Pews, Chairs, or Something Else in the Worship Center?

One of the larger expenses of many churches, and often an area of contention, is the type of seating in the worship center. I have been amazed to hear stories of intense church arguments over seating in a church facility. In this brief article, I do my best to offer some objective analysis. I understand there are emotional attachments that go well beyond this mundane prose.

  • There are really three choices of seating instead of two. Most of the debate is between pews and chairs. But there are really two choices beyond pews. Design/build firms often call the latter two pew chairs and theater seats.
  • Pew chairs refer to the mobile, stackable chairs. They can be moved and configured as needed. They tend to be a bit more expensive than comparable seating of regular pews.
  • Theater seats are fixed and not mobile. They are typically bolted to the floor.
  • According to design/build experts, the actual capacity of pews is much lower than the stated capacity. In fact, pews are considered full when they are at 70% of stated capacity. Pew chairs fill at 80% capacity. And theater seats fill at 90% capacity. So, from this perspective, theater seats are more economically efficient.
  • Pew chairs engender greater flexibility, but the church must have a place to store them when they are not in use in the worship center. Frankly, many church leaders are surprised to discover how much space those chairs actually need for storage.
  • The parking capacity of the church is directly impacted by the type of seating chosen. Zoning authorities look at the seating capacity to determine the number of parking places a church must have. Theater seats fare better here, because each seat is counted as a capacity of one. Pew capacity related to parking counts one person for every 18 inches. For the record, most of us can’t fit in 18 inches, so more parking is required beyond the real capacity. If a church has the moveable stacking chairs, the number of chairs is irrelevant to parking. Instead, the total square feet of the assembly space is calculated.
  • Pews tend to have more sentimental attachments, particularly in more liturgical churches. But a number of non-liturgical church members express strong emotional attachments to pews as well.
  • Because Americans are getting larger, many of the pew chairs and the theater seats must be larger. So more churches are getting both 21 inch and 24 inch seats. The latter, obviously, reduces seating capacity.
  • Theater seats allow for easier cleaning and easier access because they fold up when someone is not sitting in them. Obviously, that is not the case with pews and pew chairs (stackable chairs). Both have to be moved to clean around and under them.

As I look at the three alternatives, I see three simple perspectives. Pew chairs, or stackable chairs, allow for greater flexibility. Theater seats engender greater efficiencies. And pews engender greater sentimentality.

Of course, there are more issues both functionally and emotionally. I probably have oversimplified the matter here. So I know there are many more discussion points. And I have little doubt that my incredible readers will add to this conversation.

What type of seating do you have in your facility? If you could change the type, which would you prefer?

Posted on May 12, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Tom McCloud says on

    My church is switching from pews to chairs. Are you aware of anyone that would like the pews which are in excellent condition. They also include pew cushions which also are in excellent condition. There are approximately 50 pews that vary in length. We need to remove the pews immediately.

    There is no charge for the pews however donations may be accepted but is not required.. The church is located in Cincinnati Ohio

  • Frank Ross says on

    Excellent post. One thing I about chairs is controlling younger children who are corraled in a pew are loose in chaired areas. Babies who can be layed in the pew beside you. I have looked at a lot of areas to see the peference and it looks like the younger [people and the older people like pews. One to be able to more control their flocks and the other because of tradition. The others like chairs. Personally I think pews offer a closeness not available in chair seating. Our santuary is old. It has wooden windows with leaded glass in every window. The walls are stucco and the floor is pine wood. Our towns community building has concrete floor with commercial tiles like a supermarket and the steel chairs destroy the tiles. I am constantly replacing the rubber tips on the chairs. I cannot imaging the old wooden floors of our santuary having chairs shuffling across them. We have an activity room in the church twice the size of the santuary to use for activities.

  • Another factor to consider with pews, is the upkeep expenses. My church is currently going through the process of converting from pews to chairs, mainly because there is no one willing to come to our location in order to perform repairs! So our only option would be to ship them out (horribly expensive) or replace them with chairs. Replacing them was the obvious answer.

    Unfortunately a small but loud group (‘anti chair’ folks) is taking their complaints beyond the church and posting criticisms in public forums. Please pray that this will pass quickly!

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