Non Solum: Empty Pews

The Catholic Church in Dallas is thriving and most parishes are filled to capacity every Sunday. A significant number of parishes in the metroplex have more than two Masses a day, and I know of one which has seven Masses on Sunday.

Many parishes throughout the United States are not as fortunate. They struggle with Mass attendance and their churches feel empty on Sunday morning. Some are moving to one Mass every Sunday and others are having to close down entirely. The majority of American parishes, however, appear to have stable and sizable congregations. Their problem is that their worship spaces are too big for their congregations. Their churches were built when their parishes were larger and their Mass attendance was higher.

So, what do you do when your worship space is too big?

Short of building a new church or renovating your worship space, few good alternatives come to mind. I have seen several churches rope off sections of pews in order to force people to sit closer together. This often looks tacky and too directive. I have also heard of churches moving into smaller spaces such as a “lower church” in the basement. That is not ideal either.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen other communities successfully navigate this problem? Please comment below.



  1. Perhaps some radical action is called for: for example getting both priests and parishioners off their comfy pews, out of their comfort zones, and engaging in good old-fashioned (aka The New) Evangelisation?

    I read far too many reports these days of declining parishes where the only answer proposed is “downsize”, “merge”, or “close”. But every empty pew represents an opportunity to fill it either by bringing someone back to or newly into Christ’s church.

    Some management gurus suggest addressing problems by asking a mental “company board” of relevant figures – dead or alive – how they might address the problem. So we might ask here, for example, what St Paul would do. Downsize? Merge? Close? I think not.

  2. I agree with alastair. I live in the DFW area and most of the churches are SRO. My former parish had 8 Masses in 2 languages and two locations (church and gym).
    As far as empty pews, look to the evangelical churches where they are packed. why/ well, if we know the answer, our churches would be packed as well!! We have the Real presence, the sacraments and history on our side. BUT it is not enough. we are not “on fire” for Jesus, per se. Yes, we are faith filled by how do we bring others to this ‘gift of faith?”
    Are folks being welcomed upon entering the church? How is the quality of both the liturgy and preaching?
    One option is to remove pews: think rear pew space into a larger narthex or new baptismal space.
    It takes creativity and lots of prayer and research to determine IF pews need to be removed vs filling them with new folks. Parish consolidation is a good option in the Northeast/Midwest urban centers. It is emotional but perhaps necessary.

  3. Somewhere in church law it’s said that a parish should have multiple Masses based on the size of the congregation and the size of the worship space. E. G. If a church seats 1000 and there are 1500 people coming every Sunday to 3 Masses, have one less Mass. The Masses shouldn’t be scheduled for convenience but rather for need, it goes on to say. I paraphrase, of course. Are there enough liturgical ministers for all the Masses? Sometimes the easy answer may be hard to want to hear.

  4. I agree with above comments on the importance of reaching out and evangelizing, but there’s a silver lining in this cloud, too.

    The ideal number of masses on a Sunday is ONE. Most of us can’t pull that off for logistical (and sometimes thorny pastoral) reasons, but I’d suggest that if a parish finds itself moving in that direction, then it’s not a bad problem to have.

    And if that one is quite a bit less than capacity? Again, there’s an opportunity, and not just a problem. If your space is bigger than you need, the answer is to find the best way to use it. Remove pews, reconfigure, rearrange—in a thoughtful, careful, well-informed way, of course. Having more than enough room is a blessing in disguise. It’s a lot easier to deal with than not having enough!

  5. When we have 8 or 10 people in our house for dinner, we arrange the furniture rather differently from the way we arrange it when we have 4 or only 2. We wouldn’t dream of having empty seats at the table. Around the table of the Lord, how much more true ought that to be?

    The problem is not the space but the furniture. How can we reconfigure the space when we are locked into pews? In my view, pews should be taken out and burned on the Easter Vigil bonfire! Chairs offer a much more flexible way of dealing with variable numbers of people in an invariable space.

    I know that fire marshals have something to say about chairs, and insist that they be connectable, but a little imagination can go a long way in getting around that problem.

    If you are condemned to pews, simply taking some of them away is not the answer. There will be times when you need additional capacity; and pews are much more difficult than chairs to bring into a space.

    GIA had a slogan: “Carpet bedrooms, not churches”. My slogan might be: “Give chairs tenure — in church”. I’m sure someone can think of a better one.

      1. @Peter Haydon – comment #6:

        And, on the flip side (not too crowded), with chairs, you are MUCH more likely to have people trying to ensure there is a free chair between them and those they don’t know; a pew allows that space to be lessened. I used to be a champion of chairs. Not no mo’. Experience has sold me that a mix is a better solution.

  6. Count me as someone who much prefers pews, which accommodate many different body types, more than chairs. Ideally, it should be a mix, about 1/3 chairs and 2/3 pews. Nothing to condemn. The urge to bonfire and condemn betrays a fundamentalist mindset.

  7. Nathan – can count on one hand the number of Dallas parishes that have less than 4 masses on Sunday; and, yes, the key masses in mid and late morning can be packed.
    That being said, have taken some pews out around the sanctuary, around the baptismal font, where the choir stands. The choir uses chairs (and empty ones are taken away); for special occasions or overflowing crowds – chairs are used to augment the pews and are added in those areas where there are no current pews.
    Currently, waiting for the pastor to finally decide to consolidate the 8 and 9 AM masses – they are both 50% full or less….why have them? because it is the way it has always been done; or, folks have a habit to attend at a certain time; etc. The liturgical reasons some have given here are not their top priorities – they want a comfortable and familiar routine; no changes; want to see the same folks at mass; and they wouldn’t have a clue about some of the reasons given here (and Paul’s example of configuring a family dinner at a special holiday is great….but, do we think that way when making mass schedules? Just think that change, routine, the way it has always been done are the significant motivators and reasons.

  8. In more than one Anglican Church I know of in the UK they have blocked off the back third of the nave and turn it into a coffe shop. When they need the space the tables and chairs can be easily tidied away. Also there is the example of a Church I visited in Limerick (Ireland) where the back third is divided off to become a bookshop on one side and a counselling space on the other.
    Here in the parish in Japan, where I reside, when the weekday chapel was occupied by a coffin, we’d set up chairs inside the sanctuary. The need to use the weekday chapel as “a chapel of rest” has now been alleviated, by the building of a columbarium on vacant land adjacent to the Church, with a chapel big enough to accomodate a small funeral where there are only 20-30 present.

  9. To those who say that you can fit more people into pews than chairs, that is not the discussion we are having. We are talking about flexibility of the worship space.

    One problem is that most people only think in terms of Mass, and probably a “spectator”-type Mass at that. But there are many other liturgical forms of service, each with their own demands and size of participation, which can make other layouts desirable if not essential. With chairs, that is easy to achieve, with pews, impossible.

  10. I’m with you Paul Inwood, chairs solve a multitude of problems – this being one of them. And what you say about a spectator type mass – so true.

    People love pews though, although I am never sure why.

  11. Chairs have a movability and comfort that pews cannot provide.

    Consider the advantages of a Baptism outside Mass when the congregation can be grouped around the Font, instead of turning backwards. No need of Sanctuary space in this ceremony.

    A service of the Word, eg Morning/Evening Prayer/Compline, especially when lay-led is better in the round than in a theatre type space.

    A “listed” URC church in my area wanted to remove its box pews and replace with chairs. The “Listing” authorities decreed that some of the pews must be retained in the body of the worship area, and available for use, but the remaining space could be used as the congregation saw fit. So the anti-chair people (“My husband always sat in this pew”) sit in the pews at the back of the church and the remainder enjoy the chairs. Space is easily made for wheelchair users to sit in an area alongside their families, not just in a specially defined position reserved for disabled persons.

    In a service where attendance is regularly smallish, (not a local URC problem) chairs permit an arrangement that fans out from the altar in a semi-circle. This fills up more space, enables people to see better and gives a greater sense of one-ness, togetherness.

    At a recent C of E wedding I attended the Church was packed full in straight rows for the ceremony. Bride and Groom had planned a “Join us for cake and a drink” after the service, and the church has no hall. It was POURING hard so no chance of this happening outside. In double-quick time the non-stackable chairs were pushed forward and the space thus created enabled us to greet,eat and take photos. This would have been impossible with pews.

    There’s been a recent PTB discussion on liturgy and architecture where some contributors pointed out that the church architecture is of less importance than the worship of the congregation; the congregation’s activity should not be dictated or limited by the architecture or the furniture.

    Chairs have it. Surely.

  12. At least in most States, there are ‘fire laws’ about not using loose chairs in public spaces — and most definitely in places of large gatherings in churches and lecture halls and theatres. However, the use of chairs would be an obvious advantage for all the reasons already mentioned — besides ‘proper chairs’ are ‘portable without being temporary’ for a defined space. In general at least in the parts of Europe I am familiar with, this constraint against loose chairs does not exist so things can easily be ‘re-arranged’ for various uses.

  13. Evangelize!!! Get off your pew/chair, preach the Catholic Faith – ALL OF IT and you won’t have this problem…..unless no one lives near your Church.

  14. and WHO is going to move these chairs? A stagecrew? While i like the idea of a mix of chairs/pews, pews do sit more people. Gateway church here in DWF uses chairs and they consider a “full” church that of 85% beliving it gives enough space for folks without feeling packied in like sardines. Only then do they add another service.
    I agree with above comments re: reducing masses. Yes, it is emotional but it makes no sense in this age of limited priests to have 5 Masses 1/2 to 3/4 full each. the facts say one thing but the heart does not want to hear it. consolidation makes very good sense,; its the most cost effective and the easiest to implement……….and the hardest to accept! Ask that solo priest/pastor what he would purfer!!!

    1. @joseph mangone – comment #18:
      I had the same thought re who would move the chairs. Perhaps other places have facilities people who can do this, but in or little parish if I wanted to rearrange seating for a baptism outside of Mass I would have to do it myself.

      That said, I don’t have strong feelings on the pew/chair question. Each has their advantages and disadvantages.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #19:
        Who would move the chairs? Volunteers! We have no staff at our little parish. But every Sunday after every Mass, we have a group of about 5 volunteers after each of the two Masses who organize the chairs, straighten the hymnals, pick up envelopes, etc.

        And my tongue-in-cheek response to the original question: Remove pews one by one from the rear towards the front. When there are no pews left, lock the doors, sell the church, and go home.

  15. We took out the pews and put in chairs, but kept the back third of the church free for post-Mass coffee etc.
    We now find that the church is more welcoming to the extent that numbers are rising again.

  16. Some mention here that the back of the church building is used for coffee hour. Is this in any sense problematic? Does it compromise the sense of sacred space? Maybe this could be a separate thread.

  17. I like pews for the ability to put a little personal space between bodies without leaving a whole chair empty, for families with small children who like to snuggle and don’t need that much space, for the overweight who do need more space to sit comfortably, and for the crowded Masses in which you can slide in closer to accommodate your neighbors. Can’t tell you how many times people fit “just one more person” in a pew, for Christmas or Easter or a graduation Mass, which you could not do with chairs.

    That said, a mixture of chairs and pews is very helpful for flexibility. Chairs in areas where you want to reconfigure space for liturgical use: like near the baptismal font, or in the area where a coffin would be placed for a funeral or wake service, or for small celebrations, or to facilitate access for persons with disabilities who have motorized wheelchairs and who may (or may not) come with a care-giver who needs a regular chair. Chairs in places where you can take them away when they are not needed, like in the area you might use for coffee and socializing on an ordinary Sunday but would fill up for a big liturgy.

    One thing that can go wrong with adding and subtracting chairs is the unsightliness of stacks of chairs, or chairs pushed aside to a wall. I think that if a community is going to invest in flexible seating, they also need to install storage cabinets or similar so that those excess chairs can be “put away” somehow and not make the back of church look like a furniture barn.

  18. Re ##18&19 Who moves the chairs? The congregation does. In the church I mentioned with the wedding conviviality. (cf #14) the chairs were moved by wedding attenders,who included most of the parish. The parishioners had provided a breathtaking array of cakes, the bride’s father and the groom provided champagne. After the fun the cleared space was vacuumed, surfaces wiped, and chairs pulled back ready for the following morning’s service at 9.30 am. There was a repeat arrangement the following Saturday with a different bride and groom and no rain!

    Yes, these chairs are locked together, but can be detached as necessary. Some church chairs have kneelers, but these do not and the congregation still manages to pray while seated. Incidentally it is their custom to stand from the Creed until the end of the Canon, and then sit for the Our Father until Holy Communion

    Chairs are a boon for arthritic knees and the deep weariness of old age. Once a month the vicar celebrates at the apse altar, but facing the people; other times at a free-standing altar set in the transept. When the doddery or the blind parishioner need to move, there is always a courtly arm provided to assist as needed. It’s beautiful to see!

  19. People in churches are like gas molecules in a closed vessel-they naturally spread out as much as possible. I think it’s fine to rope off rear sections of pews.

    Though, it’s important to consider that some people may be sitting in the back of church for valid reasons–not feeling well or other medical issues, being emotionally distraught where they want to attend Mass but not interact with others, being new and unfamiliar with the service, etc.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t rope off unused pews–there’s always a “back pew,” but roping can change what’s considered the back pew.

  20. Yeesh, and I thought the threads at Musica Sacra Forum were in the doldrums!
    I am mildly surprised that not a single soul of the august commentators thus far has not mentioned what wussies we RC’s are in century 21. I’m 63, I have managerial responsibility for 18 weekend Masses, four of which I must direct. I hardly ever siddown.
    I’ve been to 3.5 hour Russsian Orthodox Masses in Vladimir and St. Isaacs where babushka ladies are on their feet the whole time. It’s a beautiful amoeba of pilgrim movement of the faithful with their tapers and stations, VanGogh-like swirling processions and whatnot. Of course there were some benches on the periphery for the truly infirm. I’ve never seen such devotion replicated in a RCC.
    But we do have that shared practice in our past. Pews are convenient, and a contrivance. If the Spirit is ‘a movin’ (Lord help me, I quoted Landry!) let the PIPs show it literally, I say! harumph.

  21. Maybe we should get rid of the (almost) modernist innovation of seating outside the sanctuary…people will naturally move forward to where the action. (Only slightly tongue-in-cheek)

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #28:
        I don’t know about that Karl, I have been in Orthodox Churches that had no seating or instrumentation during worship and the quality of liturgy was outstanding. It just is not our experience in the western church.

      2. @Jim Howard – comment #29:
        I strongly suspect a large chunk Westerners would experience the removal of pews as yet another arbitrary and capricious egg-headed imposition, and desert in droves.

        Easterners also do profound prostrations during Great Lent. And their ascetic regime is formidable, at least in theory (and often practice among convert-dominated communities). Et cet. Cherry-picking references to Eastern praxis is a frought thing. And it doesn’t endear Western liturgists to Easterners: it betrays a Western consumerist mindset.

  22. Regarding the issue of number of masses versus mass attendance:

    In my experience, this is a self fulfilling prophesy.

    A parish that I knew well had 1 vigil mass and 4 Sunday masses. When the new pastor arrived, he observed that each mass was only about 75% – 80% full. So he took away one Sunday mass, so that each mass would be nearly 100% full. People didn’t like feeling like sardines, so they started to leave (people verbally stated this as a reason for leaving: “It is so crowded and uncomfortable!). The masses again fell to being around 75% full. Now, the last time I talked to the pastor he mused that attendance has fallen again and “Really, we could go down to two masses on Sunday.” Start the cycle over again.

    I’m no fan of trying to force people into sitting on top of each other. Let people be! If they want to sit in a back pew with no one around them, maybe there’s a reason. Maybe that’s where they are at mentally and emotionally on that particular day. Maybe they might need to run out quick at any time. Maybe they have crowd anxiety. Maybe …

    It’s one thing if masses are getting ridiculously empty (5 Sunday masses, with the church less than 40% full at each mass.) But if there’s a decent amount of people at each, and the time is working for them, and you’ve got them covered with a priest, why make unnecessary changes just to have a packed church?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *