Wood" caravan battle show, highlighting the importance of wood as a raw material. During that war, paper companies and others noted the importance of wood as a renewable resource, and huge tracts of land were set aside for tree growth. Of course, these were not the same first-growth trees that our older church pews came from, but it was a step in the right direction of proper ecological resource management.

Let's take a look at just one pew for a moment. The pew that you see in the picture is one that was inhabited on Sunday mornings for many years by my family down at Lakewood United Methodist Church, at the corner of Summit and Detroit. As pews go, it is little different from the thousands of others that were installed across our country...except was "ours".

I squirmed in that pew as a young man, under the occasional withering glare of my otherwise tender loving mother. Close friends of ours also shared that pew over the years, until at the last, one by one, they either moved away or passed on- as indeed, did my dear late mother. The pew remained. Over the years and the tears, as time and life's circumstances indeed took their toll, I found myself sitting in that pew on fewer and fewer occasions. Thousands of others apparently have sat in their own pews less and less, as well. In post war America, mainstream churches have lost tremendous numbers of parishioners, even as independent denominations have sprung up like daisies. It's not as if people have abandoned God either. People will always search for the sublime and omnipresent Love that passes all understanding. They just so often stopped finding it where they most hoped that it might be their home pews.

In an effort to be more modern and responsive to the needs of a changing world, many churches have simply decided to get rid of their pews. Pews, it seems, are so often now thought to be "part of the problem". The "traditional worship experience" no longer seems to appeal to some people. Chairs, tables, donuts and espresso machines now characterize many modern so-called worship experiences, with little or no mention of penance, guilt or any form of reminders of the consequences of falling away from one's faith. Worship, these days, so often turns into an in-your-face entertainment experience, with loud music, interactive big screens, and an informal home-like living room atmosphere. That this form of "worship" might be inspirational to some people who have been "turned off" by traditional worship experiences, there would be little doubt. I've even enjoyed playing music at some of those new kinds of services myself. Still, one can only wonder what form of memories that people might carry away from these new experiences- that would not be essentially different from sitting around their living rooms?

It will remain to be seen exactly how long my own family's pew will remain at Lakewood United Methodist Church. Having both successful traditional and contemporary services, extensive plans are in the works to transform their main sanctuary into a shared worship space for both services. (Presently, the contemporary "IMPACT" service meets downstairs in the church basement) In order to do that, it has been proposed that a number of pews be removed and "re-purposed or sold". One of those is "our" family's pew.

As congregations struggle with that never-ending dichotomy between old and new, traditional and modern, objects like these old, beautiful, and irreplaceable pews have become vital and even emotional parts of those discussions. I would suspect that never again in our world will we see the seemingly unlimited financial and ecological resources that permitted the construction of so many of those old pews. Once gone? They will, quite likely, never return.

What replaces those pews had better be good.

One thing's for certain: If people fail to remember that they need to share the sublime and omnipresent Love of a beneficent Creator with each other, it won't matter much what they sit on.

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Volume 8, Issue 24, Posted 1:17 PM, 11.28.2012