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Why I Believe Church Pews Are Unbiblical

Why I Believe Church Pews Are Unbiblical

9781631990465mI’m starting a series of posts inspired by my recent interview with Dr. David Alan Black regarding his book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. He bases this book and the seven marks on Acts 2:37-47. You can see a video of that interview below.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dave while he was visiting Pensacola the weekend of September 6. The interview was recorded by Kyle Hall in the library at First United Methodist Church here in Pensacola. I want to thank Dave for visiting and Kyle for recording the video.

I have several goals in this series, including discussing how we can learn from people from other tradition streams. I intend to bring in quotes and ideas derived from two other books I publish, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Ruth Fletcher, a Disciples of Christ regional minister and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor.

But what does all this have to do with my belief that church pews are unbiblical?

The starting point for Dave’s book is that you can look at the book of Acts, and the activities of the early Christian church, and find things that are normative, or at least very valuable, to modern Christians. Dave isn’t alone in this conviction, but I want to start with the question of how we move from what we find in Acts to what we should do in modern churches. This topic is discussed in the first 4.5 minutes of the video.

We don’t find sound systems or their use in the New Testament. Neither do we find hymnals, organs, pianos, praise bands, orders of service, parking lots, or many other things that are automatically part of our modern life, and often of our church activities. Is it wrong to have something in church that isn’t actually mentioned in the New Testament? There are those who would think so.

On the other hand there are those who would say that church has changed so much that we need to come up with our own unique ways of doing things, that looking back to the early church isn’t going to be enough to deal with our complex world of the 21st century.

I think there is some truth in both points. There are, in fact, critical principles in the New Testament that need to be part of any church that wants to label itself Christian, or more important wants to consider itself a community of disciples of Jesus. (I’d prefer the latter personally.) On the other hand we have situations in the modern world that weren’t a part of the world of the New Testament.

The question is whether the way we choose to meet the challenges of the 21st century is worthy of the good news about Jesus. Do our solutions to modern problems, even when those problems are not directly reflected in some New Testament story or statement, fulfill the principles that Jesus taught? When we make a change does it help us love God and one another? Does it help us to make disciples wherever we go?

So I come to church pews. They aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. They wouldn’t have been needed, though doubtless the various Christian homes that hosted meetings had chairs of some sort. I have a problem with church pews.

Now my problem is that we can’t develop new tools and new practices to meet 21st century demands. The problem is that I don’t think church pews help us love God or one another more and I think they tend to prevent us from fulfilling the gospel commission.

Bicycles are also not mentioned in the New Testament. They’re really good and very helpful in many places. Neither are motorcycles mentioned, but what a blessing they are. I can’t count the number of times I’d head out as a teenager, living with my parents in Guyana, South America, riding on the back of a motorcycle behind an evangelist, holding my trumpet case in one hand. It was the 20th century, true, but it was a very non-1st-century scene. Well, in one way, not 1st century. But in another, the young person heading out to help the evangelist do his work is a very 1st century scene. The tools changed, but the mission didn’t.

But what about those pews? Yes, back to pews. What do pews do for the work of ministry. The very arrangement of our sanctuaries with pews lined up facing a platform where the more important people sit and from which they tell the less knowledgeable what to think tends toward hierarchy. If we’re going to fulfill the hope of Jeremiah 31:34, we need to get more people involved. Our problem is not that our churches don’t have enough order it’s that we don’t have the problems of 1 Corinthians 14. Too many people wanting to speak? On the contrary, just try to get them to do so.

The pews enable this bad behavior and congregational laziness. The people in the pews are there to listen, to receive, not to share and participate.

And then there’s the matter of stewardship. A church “sanctuary” (and what happened to worshiping in spirit and in truth?) is by nature going to be wasted space. There are so many things you can’t do there, because there are very few meetings, other than a totally platform-centered church “service” (who is getting served?), that can take place there.

The same space, made level and filled with movable chairs would be of value for many other purposes. Children could play games. Groups could meet and discuss, putting the chairs in a circle. One might even celebrate communion as a full meal. Yes, I know, we probably have a fellowship hall for that. But why do we do that? Probably because sitting down together and eating isn’t sacred enough to happen in the holy space filled with holy pews.

After we take the pews out, I wouldn’t mind having musical instruments, video, and plenty of parking for those who meet there, none of which are mentioned in the New Testament.

It’s not what’s mentioned and what’s not, but the type of people we are to be and the way we are to behave as disciples of Jesus.

Oh, we could also offer meals to those in need using that space. If it didn’t have pews, that is.

Another Note on the Eucharist Celebrated Weekly

Another Note on the Eucharist Celebrated Weekly

9781631990113… at least.

Bob Cornwall shares a bit on this topic, including, of course, a link to his book in Energion’s Topical Line Drives series.

I often don’t like John Calvin, but I do like this view of the Eucharist. I don’t see the need for some kind of physical description, but I do believe that through carrying out this common ritual as commanded by Jesus we share in community.

I like the weekly celebration as part of the service. Our pastor normally connects the celebration with the topic of his sermon and makes it a combination of traditional elements and up-to-the-moment connections. I recently experienced this with someone who read the liturgy word for word, and I must say that the difference was striking to me. I think there are ways to make traditions both familiar, so people feel able to participate and also new, so that participating is an uplifting challenge.

In any case, check out Bob’s article.

Notes on Allan Bevere on Worship

Notes on Allan Bevere on Worship

Allan Bevere posts on worship, calling for it to be well-crafted, authentic, and substantive. I quite agree. But …

Two additional points:

1) One of the most authentic worship services I ever attended occurred when the praise band failed to show up and one individual put a transparency on the projector (yes, it was THAT long ago!) and started singing. It wasn’t crafted at all. It just happened. The praise band wasn’t well-prepared; they were in another part of the country, having made an error on their calendar. It was certainly authentic and substantive. Sometimes in the search for the perfect worship service we forget that we can’t really make that happen. I could repeat this story many times. (And no, I do NOT believe we should be slip-shod and haphazard in our planning because God can work with anything. God expects us to use the gifts God has given us.)

2) Well-crafted and authentic must, I believe, come from the discernment of those who minister regarding where they are ministering. Too many people think they can copy worship services to gain particular results. “If we just do it like ________ Church, people will come,” they say. Won’t work. Authentic worship happens when one is acting according to God’s will. Recently I attended a house church service. It was one of the best times with the Lord and with fellow believers I have experienced in many years. It left me charged up to go out and do more for the Kingdom. It was nothing like I have ever experienced in a designated church building, thank God!

Bottom line: Don’t get stuck on worship categories. Look for what it means to worship in spirit and in truth.


Dance Floor Worship

Dance Floor Worship

I have been working on cleaning up some of my old web site articles and reposting them were appropriate. I found one I forgot I’d written, titled Dance Floor Worship. I said regarding a moment looking out over the Gulf of Mexico:

I can call this a secular moment, and wonder when I will be in church so that I can experience the presence of God. But God is not nearly so bound as I am. God doesn’t need me to wait.

I’d like to remember this idea of seeing the sacredness in every moment, rather than waiting for the special, sacred ones. I need to do it more often!

Of Resources and and Mission Priorities

Of Resources and and Mission Priorities

I received two requests for help today. One was from a pastor overseas. He didn’t ask for money. He asked for prayer. I happen to know he needs money. But his most earnest desire is that Jody and I pray for him.

I also got another request in the mail. It comes from an organization that does much good. They are raising money for a substantial building project that will make things more convenient, even much more convenient, for people in this country who are preparing to be missionaries. The amount is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe a thousand times the amount that would relieve the pastor’s need.

What am I to do? I am not naming any organizations, because I don’t want to criticize them. I don’t know what the needs are or whether the kingdom will be built by this particular expenditure. But I do have to look at where I put my very limited resources. (In case you’re wondering, being in the Christian publishing business, at least in the manner in which I practice it, is not the road to great personal wealth!)

But it’s not just this particular project that concerns me. It’s the proportion of our resources that go to providing for our comfort, for making it easier for us to do whatever we do, as opposed to the amount we put where it’s needed. I think of this when I see large recreation centers attached to churches that are empty most days of the week. Now I understand the need for places for sports and social interaction. In fact, a great deal of ministry can be carried out by providing a place for young people. But I know of more than one church that closes its facilities to outsiders. They want to avoid “those people” getting in there and perhaps damaging things or causing an increase in their insurance rates.

I understand liability issues. I really do. But I don’t recall Jesus saying to do good to the least of these only when there was no risk. As a matter of fact, the gospels record that Jesus did it at a rather great risk. So many times we have facilities built that are just to entertain those who are already in the church.

Again, I understand that people need rest and recreation. The church does need to provide for its members. But the ultimate purpose of providing for members is building the kingdom, and that means getting those members to go out and serve others.

And so we come to church sanctuaries. In many churches the only use of the sanctuary is for a worship service on Sunday morning. That has to make it the most wasted piece of architecture around. One or two additional meetings a week may make it a little bit better, but it’s still underutilized space, space we pay a great deal of money to have.

This isn’t the complaint of someone who doesn’t appreciate church architecture. I really like a majestic church sanctuary. I enjoy being in it. I enjoy sitting in the pews. If it has stained glass, it’s even better. A pipe organ? I’m in ecstasy. Just play it and let me look at the windows.

But that’s the problem. I like it. It’s for me. The question is, just how much money should go to pipe organs and stained glass as opposed to feeding the hungry. I’m not saying we should put an end to all church music, or eliminate all church architecture, but what are the priorities? Where is the balance?

In doing ministry in southern Mexico in the 1960s, my parents lived in a building with rough concrete floors (just try to sweep them), with a tin roof and walls that were not solid, so rain could blow in. My dad was a doctor (MD), and my mother a registered nurse. They could have had a great deal more, if they’d chosen to go to work in Canada (their home) or in the United States. But most of the time they didn’t, and when they did, they sought underserved areas. There were many things they wanted that they could not have. My own life is not without its problems, but I keep comparing it to theirs. What were their priorities? What are mine?

I have had wonderful times of worship in fine church buildings, but I’ll never forget worshiping with a small Gypsy congregation in eastern Hungary on the first mission trip I led there. I was to speak. I had been a bit disoriented, because while I had been overseas before both as a child and young person with my parents and on mission trips, I had never been to a country where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. My Hungarian was such that the couple of words I had learned were potentially dangerous. I didn’t understand what people were saying.

The room was small, too small for the number of people. The floor was concrete. The building was not beautiful. They had a small electric keyboard that would have been discarded had it been in one of our churches here, or probably even in a home as a child’s toy. Someone started playing it, and the people started singing. I didn’t know the words, but I felt the Spirit that was in that place. In fact, I have rarely felt the presence of the Spirit more than in that particular meeting.

They didn’t need the things that we all think we “need.”

Do we?


Weekly Communion

Weekly Communion

I’m delighted that my church, First United Methodist Church of Pensacola has started offering Holy Communion at all services. For several years this has been offered at the ICON service and at the 9:30 service, but was only offered monthly at the others. Now this will be consistent, and I think closer to the way Jesus commanded it.

Now if we could do communion as part of a meal … but I suspect it’s going to be hard to get there with a 3000 member church!

Seasons of the Church Year

Seasons of the Church Year

I grew up in a Christian group that did not follow the Christian liturgical calendar. There were many arguments presented for this, including the pagan backgrounds of some holidays. I’m not going to discuss that issue except to say that I care very little about the background of the day. What I care about is what we do with it now! I’m more concerned with the commercialism we’ve brought into Christmas since it became a Christian holiday than I am with any pagan backgrounds.

Another argument, however, was that we should be celebrating these things year round. We should always be celebrating the birth of Christ. We should always be celebrating the atonement and the resurrection.

That argument sounds pious and good at first glance, but it doesn’t match my experience. I do not detract from my celebration of all of God’s works year round by having a special commemoration at one time (or period) during the Christian year. Rather, I enhance that awareness by giving special time to meditation on one or another topic.

Since I became a member of a United Methodist congregation nearly 18 years ago, these seasons have become very important to me. So there will be special things I do during Lent (no, I’m not going to announce these on my blog), and there will be special things I do for Easter.

There is an additional reason I appreciate these seasons. I know I’m remembering these critical events in the history of my faith along with millions of other Christians at the same time. There’s a connection there, and I like to feel it.

So I have become very much attached to the seasons of the church year. This won’t prevent my enjoying a Christmas song during the summer, nor will it keep me from mentioning the cross in the fall. But it will bring these events back to my mind in a special way according to the church seasons.

How Charismatic Am I?

How Charismatic Am I?

Adrian Warnock is working on a spectrum for determining just how charismatic one is in belief and practice. His initial test seemed to make people more charismatic than they actually are, or perhaps than they consider themselves to be.

I took the test, and came out strongly charismatic in belief and mildly charismatic in practice. Some of my negatives include “I have prophesied” and “I have asked God to give me the gift of prophecy.” These two questions are legitimate measures of charismatic belief, but while I believe that the gift of prophecy continues in theory, I am very hesitant to point to any particular person I would regard as a prophet. In other words, God could call someone to be a prophet, but I have not identified one.

Another interesting one was regarding speaking in tongues. Under beliefs I indicated I believed this gift was available in modern times, and under practice that I have spoken in tongues, by which I refer to what is commonly called “praying in the Spirit,” though I don’t prefer that title. As closely I can describe the experience, it’s a bit like meditating. But that is for another article. But under practice, I had to note that I had never prayed to receive the gift of tongues, and in fact never desired it. It just happened. That is a valid distinction. If I believed that receiving the gift of tongues, or more specifically a prayer language, was a required, singular evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and that the baptism is an event always or most commonly separate from conversion, then I’d presumably be answering ‘yes’ to all of these.

On the positive side I checked off praying for or receiving healing, raising and clapping my hands during worship, and getting emotional during worship, amongst others.

After presenting some results, he followed up with some questions that needed to be reworded. Amongst these he changed the question on healing to include the word “supernaturally.” On dancing, raising, and clapping hands, the questions indicated a biblical requirement rather than simply whether it is acceptable.

I really have little problem with the spectrum in general, but I would note the difficulty I have in answering these questions. In fact, I thought of some of these issues when responding to the questionnaire the first time. How closely do my definitions of these terms match the ones Adrian is using in asking the questions. When he added the word “supernaturally” to the healing question, the definition question came back to me.

I’m willing to answer supernatural healing positively, if that means that through prayer healing occurs that would not have occurred in the natural order of things. But there are two issues. First is the definition of “supernatural.” I don’t make as clear a distinction between supernatural and natural as some do. Yes, there are natural laws, but I see God in everything, so I consider all healing (and all truth) to come from God. I think also that most of what God does in the world is subtle and generally mediated through His people. This isn’t because God cannot act. I do not deny miracles. It is because God likes the way he designed the universe, and for the most part it works by natural law.

Then there’s the issue of a biblical mandate for particular acts of worship, whether singing, clapping hands, raising hands, or dancing. There would be two levels of distinction here. The first is whether such things are permitted. Many churches would reject the idea that people should dance in the church service, or even raise their hands or clap. Then there are those that consider this a valid part of worship, but wouldn’t require everything to do it. Then there are

others who think that if you don’t dance, you aren’t truly worshiping.

Neither set of questions truly distinguish all this, so I’m not sure how well the spectrum works. It’s especially difficult for someone who is a moderate or liberal charismatic. In that case, one would probably be open to many different approaches to worship, and might define various gifts (prophecy and healing, for example), in different ways, and still believe that the same gifts are available to the church today as ever were.

Finally, while I consider this spectrum interesting, since I hold only a very small set of beliefs as essential (saying the Apostles’ Creed without crossing one’s fingers!), I see such a spectrum as more for interest and entertainment than to be taken seriously. Any spectrum examining just one belief set is likely to obscure some differences and overemphasize others.

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