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Why I Think Pew Sitting is OK

(Lisa Robinson)

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have most likely heard the term “pew sitter”. It is typically used in a derogatory way to describe those who come to church but make no contribution to church ministry.  What that usually means is that they don’t volunteer to do something at the local church for its benefit, such as volunteer for this or that ministry or program.  It makes sense that they are the first ones accused of the church lacking sufficient volunteers.  For pastors and church leaders who decry the presence of pew sitters, it is a call for everyone to get up and do something.

Now, I do sympathize with the pastors who find volunteers lacking for important functions related to carrying out church ministry. But I’m not sure that the solution is to spurn those that are pew sitters and treat them as consumers to absorb “services” but give nothing back in return in the way of volunteerism (money is another matter as all should contribute).  I don’t think it is helpful to tell people that if they are not doing something they are not contributing to the work of the body and they should be doing something.

The mentality that everyone must be doing something raises some serious questions in my mind related to the purpose and function of the church. The first order of business is how we define it and clearly throughout church history there has been disagreement. The definition that I like is the new covenant body of believers in Christ, called by the Father and united by the Spirit. The physical presence of the local assembly embodies that in a specific location under authorized leadership and the presence of ordinances.. But more importantly, it is defined as an ontological function, meaning the essence of what it is rather than by what the church does. In other words, the church does according to what it is.

So local assemblies should reflect how the body relates to Christ. Note Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the identification of Jewish and Gentile believers being joined into one body through Christ’s death (Ephesians 2:13-16)

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple to the Lord. And him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

We are an organism in which the parts are united together that contribute to the growth of the body as each part does it work, as Ephesians 4:16 indicates. Certain gifts are given to the body to “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ will be built up until all reach unity of the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Notice that is not every gift and is specifically related to how we receive the word of the Lord.[1]

Then I look at the pastoral epistles that describe functions to fulfill this purpose, so that people are taught and fed and able to carry out the ministry of Christ.  What this indicates to me is that the body must gather together to participate in the fellowship that is needed in order to grow itself up in love. That does not entail a function of giving but of receiving.  In other words, the primary focus should be on building up the body not on making sure everyone is doing something. In fact, I would argue that it means the fewer ones that are doing something the better. Our gatherings should be a time of refreshment, revival and renewal. And yes, that does include the music portion as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that volunteer needs be vacated. Heaven forbid! Pastors need as much support as possible. What I’m targeting here is a mentality that says if someone is not doing something they are dead weight. It is a mentality that equates busyness with legitimate service and growth.

At the formation of the early church, I see nothing of this idea that everybody should be doing something or a castigation of pew sitters. Surely, there were a select few that contributed to the carrying out of teaching and serving.  But the doing was the contribution towards each others lives to build them up with fellowship, encouragement and prayer.

We might look at 1 Corinthians 12 and think it to be a prescription for the fact that everybody must be doing something. But at the time of writing, Paul’s identification of the gifts were more about how all the gifts work in concert to build up the body.  I don’t believe we can look at that list or Romans 12:4-8 and conclude in a contemporary context that translates into ministry roles to pull off Sundays and other church programs.

So that gets to my suggestion that I think pew sitting is ok. It means that there are those who come into fellowship and may contribute gifts to the body although it might not be through official titles or specific ministry functions. The one exercising a gift of mercy may do so to build up others in a way that is never officially seen. Service and encouragement may occur outside the physical infrastructure of where the church meets.  Coming on Sundays just to participate in the fellowship of the body, to learn and to grow is quite reasonable and quite biblical. Consider the picture of the early church here -“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)

Furthermore, some folks really need to pew sit to handle outside circumstances. The woman who comes to church alone and must go home to an unbelieving spouse could probably benefit from being a pew sitter. The man who goes into a hostile work environment full of atheists and agnostics probably needs to be a pew sitter. The family so broken by unemployment, addiction, or family strife should probably sit out ministry to sit in the pew and be a receiver. Why should worn out people wear themselves out further?

The bottom line, I think we need to re-examine this idea that pew sitting is a bad thing. I don’t think it necessarily is. Nor do I think it means that folks are not contributing to the body.  In fact, it may very well be the best thing for the contribution to the body.

[1] My position is that apostles and prophets served as the foundation for the testimony of Christ and that relation to the writing of scripture. In the 1st century context, it made sense to speak of apostles and prophets as actively proclaiming the word of the Lord.

26 Responses to “Why I Think Pew Sitting is OK”

  1. clap, clap, clap. Amen. Their has been much theologising done on the subject of vocation / calling. And if its true that within God’s framework, there is no difference in calling between some called to clean toilets and a pastor called to pastor a church… we need to truly honour that all of us have a valid 24/7 calling.

    Perhaps the true work of the ministry is to equip us all to be ‘pew sitters’ so that we can do the real work of the ministry the other 97.3% of the time we breath outside of the church walls.

  2. Well said. I was feeling a bit frustrated with the lack of volunteerism at my church until I realized not everyone is there to volunteer…some people just come to worship God, and that is a good thing! We must refrain from judging each other, and instead support and build each other up in Christ, trusting in the fullness and diversity of the body of Christ.

  3. AMEN! AND AMEN! Thanks Lisa for articulating that! and Craig, “Perhaps the true work of the ministry is to equip us all to be ‘pew sitters’ so that we can do the real work of the ministry the other 97.3% of the time we breath outside of the church walls.” Yes! Amen!

  4. I do believe that there are those who just need to sit and feed, so to speak – to grow. Sometimes people need time to heal from being burned by other churches/believers, or to recover from some other spiritual trauma. No problem with that.

    But at the same time, all are called to be servants who set aside their own desires to become obedient to God. No one is exempted from some form of that. We’re fully aware that often it is accomplished outside the church walls; in the community, in the workplace, etc..

    But in our church, we’re struggling with those who, as far as we can tell, do nothing. Problem is that to a large extent it’s the older folks, those who should be the most mature, understanding the requirements of discipleship. But they just don’t respond. There is a mentality of “I’ve done my part, now I’m retired.” Speaking for myself, I have trouble finding a theology of retirement in my Bible, but our society has created such a concept and it has spilled over into the church. It’s a constant frustration for us and a barrier to implementing ministries we feel are important.

    I guess self-denial and taking up crosses have never been popular concepts, even in the church. Jesus warned us about it – the fields are ready for harvest, but the workers are few. Some of them are just sitting on their (metaphorical) donkeys “enjoying” life. Well, in our case it’s golf carts, but you know…

  5. The question is, are the “pew sitters” actually feeding and growing? From what I see, more often they are just there, sitting. It’s not that they don’t join church ministries, it’s that they don’t join any ministry. Everything is someone else’s business, they are just there for show.

    If “we are an organism in which the parts are united together that contribute to the growth of the body as each part does it work”, then each part ought to have some work to do, in or outside of the church building.

    If “certain gifts are given to the body to ‘prepare God’s people for works of service'”. then there must be “works of service” for everyone who calls him/herself “God’s people”.

    I am not saying that “pew sitting” is not “okay”. I am saying that if someone is a habitual “pew sitter”, someone ought to challenge him/her to do something.

  6. Francis:

    “I am not saying that “pew sitting” is not “okay”. I am saying that if someone is a habitual “pew sitter”, someone ought to challenge him/her to do something.”

    I agree. In a culture, including a Christian culture, where people expect it to be about them, and expect to be entertained, much of the “get out of the pew” message is done in reaction to that mindset.

  7. Again I feel that some of us are missing what LIsa is saying! To be a pew sitter is not necessarily mean that one is not participating and “doing” nothing. I think she makes a good point that the church looks at it’s programs and ministries as the only work of the church. It’s not! Encouragment, prayer, fellowship, listening, helping, caring, transporting, etc. are all important services of a Christian that may not take place under or within a church sanctioned function. In fact this type of church/community takes place all the time usually within small groups(cells) of the general church population. IMHO

  8. Thank you so much for saying this, and putting it out here for discussion.
    Throughout my 20’s and 30’s, I was very active in my church, helping in many areas – newsletters, editing for the pastor, food pantry, working with kids, church nursery, cleaning crew, and more. I was also very active in a Christian organization for families, leading, coordinating, etc.
    For the past ten years or so, though, I have been one of those people who has been unable to do anything. Between a painful and stressful marriage that saps a lot of my emotional energy, and a near-death trauma in our family that for years of recovery required extreme amounts of my time and energy, I have nothing extra to give to a church. I also help my aging mother and my uncle with issues like paperwork, Medicare problems, etc., and I give considerable time to my new daughters-in-law, getting to know them and investing in their lives, building relationships.
    I feel uncomfortable with attending a church regularly, because I know that many people will consider me a “pew-sitter” for not volunteering. They don’t know how many times I take a meal to someone who is sick, or that I have given a lot of time mentoring and helping a younger woman who is trying to turn her life around. They don’t know that I coordinate a home Bible study for women, including a daughter-in-law. These are the things I feel God is calling me to do. I would like to attend a church for fellowship and Bible study, but it’s hard to find that.

  9. Lisa Robinson July 4, 2012 at 8:23 am

    “The question is, are the “pew sitters” actually feeding and growing? From what I see, more often they are just there, sitting. It’s not that they don’t join church ministries, it’s that they don’t join any ministry. Everything is someone else’s business, they are just there for show.”

    Francis, if they don’t join any ministry is that such a bad thing? What do we know of those who come and sit and take that throughout their week in meaningful ways to other members of the body and to the outside world? See, that’s exactly my point. Just because one does not participate in a defined ministry program does not necessarily mean they aren’t contributing.

    Also, by what measure do we measure growth? The deception of busyness is that we can equate service with growth. Just because one is really involved does not mean they are growing and just because one is not involved does not mean they are not growing. Our problem is that we want to see it through involvement when that may not necessarily be the case.

  10. Lisa Robinson July 4, 2012 at 8:28 am

    Dave, I can see what you’re saying. But here’s a thought. Do these older folks dispense godly wisdom and advice to the younger generation? I think that’s something.

  11. Lisa Robinson July 4, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Kaycee, bless you. When my late husband was alive I was actively serving on the worship team and generally volunteered when people were needed for special events. Thing is, it was an unequally yoked marriage, he was chronically ill and there was much unkindness. Plus, for 3 of those years I was doing a 50 mile commute to work and also dealing with a very active toddler. But I was under the “you must serve” mentality fueled by the leadership of my church and I bought into it hook, line and sinker. Not only that, but I had very little assistance from anyone in the body so I was basically this lone woman doing a major juggling act. He passed away in 2004. It’s only been recently that I can see that I could have benefited from some pew sitting. I’m having to confront a lot of the defense mechanisms I built up to keep it all going and gladly shedding it off.

    I’ve known of others who have had to step down from ministry for a period of time because of stuff going on in their lives, including care taking. I think that is a good thing. I would love to see you in a body of believers that understands that the flock need to be cared for and nourished and may not be in a place where they can sign up to do things.

  12. Many of the people who have touched me the most at church did so outside of the context of volunteering. Many did volunteer, but their advice and encouragement has been infinitely more valuable in building up my faith than their volunteering.
    I think there are some people who really don’t do anything in church. That is, they come in, sit down and then slip out without talking to anybody. But I don’t think that’s who Lisa is talking about here. I think she’s talking about those who, while they don’t officially volunteer, spend time in fellowship with other believers in the church and enrich the body just by being there.

  13. I’ve seen the other side (and I’m sure a lot of others have too), when a church has few volunteers and those volunteers get burned out because they serve week in and week out on top of everything else in their lives with no one else to take the slack. I think this is especially true in small churches where the only staff may be the pastor (and even he may be bivocational). This may be an indication that we need to rethink what the modern church does. But it may also be an indication of our consumerist culture, where people go to a church and say “What’s in it for me?” and stay in that mindset instead of reaching the point of saying “What gifts do I have that I can use to serve?” I guess the question we should be asking is if the teaching and ministry of the church is truly making disciples who reach the mindset of Christ who came not to be served, but to serve, and if is there evidence of such fruit in the lives of the people (whether they do work in the church or not).

  14. This could get long so let me say I basically agree with the post. But I also agree with the dissenting (for lack of a better word) comments.

    Let me draw an analogy to welfare. On the surface, people tend to have either a positive or negative disposition towards the concept of welfare (pew-sitting). Here’s my take on it – there are two groups of people that receive welfare: the needy and the lazy. The needy truly are down on their luck, tired, financially struggling, but busting their humps to do their best. In my mind, welfare is a valuable benefit to being an American and *should* be available for the “needy.” The “lazy,” on the other hand, are on welfare because they can be, and they aspire to nothing better. In my mind, welfare should *not* be available to the lazy. But there’s no way to exclude them from it, so maybe supporting the lazy is just an acceptable negative consequence.

    The problem is, you can’t offer welfare to one without offering it to the other. And you can’t withhold it from the one without withholding it from the other. My opinion: Make welfare available and somehow regulate/minimize the benefit to the abusers – the lazy.

    Regarding pew-sitting, I would come to the same conclusion – you cannot provide it from the one (the one needing rest and refreshment because they’re busting their humps) without providing it to the other (the lazy). So I agree that pew-sitting *is* a valuable benefit of the church, but if it is being abused (by the lazy), it should somehow be managed. I have no suggestions on how to manage it – I just think the lazy will be an inherent problem with allowing pew-sitting to those who truly need it.

    And maybe that’s OK. Well, maybe not OK, but given the choice, I think it’s better to provide rest and refreshment to those who need it, than to not provide rest and refreshment to the lazy.

    Bottom line: Lisa, I see your point and agree. With the knowledge that there is a negative side…

  15. @ Lisa, comment 10:

    You know, that’s something we wish we could develop more. I feel that discipleship often comes in the form of mentoring younger people, but we don’t have much of that happening either. Partly our fault – we’re not sure how to create an atmosphere that encourages that type of relationship. We have two services, one more traditional, one more contemporary, so we have created our own divide. That divide has some clear advantages, but it also makes more obvious the fact that some of the older people are not doing much more than pew-sitting. On the other hand, those in the traditional service who are active in ministry are very dedicated. We have a large group of Gideons, who, while not specifically serving in our church, are very active in distribution of Bibles all over the region. We’re fine with that.

    Let me add that we’re also aware that some people face difficult situations and need that time on Sunday just to be strengthened for the upcoming week. No problem with that either.

    It’s also VERY true that churches can be leeches, sucking the life from anyone who is incapable of saying “no” to whatever request comes their way. Long before I entered pastoral ministry, my wife and I had to learn to say “no” without feeling guilty about it. Frustrated some people to no end. Especially since we’re musicians and it seemed like every event that happens around a church “needs” music. People couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t just drop everything to go play their little gathering. For free, of course.

    Whoops, had one foot on the soapbox there. Sorry!

    • Lisa Robinson July 4, 2012 at 10:01 am

      Dave, funny how pragmatism has a way of biting us in the butt ;) And having served in music ministry, I understand your comment all too well.

      Mike, I totally agree that we have to be sensitive to those times we need to just sit. When I went through a paradigm shift and left the church where I had served in the music ministry, I found myself in a small baptistic bible church that had a way of harboring people who came out of abusive church situations. I was a pew sitter for about a year and the best part is that it was totally cool with the pastor. I eventually signed up to teach Sunday School and be an Awana leader. But man did I need that year off. And I didn’t sign up to serve because someone was brow beating me but because after a while, I wanted to give back.

      And that leads me to think of a pretty important component in all this. I get the impression that we are overly concerned about the ones who apparently give nothing. But what of the Holy Spirit’s work in their heart? For the most part we don’t really know why a pew sitter sits, unless of course they vocalize it. We automatically assume it is because of a consumerist attitude but do we really know that? It could be because of fear, feelings of inadequacy, bad past experiences, etc. I think we need to learn to be patient and pray that whatever God is doing in that person’s life will eventually result in contribution and fruitfulness.

  16. Another thought – whatever it is Jesus is asking you to do, do it. And don’t let others judge you for it.

    My wife was a pastor for several years. After a few churches and lots of bad experiences with other pastors and basically sucky, abusive people. We eventually got to the point where she left the ministry and we moved to a very large church SO THAT nobody would know us. We needed rest and repair.

    I took some shots for being a pew-sitter. I didn’t care because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, not a follower of Pastor [whoever], and Jesus was calling me to rest.

    For me, I should not be a pew sitter forever. Once I was refreshed and repaired I did need to re-enter service at a low level (I run sound once a month). But that’s me. That’s what Jesus is asking ME to do.

    And because of that experience, I cannot judge someone else if they are not working hard.

    Besides, how does that look to the unsaved – whether it is right or wrong, what I think it looks like to them is, “Get saved. Get busy. Say goodbye to your friends.” It doesn’t have to be that. Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” But I know people who have actually left the faith because of the burden the church placed on them. They found an easier yoke AWAY from Jesus.

    To quote musician Keith green completely out of context, “My brothers and sisters, there is something seriously wrong here …”

    Again, the bottom line is that I agree with you, Lisa.

  17. Lisa Robinson said:
    “It’s only been recently that I can see that I could have benefited from some pew sitting. I’m having to confront a lot of the defense mechanisms I built up to keep it all going and gladly shedding it off.”

    Lisa, I went through an experience that certainly wasn’t as difficult as yours, losing your husband, but there were some similarities. I was the same as you were, juggling so much and being “superwoman,” with three young children, and that was during the time that my husband had begun to change and become very difficult and verbally abusive. Then I became ill and nearly died; my doctor told my husband I wouldn’t survive the night. I did recover, but that experience is what made me take a step back, and realize that perhaps God hadn’t called me to a life of constant busy-ness.

    Lisa Robinson said:
    “I would love to see you in a body of believers that understands that the flock need to be cared for and nourished and may not be in a place where they can sign up to do things.”

    I would love it, too. Last year, I went to a Wednesday night class at a church, even though it turned out not to be what I had hoped. Last month, I went with a friend to a weekly pastor’s teaching in theology. But what I really want is not what churches generally offer – genuine fellowship with true Bible study, not Bible teaching. I want participatory experiences, not just passively listening to someone else tell me what he or she learned. And always, in the back of my mind, I know that if I keep coming, they’ll want to start getting me involved, or they’ll view me as a taker. Plus, what works the best for me is an evening service, not Sunday mornings, and churches often reserve Wednesday nights for youth classes. An additional need for me is to be with a group of women, not a study with men and women. But I will keep trying to find a body to fit in with.

  18. Amen! and Amen! Thank you for this needed (imo) piece! I have wondered (in silence) at many of the “needs” to be met in the church-“needs” such as flower arrangements, “special” music practices, coffee, decorations for holidays, etc. While I agree flowers are pretty and I am a coffee drinker I would be totally OK with those folks spending some extra time with their spouse or maybe resting that morning. If someone LOVES to make coffee, play in the band, do flowers, etc. GREAT! Otherwise, I wouldn’t say it’s required and volunteers are needed for this function. Thank you again! ~Laurie Duffy

  19. So many books on how to achieve this or that in your local church, so many leadership seminars (everybody a leader nowadays), so many methods, diagrams, words imported from the business world, so much effort to have entertainment that can compete with the “world”… I think we just totally lost what the church really is: It’s an organism, not an organization.

    Things should be so much simpler, living is not a to-do list. We’re called to live, and give life. Martha and Mary (lc 10.38-42) just came to my mind.

  20. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. I do mostly agree with you – certainly I know that there are a number of people in our church who have come specifically because they need space to recuperate and assess their lives having come out of years of difficult ministry.

    However, it’s a difficult thing because the term “pew-sitter” is actually too broad. Some people pew-sit and never actually involve themselves in any part of church fellowship – in fact, there is no “fellowship”. The denomination I belong to (Church of Scotland – Presbyterian) asks the question of each person when they become a member “Do you promise to give a fitting proportion of your time, talents, and money to the work of the church?”

    Many churches overburden themselves with unsustainable patterns of ministry. But I sometimes wonder if we do have people in our pews who are a bit like an unruly teenager who treats the house like a hotel….

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that “pew-sitter” is an unhelpful term that covers many different types of people, but that there _are_ *some* that need challenged about their behaviour

  21. Lisa — Great blog! I so resonate with the gist of what (all) you’re saying. And I could say a lot. So. Taking myself as an e.g. . . . .

    I’ve had several factory and/or manual labor jobs in recent years & am in my 50s. 50-62 hrs per a 6 day week. One job was: @ work, 5AM. Later: to bed, 7:45PM.

    I’d been attending a Mega-Church (of 6,500) which had all types of programs & ministries. To be a member, one had to 1) agree to tithe, 2) join a cell group, 3) attend regularly, 4) find out what spiritual gift one “has” and get into a ministry that matches it (and, while I’m charismatic, I’m suspect that each person “owns” a spiritual gift, but nm).

    Anyways . . . working so much, I couldn’t go to a cell group coz I went to bed 15 mins after they started. I took a class on spiritual gifts and found mine are more along teaching (or theological lines). Where or how in this huge church could I exercise that gift? Email the pastor to say he defined a Greek word wrong? LOL

    At this same church I often found myself talking with someone after the service. Tho I’m an INTP (like Lisa) I’ve got an out-going side to me. I witness to folks almost effortlessly & often. It’s not an official “program” or “ministry” (as defined by this & other churches).

    My point is, I’m just BE-ing a Christian & the DO-ing comes naturally as I “walk in the Spirit.”

    Lastly, I attended a diff church when also working a lot. The sermons were in-depth and always gave me “fuel” for my upcoming week. All’s I did in that church was “pew sit” and, then, did works of service (ministry) the following week. This particular pastor always gave me the “fuel” I needed.

    Oh! Chaplain Mike (over at Internet Monk) has a related blog: No Super Christians

    Y’all should check it out!

  22. P.S. (Kaycee @ #8)

    Have you considered House Church? (aka, Simple or Organic Church)?

    I’ve recently become more interested in this for several reasons, which I won’t go into.

    If you google one of the above, there’s lots of vids and sites about House/Simple/Organic Church these days.

    I’ve visited a couple & am considering starting one myself.

    P.S.S. LISA ROCKS!

  23. Rick C. says:
    “Have you considered House Church? (aka, Simple or Organic Church)?”

    Rick, yes, I was a part of a “house church” (or whatever one wants to call it) for several years. I had to withdraw because of my painful marriage; often, I was just feeling too emotional to participate…..in a smaller group like that, there’s no “pew sitting.” :-) In many ways, I prefer a smaller group like that, but only if it’s not “church-as-usual-but-in-a-different-setting.” In other words, not one person dominating/controlling. I also believe that a churchier (more typical) setting can offer good things that a home church can’t, simply because there will be more members and a little more organization, and more people who are gifted in helping things flow. The best church I have ever been a part of was a small congregation that met in a strip mall space. It was traditional in that we met on Sunday mornings, and we sang together, then the pastor taught. But it was informal and casual, and much more participatory. Also, everyone was more honest/transparent and we were involved with each others’ lives on more of a family level.

  24. Rick C,

    i was member of a ‘house’ church for years. Their leader was a woman who had good intentions but very bad theology, We have to be careful there.

    Sometimes it’s better to be a pew sitter in a good church, who is theologically right on,so that we can listen and learn than a home church that isn’t.

  25. Nice. Wish this was better communicated throughout corporate church. I’m sure there are enumerable individuals attending church who really need the simplicity of sound teaching and encouragement from others that offers some peace and renewal. Do, do, do…..that’s all people ever do. It’s truly beneficial to a person if they can actually receive instead of always having to do.

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