When the Pews Are Empty

One Friday morning in an empty sanctuary, my spouse and I met with two other pastors. We were dressed in comfortable clothing, and had brought with us a toolbox and two furniture dollies. In this room set apart for worship, we had come to change the layout.

The late 19th century sanctuary featured a high ceiling, stained glass, and enough beautifully crafted church pews to comfortably seat 250 people. But with a congregation that had dwindled to fewer than 60 on Sundays, the space was no longer fostering a sense of communal worship. Worshippers spread themselves out among the cavernous space, practicing social distancing well before anyone came up with the phrase.

So I hatched a plan that only a 28 year old pastor, less than three years out of seminary, would have the naïve courage to try. We would remove half of the pews in the sanctuary, and construct room dividers to shrink the worship space. Then, in the place where the pews had been removed, we would construct a gathering space much like a narthex, which this church didn’t have. There we could serve coffee, mingle before and after worship, and hold Sunday School classes.

I was naïve, but I was also aware of the shock waves this would send through the congregation. So I made sure that everything we did could be undone, in case this attempt at remodeling wasn’t well received.

The reaction was mixed, with a handful of church members loving the idea and an equal number responding with eye rolls and heavy sighs. Most people, however, just accepted it as a well-meaning idea by their young pastor, and knew that if they waited long enough, they’d have a chance to put it back the way it used to be. They did, and it is.

Last year a rumor began to spread at the church I serve now: that I intended to remove pews without authorization from church leadership. Though there was no truth to this rumor, I spent a lot of energy last fall assuring anxious church members that no one was coming to remove their pews. “Don’t worry,” I kept saying, “the pews will remain where they are.”

Those very same pews sit empty these days, like most church pews in the United States. And they’ll be empty this Sunday, on a day when most churches are filled with people packed shoulder to shoulder to celebrate Easter. It’s hard to imagine Holy Week observed without Holy Communion and foot-washing, without snuffing out candles in a dark sanctuary on Friday, or without singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” in a full Easter morning sanctuary adorned with lilies. Our church buildings, like much of life, have been emptied of the rituals and celebrations we are used to.

The Christian tradition of mysticism has a word for what we are experiencing societally right now: kenosis. It means self-emptying, and is often used to describe Christ’s work on the cross, specifically in the way Paul writes in Philippians 2:7. Mysticism believes that just as Christ emptied himself to compassionately save us, we are called to empty ourselves for the sake of our neighbors. Only when we do this can we begin to move towards greater union with God.

Our shelter-in-place practices are acts of kenosis. Emptying our calendars of superfluous activity. Emptying stadiums and concert halls for the sake of public health. Emptying ourselves of past expectations of success and productivity. Practicing self-denial willingly, from giving up the convenience of shopping for whatever we want, whenever we want, to giving up the cherished time between grandparents and their grandchildren. And our cherished church pews will sit empty for at least another month, as we figure out how to worship from couches and kitchen tables.

Kenosis, whether by choice or by necessity, is a loss that produces grief. Most Christians this week will experience what John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul: a sense that God is both unknowable and absent to us. We feel this every year on Good Friday, when we ponder the crucifixion of Jesus. This year, that absence is punctuated by the very real absence of the familiar rituals we use to help us cope with Christ’s death

Is it possible that this is what Holy Week was always meant to be? A moment to empty ourselves of religious activity and be filled instead with God? Elaine Heath, a modern mystic, writes:

The cumulative effect of the dark night when embraced by God’s people is the deconstruction of self-centeredness and the removal of subtle idolatry in terms of mistaking God for religious feeling and activity, or created things, or viewing God as one more ‘thing.’ God is nada, no ‘thing.’ The dark night brings about a necessary detachment so that God’s people may freely love all things in and through the love of God rather than in and of themselves. Religious activities, rituals, and practices especially are cleansed so that they are now, in the oft-quoted imagery of Thomas Merton, fingers pointing to the moon and no longer mistaken for the moon itself. The fruit of the night is about transformation of relationships into expressions of love of God and neighbor, and love of self for the sake of God.” (Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, pp. 29-30.)

Like most pastors, I am engaging in ministry differently than ever before. This Holy Week won’t allow me to simply dust off old liturgies and rituals and employ them at prescribed moments. I can’t celebrate Holy Communion by myself in a sanctuary with empty pews, and for theological reasons I refuse to celebrate it virtually. And for the first Easter in my 12 years of ministry, I won’t put on a necktie before dawn to lead a sunrise service. The loss of these rituals, even temporarily, causes me tremendous grief.

But in many ways, this experience is giving churches the freedom to explore what is necessary, and what isn’t. It’s uncovered the painful truth that too often our focus worship of is the way we worship, instead of focusing solely on God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Until we all started worshipping in our living rooms last month, many Christians thought pews were essential to Christian experience, even though the Christian church worshipped without them for over half of its history. And until last week, I was unable to imagine how to observe Maundy Thursday without my favorite Christian ritual, the sacrament of Holy Communion. You won’t find someone who appreciates this sacrament more than I do, but in the end it is not to be the subject of my worship. It is, as Heath mentions Merton saying, merely the finger that points to God.

Christ himself will still break bread and share a cup this week. He will still wash the feet of disciples and pray in a garden. He’ll be put on trial and crucified, hanging on a cross as the ultimate self-emptying act, so that our souls may be liberated from sin. And then on Sunday, whether our pews are empty or full, or whether some young pastor has brazenly removed half of them, Christ will be raised from the dead.

In so many ways, this Holy Week is going to feel empty. But the spiritual practice of kenosis is meant to cleanse us of all that is keeping us from truly seeing the risen Christ. A Holy Week with empty pews offers us a chance we’ve never had before. Finally, stripped of all religious activity, we’ll be free to receive the love of God itself, and discover that it’s really all we’ve ever needed to make us full.

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