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?


  1. says

    We added a contemporary service last year and chose not to change our traditional sanctuary with pews. Instead, we remodeled our gym/fellowship hall and converted it to a worship center. We have a traditional service at 8:45am in the sanctuary and our contemporary service in the worship center at 11am. We built a 2 step platform for the stage and built custom storage cabinets around the exterior to house our stackable chairs, all of our fellowship tables and all our worship instruments. New carpet squares, house and stage lighting as well as a new sound system finished off the space. After our Sunday service, we clear the worship center completely. During the week, the room is used by the children in our two pre-school programs and for all of our church fellowship needs. We were thus able to maintain the flexibility of the room and still have a beautiful worship space on Sunday.

  2. Russ H says

    I’ve had the good fortune to experience 3 of these.
    My home church has traditional pews in the worship center.
    Our old facility has pew chairs and we’ve visited a local church with theater seating.
    Theater seating offers the most comfort and accessibility but the cost can be out of reach. My overall preference would be pew chairs if the proper quality, comfort level is affordable.

    • Hal says

      Theater seats are nice if quality seats are purchased and also installed properly. I have visited some churches with theatre seating and found the experience to be terrible. I am six foot tall and not overweight for my size but found the seating to be very uncomfortable. When installed the installers placed each row with very little walk room between rows. The rows were so narrow that one needed to almost enter the end of each row sideways and then inch-worm their way down the row in a sideways motion to your intended seat. And then when seated my knees were jambed against the seat in front of me.
      Theatre seating is so confining for the individual anyway and if placed close to the row in front of you it confines you even more and by the time the service was over I felt so cramped up that I could not wait to get out of there. I found the seating to be so poorly planned that this alone would keep me from coming back.
      Pews have the advantage that they are not so confining in sideways movement but people also tend to spread out in the pews more with their personal belongings like books, purses etc. Some people tend to sit in pews like they do their Lazy-boy at home by sitting in a 45 degree angle to the pew and and kind of lounging with arms spread out across the back of the pew, which can take up additional space.
      I personally think quality upholstered individual chairs with an ample seat width is most comfortable and due to design tend to confine individuals to their alotted space which allows for more overall seating capacity. Plus the fact that they are moveable which lends to the ability to re-arrange for custom seating applications.

  3. Jamie says

    Pews are best for accommodating squirmy children. I can’t imagine trying to police an active 9 YO, 7 YO and 5 YO in theatre seats. I can barely do it in a theatre where, to be honest, they are much more engaged than they are at church.

  4. Mark says

    I liked what my friend told about sitting in an Eastern Orthodox Church. Only those who were elderly and who could not stand were given a seat. Otherwise you stand for the service.

    • Cheryl says

      Hi Mark!
      As someone who has been raised in the Eastern Orthodox Faith, you’d be surprised at the disagreements regarding seating within our churches too!
      Typically, it’s pews vs. no pews.

      On the “pews” side, people quote, among others, Justin Martyr and his description if the weekly worship of Christians:
      “all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read … Then we all RISE together and pray,…” Obviously, the people were sitting for a period if time if they needed to rise. There are many other examples from early Church writings along these lines.
      Most Greek, Antiochian and OCA (not southern diocese) Orthodox have adopted pews. Also, usually it is “cradle” Orthodox – those born into the Faith – that don’t seem to equate having pews with any kind of contradiction to Orthodox Faith or Tradition. They look at pews as being a small “t” tradition issue.

      On the “no pews” side, the view that biblical warrant proves that we should stand to worship is prevalent. For instance ” New Testament scripture, where we find the words of Christ: “When ye stand praying” (Mark 9:25), and in apostolic tradition, where it is often proclaimed “Let us stand well.” Also, II Chronicles and portions of I Ezra, Isaiah, I Kings, Daniel, and Apocalypse have been cited as sources that call us to stand during worship.
      Additionally, many simply hold the view that pews relegate the laity to being an audience “watching a show” instead of active participants in the Liturgy.

      Whether there are pews in an Orthodox Church, or not, most able bodied participants do stand for the majority of each service. Even very young children know when they minimally must stand (ie. The Gospel reading, The Cherubic Hymn, the Creed & The Lord’s Prayer)

      A non-Orthodox Christian might wonder “How do they stand watching a whole service or listening to a long sermon?” Truth is we don’t. The sermon is not the main focus of an Orthodox Liturgy, communion is. So, the service is a emotional, all senses build up to The Eucharist. Sermons tend to be very short, and often are given at the end of the service instead of the middle.

      Also, the Orthodox Laity is rarely in the position of only watching. Instead, they are in a liturgical “dance,” so to speak, throughout the service – lighting candles, making the sign of the cross often, congregational singing, bowing, prostrating & kneeling (during certain services), breathing in the incense, gathering for Communion, tasting the bread and wine… Two hours is gone before you know it. Paschal (Easter) services often run 3-4 hours, or more, in length. But, the Paschal Service also makes use of walking around the Church three times at midnight, holding a portion of the nighttime service at the front doors of the church, and incorporating many other “physical” motions, movements and responses.
      (Easter was my, now husband’s, first experience with an Orthodox Service. I figured if he could get through the service, he was a keeper!)

      Hope this has been interesting and also helped explain a little about why your Eastern Orthodox friend said they had no pews. With all of the active movement and sensory activation, the standing is not as hard as you’re imagining!

      Wishing you all a blessed Lenten season.

  5. says

    A great topic. Thank you for bringing it up!

    I caution your readers to examine the impact of seating on parking very carefully. Calculating for larger seating can actually work against your best interest, in that most jurisdictions require too little seating for the actual requirements of the congregation. They usually require one space for every three or four seats in the worship area. The reality is that most churches have about 2 people per car. Therefore, you may be providing half the parking necessary to fill the building if you only provide the minimum the required by city ordinance. Therefore, the assumption of seating at 18″ on pews becomes irrelevant in most cases. This is even more skewed when the children are worshipping in another part of the building, or the church is in multiple services. It is best to calculate parking required based on the desired attendance on campus at a time, divided by the congregation’s people-per-car ratio (600 attendance divided by 2.1 people-per-car = 286 cars). Using the city’s 4:1, it would only require 150 spaces, not enough to nearly fill the building. There are always extenuating circumstances, like shared parking, that can effect these numbers, but in most cases, this is the best way to plan parking.

    My experience with pews has been quite different in that I have consistently seen them max out at 80%, not 70% as stated when the capacity is calculated correctly, but I have never seen a church consistently fill theater seats 90% full. Such numbers do get tossed about in conversation, but I have never seen anything but anecdotal evidence from general observation cited which is contrary to our experience researching attendance figures of churches that have outgrown their worship space. Have you seen research on the topic?

    We frequently see stackable chairs used in churches that never intend to store them all away. This gives the definition-of-space advantage many people prefer without the expense of theater seats. It also gives the option to remove a portion of them to make the room feel fuller when starting a new service or experiencing a low attendance time. Seats are then easily added back as attendance grows. Chairs are also consistently the most economical solution of the three.

  6. says

    Sense most churches use PPT and do not have music books, then most of the extra luggage usually carried will fit in the pockets on back of the theater seats. S.S. books and Bibles take up 12 to 18 inches.

  7. John says

    Excellent post, thank you Thom. Two comments:

    1) We use stackable chairs, and I notice a difference when we set up the chairs with what I call “loose packing” vs. “tight packing”. Setting the chairs right next to each other in a row only encourages people to have empty chairs between them. But arranging them with a small gap between chairs (4 to 6 inches), and people tend to use every chair.

    2) I have had a conviction for a long time that we should never design a space that is “single purpose”. A room should always be adaptable to host different kinds of events. To do otherwise is poor stewardship of our resources. This allows only for stackable chairs, I know, but I would have a hard time justifying anything else, church budgets being what they are.

    I would love to hear others’ comments on this.

  8. says


    You said “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.”

    Can I get ask from where you are getting these numbers? I ask, not because I’m skeptical, but because we are looking to move to chairs from pews and are anticipating some resistance and I’d like to have some hard evidence that pew chairs are more efficient than pews.

    Thanks for your great insights on this blog. This is such a helpful resource to so many!


  9. Tim Bullard says

    There’s another option. 😉 Outside the US, Orthodox churches have chairs or benches along the walls for those who truly need them. Otherwise, everyone stands. Truly traditional Orthodox churches in the US maintain this as well.

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