Remove the Pews: Spiritual Possibilities for Sacred Spaces
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2021)
In many congregations, suggesting that the pews be removed from the sanctuary can provoke conflict if not outright rejection. While Donna Schaper does advocate that some congregations remove the physical pews from their worship spaces, as the title of the book implies, she also uses the phrase in a metaphorical sense. Removing the pews means moving into what Schaper calls “Religion 201.” “We leave our denial at the door and say, we are ready to learn.” Removing the pews symbolizes a focus on the future of the church more than an inflexible strict preservation of the past.
This book was both written and published during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many churches found themselves worshiping without their pews. Computer screens and kitchen tables became the setting for Sunday worship. “Instead of virtual being an option that we might slowly comprehend, we have been thrown out of the proverbial fat into the proverbial fire.” Congregations have had no choice but to embrace change, at least temporarily. Schaper sees this as an opportunity for continuing change, rather than a return to business as usual once the pandemic passes. Her insights on how this might happen will be encouraging to some and frightening to others. For example, she considers that larger membership congregations, with the financial resources to utilize online media with excellence, may invite smaller congregations not only to worship with them, but to merge with them, something, as she says, that probably should have been done long ago. While I understand her point, I would advocate for a continued existence for some small membership churches, especially in rural areas, although acknowledging that they, too, will need to undergo changes post-pandemic. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle in terms of how we will gather for worship, meetings, and community post-pandemic.
As Schaper notes, readers may be tempted to jump to her final chapter, the one with the “How-to” title, but that would be a mistake. Without understanding the background of her contention that both physical and mental/emotional pews need to be removed, the “how-to” loses its depth. That being said, her brief final chapter simply and clearly sets forth basic assumptions which any congregation needs to follow. One of the best is “Don’t set up a binary between the building and the people.” Many clergy and some lay leaders can see the building as an idol, an albatross, something that interferes with the true spiritual nature of the church, rather than as means to live out the church’s mission. The “cloud of witnesses” spirit present in most church buildings can be a hindrance to the movement of the spirit if they are made into idols, but that spirit can also empower a congregation to see their building as a positive space for strengthening the community around them from which that “cloud” came.
Schaper writes that “being radical isn’t just about changing things. It’s about getting to the core challenge.” Too many church members are deep in denial about the changes sweeping the churches and their buildings in the 21st century. This book seeks to bring attention to the core challenges in ways that both provoke and provide guidance. One hopes the title doesn’t scare away those who could greatly benefit from the wisdom inside the covers!