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Defining Your Worship Style With Seating
By: Randy Schellenberg

Deciding on sanctuary seating that balances form and function can be a task that at first glance seems like it would be the easiest part of a building project. But anyone who has ever sat on a church chair selection committee knows there's a lot more to seating than meets the eye and that the process can at times be extremely stressful and trying. Most people, who have never even thought about chairs, now find themselves involved in making a significant financial investment that will affect their congregation Sunday after Sunday for years to come. The job can be overwhelming.

Where do you begin? How can you be assured your choice will meet the needs of your church? How do you navigate the seemingly endless decisions ranging from permanently installed theatre-style seating to plastic chairs that stack in seconds?

Underlying the difficult selection of seating is the engrained (but erroneous) belief that a "chair is a chair is a chair." How can something so commonplace be that difficult to pick? After all, everyone sits in chairs every day from lazy boy recliners to formal dining room seats to the stiff chairs inevitably found in doctors' offices. So surely, it's not that hard you simply know a good chair when you sit in one.

However, when it comes to making a seating selection for a congregation, many committees spend the vast majority of their time focusing on technical issues such as strength and weight or aesthetic matters such as finish and fabric. While these do play a role in the choice, the very first question a church really needs to ask is "what is our worship style?"
In the past, seating in churches was, more often than not, a basic pew that accommodated lots of people; it was something that, like scripture, was sturdy, unmovable and dare it be said, slightly uncomfortable. This is simply no longer the case. As churches have evolved, the forms in which congregations worship have also changed.

Today, churches are far more inclusive and reflective of personal styles and individual preferences. How a congregation gathers on a Sunday morning can look considerably different in another church only a few blocks away.

As you begin your search for seating options, you need to consider what your church is really trying to accomplish? Who are you? Understanding your worship style (a) permanent, (b) flexible or (c) transitional will in turn help you easily identify exactly what type of seating is needed to enhance the effectiveness of your church's ministry.

In a permanent worship style, congregations gather on a weekly basis for services in a sanctuary that is considered to some degree to be sacred and set apart. Often high ceilings, spacious walls and lots of sight lines often characterize the church building. These features in turn enhance the personal space felt by each guest. There is little movement from week-to-week in seating configurations that form pew-like or seamless rows.

Recognizing a permanent worship style, a selection committee will consider seating that helps build a strong sense of community while contributing to a reverent atmosphere.

Desired features of seating for churches with a permanent worship style:
 Ideally chairs should have a frame width of 20-22 inches, seamless plush foam cushioning and oversized backs that give a pew-like or continuous seating appearance.
 The function of portability is appreciated in chairs, but is not the determining factor.

In a flexible worship style, congregations typically gather in multi-purpose auditoriums. Sometimes these converted buildings places like large warehouses or commercial spaces do not resemble anything like what has traditionally been considered a "church." While chairs are placed in rows for either part of a worship service or for its entirety, they will just as frequently be used in conjunction with tables. Fellowship is a very important aspect of church-life for this style. Rather than one single person preaching from the front, there is typically an emphasis on small group discussions and dialogue. These conversations around tables provide more intimate settings, helping guests form relationships through socialization, more often than not in combination with food and coffee. In this style, churches are less concerned about tradition and formality and rather aim to create spaces that are inviting and friendly.

Identifying a worship-style as flexible encourages a selection committee to consider seating that gives a sense of personal space, while still being able to change things up quickly and with ease.

Desired features of seating for churches with a flexible worship style:
 Ideally chairs would include a frame width of 18-19 inches, rolled seat cushions, a more upright back angle and weigh 15-17 pounds.
  The weight of each chair is a factor, as the volunteers who move the chairs are typically youth or seniors.
 Storage is normally not a large issue, but chairs must be able to stack and move easily. Pews would not be an option.
 While comfort remains a factor, chairs are narrower than those in a permanent worship style as they are often used around tables.

In a transitional worship style, churches might gather in a shared multi-purpose facility like a school gym or community center (sometimes referred to as a
gymatorium). These spaces will be used for one function, only to be transformed into something else very quickly. A typical Sunday could include a morning worship service finishing at noon, with a basketball game scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. Later that evening, a seniors group could meet for a potluck and Hymn Sing in the same room. In efforts to utilize space and stretch budgets, a church's main meeting area is re-configured frequently on a weekly basis, sometimes even daily.

Identifying a worship-style as transitional encourages a selection committee to consider seating that is extremely functional, light weight, portable and stackable, while still providing comfort for those coming to worship services and other church functions.

Desired features of seating for churches with a transitional worship style:
 Ideally chairs should be lightweight (less than 15 pounds) and feature an ergonomic design for comfort.
 Because these chairs are stored frequently, it is important that they can be set up and stacked quickly and with ease, taking up minimal storage space.

It's crucial to remember that as you discuss and define your church's worship style, the conversation should not be limited to a few boards or committees. Rather, it should include a broad range of ideas and insights from staff to members to church volunteers.

Recently a church asked if I could assist the church in selling chairs they had only recently purchased (permanent). At the same time, they requested information on another style of chair (transitional). Somehow during their initial decision process, they opted for the look and feel that a larger chair provided, only to experience frustration upon its arrival. The permanent chairs were too awkward to stack and required more storage space then they had.  Did they purchase the wrong chair? That is difficult to say!  It is clear however, that the chair selected was not the best selection for their style of worship.

The "Bottom" Line on Comfort
Once you identify your church's worship style and as a result, begin to understand exactly how seating can enhance your ministry selection committees are ready to move on to other issues.

In the forefront of almost everyone's thoughts is the hot-button topic of comfort. But what exactly is comfort?  What makes one chair more comfy than another? It appears that opinions on comfort varies as widely as body shapes and what is comfortable for one person is certainly not comfortable for everyone. Would more foam equate to more comfort? Or perhaps better foam? Would a contoured seat make a significant improvement the level of comfort?  While most people tend to think of comfort in relation to what they feel with their "bottom," it is actually more accurately defined as a state of mind closely linked to the perception of one's "personal space." 

In previous decades, the consideration of "personal space" was a minor one, rarely given thought to within the context of the church. Congregations were very close, often forming because of shared ethnic backgrounds. Almost everyone was either a friend or family member. Reflection as to what an outsider might feel like did not occur.

However, this is no longer true of today's churches. We live in a transient and multicultural society, and many churches have strong mandates to reach out to their surrounding communities. So how can you put those walking through your church's front doors at ease? Studies show that when a church's seating is 80% occupied, a newcomer will perceive it as full. They feel crowded and don't want to be forced to cozy up to someone they barely know. It is important for church chair selection committees to consider the implications of personal space and seek solutions that provide all guests with a comfortable experience.

Accommodating the need for personal space has its challenges, however. Without question, in North America we are physically larger today than we were only a few decades ago. In the past, 18" was typically considered to be an adequate width for a single seat. That number is now is upwards to 20" or even 24". Failing to acknowledge this new reality, and in turn choosing narrower seats, will discourage guests from worshiping with your church family, 

Aside from the function and comfort of seating, it's important to recognize that technical details do matter. Probably the least understood and most overlooked technical issue, is the requirement that all furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) placed into all public facilities needs to meet a minimum fire code rating of known CAL117E .  CAL117E is an independent rating which establishes how quickly a material (both fabric and foam) subjected to an open flam can ignite.  Organizations, purchasing chairs which do not meet this minimum fire rating, risk having their occupancy permit revoked by the local fire marshal's office.  Churches are encouraged to request a copy of the fire rating certification from the manufacturer of the selected chairs. 

Ironically, after all the work that comes with making a thoughtful decision, chairs are something that should actually fade into the background. Well-designed and purposely picked seating should simply support and augment the ministry of the spoken word.
If lives are not changed because of what happens in your church, then the search for seating has failed. But, if as a result, you are able to enhance your church's worship, connect with your community and ultimately change lives, then your investment in seating is invaluable. 

Randy Schellenberg is president of Comfor Tek Seating, www.comfortekseating.com.

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