The Idea of a Creative Worship Space

By John O'Keefe

A Brief Memory of Childhood:

The only real memory I have of church from when I was a child was going one day with my Grandmother, she needed to talk with the Priest and I was stuck going with her. As we walked into the church I was surprised with how big it was, how dark it was, how cold it was, and how weird it smelled (weird, and not in a good way weird). I can remember it being a place where I did not want to be at that moment in time – and mostly because it was dark, cold and smelly. As we passed into the front of the church my Grandmother looked at me and said, “Go sit in the pews,” as she walked into the side rooms to talk with the guy in black. To be honest with you, for the longest time after that when people talked about “pews” I thought they were talking about how bad church smelled.

A Short (I used the term brief before and I do not desire to be redundant) History of the Pew:

Ever wonder why the church has pews? For just about 1,500 years the church had nothing for those gathered to sit on – the pew (probably both the furniture and the stink) came into the church during the reformation. I guess the idea of having to stand for hours while some long-winded minister rattled on about something or another was just too much for people to take – so, sitting became an issue.

It is true (OK, it is debatable) the Reformation brought about two major evil changes to our church life, long-winded ministers and pews (I guess the pews were added so people did not fall on the floor when they fell asleep listening to those long-winded saints.) Let me rephrase that, the first pews where not for everyone; the reformation (even though we like to think it did) never said that equality would enter the church – oh, no – only those with the big bucks and the ability to buy a pew could have a pew, the rich (after all, we can’t have the rich sleeping on the floor – they need a place to sit and sleep). You see, throughout Christendom those with the big bucks got to sit while the long-winded minister rambled (shouted may be a better word) on and on about who was going to hell and how big the hand-basket needed to be to get them there. But the regular people (the “you and me”), those who worked for a living, needed to stand in the back. Never mind, if on the off chance someone would desire to visit the church, visitors needed to stand as well. The idea was, “no cash, no ass” (if I am not mistaken there was something about grass and gas too – never mind, that was much later) But have no fear, change was on the way, and by “change” I mean another way for greed to enter the church.

Soon, many stuffy old church boards and long-winded preachers figured they could bring in some extra cash if they purchased some pews and rented them out – there we have it, the creation of “the cheap seats.” That’s right, many churches in America got the idea of “renting” the pews to help fund the church – I guess the idea of “giving cheerfully” was not something church people did at the time.

SIDE NOTE: I wonder, did the term “nose bleed section” come from people sitting in the cheap-seats falling asleep and hitting their noses on the pew in front of them?

Through the work of somewhat lesser great men, for example Richard Yates, in his pamphlet The Church in Danger (1815) estimated that over 950,000 people could not worship in a parish church. (I tend to think that those 950,000 people had no desire to be in church to hear some long-winded preacher tell them they were on their way to hell.) So, people soon realized that everyone, not just the rich, had the right to be forever uncomfortable in church – so, pews were added for all (they might not have been the best, or padded – but they were there); well, OK, when I say “all” I don’t really mean “everyone.”  In the Edinburgh Review (1853)[1] a man named William James Conybeare wrote an article entitled “Church Parties” where he mentioned that the Anglicans had adopted the slogan "Equality within the House of God.” It seems that they (those pesky Anglicans) decided that each church was only required to offer 20% free seating (no more, no less). That’s right; the Anglicans ran the first church special, “20% off your salvation seat.” In fact, the idea of “renting” pews became such an issue that some new churches, mostly in the USA, started to let people know that they were "free and open churches" where everyone could sit – keep in mind, when they said “anyone” they don’t really mean “anyone” – please, this was still the mid-1850s. By 1866, Samuel Ralph Townshend Mayer founded The Free and Open Church Association[2] (again, it was 1866, so it was not truly “free” and not even close to being “equal.”).

Generally speaking, pews have a mighty, soughed, weird, greed-filled past within the church. Yet, it took forever to get them into the church, and in some cases it will take hell freezing over to get them out.

Moving Past Pews and Into Fresh Air

Not too long ago I had a very nice conversation with a pastor from the New England area who asked, "Why would you remove the pews from the church and replace them with couches, tables and chairs?" I thought for a moment, and replied, "Well, have you ever noticed how a courtroom and a church look the same? Since one is for judgment and the other is for forgiveness, maybe we should not look like a courtroom."

The idea in creating a worship space that is comfortable for all, not just those who hold to the old tradition of pews, or even folding chairs, seems foreign to the staunch followers. For many, church should not be a comfortable place. I remember once talking with a church leader in Pennsylvania and mentioned that we should get rid of the pews and put in couches. You would have thought I suggested we kill that Jesus guy. He said, “No way. If people want to sit on couches they can stay home.” I said, “They are.”

 If the worship space is where we gather, and God lives, I think it should look more like God’s house, and less like God’s courtroom (I have a feeling God does not have pews in the living room – I see couches, chairs, tables and a killer big screen plasma TV). For this to happen we have to realize that creative people do not do their best work in large, cold, dark smelly places. Here are some thing’s I think we need to do:

First, make the space intimate. Large caverness spaces are not the best places to have an intimate moment with the Divine, or with others. I am pretty sure there is less intimacy in the football stadium church, than in the coffee house church. I do realize that this goes against everything we think of when we think of church. For many, if not most, the idea is that “the only good church is a large church.” I’m not sure that is the case. I have Pastored both, and I can tell you that intimacy is better achieved in a smaller setting. What is important to know is that intimacy also breeds creativity.

Creativity requires that people connect, people share, people talk, people listen, people touch. Without it, without intimacy you will never have the foundations of creativity.

Second, get warm. Now, I am not talking about setting the thermostat at a certain level (though that helps) I am talking about opening up to others. At some level this is related to the idea of having an intimate space, because in that space you are able to connect with others. When I walked into that church when I was a kid, it was cold. Yes, it was physically cold, but it was “cold” – it lacked a human dimension. You see, warmth comes from human contact and seeing that there is human life in the building. We have to get past this idea that everything needs to be spotless, and everything needs to be in its place. When humans enter a space, chaos ensues. Humans bring with them “stuff” (crap, if you will – physical crap, emotional crap, and spiritual crap). Let that “stuff” be, let it form, let it birth the creativity in others.

Third, turn on some lights. I like darkness, and yes it is easy on the eyes, but I have no desire to live in darkness. Let the light shine in; let the light disinfect the space. For many, it is creepy to walk into a dark place, find a spot on a wooden bench and try to connect with others. When I sat waiting for my Grandmother, I keep looking under the seat because I just knew there was some freak monster under the seat – and it was going to grab me and eat me alive.

Lastly, air it out. Now, when I talk about “smells” I am not talking about incense, or candles – those are cool (and let’s be honest, they can hide the smell of the crap that comes in) I’m talking about that musty, rank smell of old. I’m talking about that smell everyone knows about but has no desire to talk about. That weird smell; the one when you ask “what is that smell” everyone says “We have no idea, but it’s always been here.” By letting the light in, by airing out the place, by making it more intimate that smell will go away – that smell could be old books, the ones published long before the oldest member of the church was born and no one reads (dump them – even if you think they are classics – trust me, they’re not) – that smell could be old theology, the kind that hides in the small cracks in the wall only to show itself at the worse time ever (dump it – it has no value and all it does is crowd the room and make it smell). That smell could be old traditions, old memories, old furniture or so many other things. But for the church to truly air out and invite creativity to move in, you have to air out the smell.


Don’t “think outside the box,” think as if there is no box to begin with. Do not fear change, embrace it and move the church forward.

[1] Sydney Smith (1853). Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal. A. and C. Black. p. 309. Retrieved 27 February 2013.

[2]  "Mayer, Samuel Ralph Townshend". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.