On a recent Sunday evening, most of my church’s pews were already filled when I arrived. I directed my children to an open spot on the right side of the sanctuary and sat down just as the prelude began. A church member leaned over my shoulder from her place in the row behind me. “Wow!” she whispered in mock surprise. “You’re coming over to our side!”
She had a point. Since arriving at my church two years ago, I have sat in the fourth row from the front on the left side nearly every Sunday. My kids meet me there if we get separated after coffee time, and church people leave notes and casserole dishes on that row because they know I’ll be there to get them.
Whether it’s a courtside sports bench, a desk in the classroom, or a pew in church, people routinely sit in the same places. In every church I’ve been part of—from a 3,000-member downtown church in the Deep South to a small congregation in Pennsylvania farm country—members tend to pick their seats and stick with them, sometimes for generations. I have my spot, and other people have theirs. We may joke about “our assigned seats” with half-guilty smiles, but we seldom switch places. That fourth row on the left just feels right.
With Easter Sunday approaching, and attendance numbers at our churches likely to swell to their highest all year, some of us may find ourselves temporarily going over to the other side. But we’ll likely be back in our usual spot the next week, and that’s not a bad thing. Why? My seat in church is more than just a thoughtless habit. Rather, it is the physical place where I link myself to the church and proclaim my intention to be a regular worshiper there.
At the turn of the (20th) century, one parish magazine argued against the then-common practice of seat allocation but also conceded that “if the taking of a seat represents a desire to link oneself definitely to the church, and is a proclamation that one intends to be a regular worshiper, and so one would wish always to find a place awaiting one, then that is well.”
In other words: The space we regularly inhabit on Sunday is a sign of our desire to be both bodily and spiritually committed to the local church.
Historically, church buildings didn’t always have pews or chairs. According to doctoral research from John Charles Bennett at the University of Birmingham, Anglo-Saxon churches typically had just a few three-legged stools for the use of elderly or infirm attendees who could not stand for the length of the service. Later, from the 13th to the 15th centuries, benches and stalls became more common. These were usually privately constructed by church members who wanted to insure themselves a seat in church without having to bring stools or mats from home. If a medieval Christian referred to “my pew,” she probably meant it literally.
In the following centuries, American and British churches installed seating throughout the building. These church-owned pews or benches were then rented (or “let”) to individuals and families. This became the primary means of funding the church’s operating costs. As historian Charles D. Cashdollar notes, prices for particular seats were determined by the perceived desirability of their location—with front and aisle seats fetching the highest amounts—though nearly all churches also had less expensive and free seats available for those who could not pay.
Pew rental continued to be widespread well into the 1800s. During this time, more than half of the seats in all English and Welsh churches and chapels were allocated to particular families and individuals. (One church on the British isle of Sark was even letting its pews in 2006!) But, eventually, diminishing revenues coupled with concerns about class discrimination caused the rental system to be replaced by the “free-will” offering most of us are familiar with today.
From our 21st-century vantage point, pew rental seems obviously problematic. And it was. Any church policy that would suggest someone must pay money in order to hear the gospel is contrary to our Lord’s open invitation: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1, ESV). And any seating arrangement that gives preference to certain people based on their race, income, or social standing ignores the Bible’s clear teaching against partiality (James 2:1–9). Segregated slave galleries and ornately decorated pews for local magistrates were a disgrace to the church of Christ.
Although I certainly won’t suggest that we return to this antiquated system of collecting quarterly fees for a reserved seat, I’m not ready to give up my usual spot on the fourth row, either.
This is the spot where, week after week, my enthusiastic soprano notes join the booming bass of the church elder two rows ahead to create a joyful noise. This is the place where my heart adds its “Amen” to the united prayers of the whole congregation. This is the seat where the Word of God reaches my ears in exactly the same direction from the same pulpit every week.
This is my pew.
And surrounded by everyone else in their usual pews, I settle into the weekly sights and sounds of corporate worship. One worshiper murmurs his heartfelt agreement behind me. Another bows her curly head slightly to my left. And yet another takes copious notes just in front. These things don’t distract me as they once might have done. Years of Sundays alongside the same people have made their habits as familiar to me as my own.
There, the devotion of my brothers and sisters kindles my own. Their singing admonishes me (Col. 3:16), their prayers ascend to heaven alongside my own (Rev. 5:8), and their faithful weekly presence encourages me to anticipate Christ’s imminent return (Heb. 10:25). As one 19th-century writer quaintly explained it: “The fingers in a mitten warm each other; in a glove they are chilled by separation.” Sitting in our usual places, we are fellow fingers—nestled comfortably together—keeping the warmth of love for Christ alive between us.
Megan Hill is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches.