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.
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.
 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.