When Wendy and I went to Boston this spring I learned something crazy about the first American churches. Today I would like to rant about PEW FEES.
That’s right. When you went to church in Colonial America, you had to pay for a seat.
“That’s absurd!” you say? I know!
From my own limited research, as far as I can tell, here is how it played out…
When a church was erected, church members would pay to have pew boxes built. This was a box of pews the member owned. It had their name on it. There was a lock on the door. It was theirs. They would pass it down to their kids in their wills. There were some pew boxes not owned by individuals. These were available for the general public to rent. The better the positioning of the pew box in the room, the more expensive it was. If you didn’t own or rent a pew box, you had to stand in the back (or in the balcony if there was one).
So pause for a second and picture this. You and family decide one fine Sunday morning, “We should check out a church today.” So you load your crew in the minivan and head down the street to the church building with the electric sign that catches your attention from time to time. You are greeted at the front door of the sanctuary by an usher who informs you, “I’m sorry. All the pews are currently rented, but you are welcome to stand in the back if you like.”
“How long is the worship service?” you ask.
“An hour and a half,” the usher replies with a smile. ”Unless Pastor Jim gets to talking. Then we might go a full two hours.”
You glance into the room and see open rows, so you ask, “What about those seats? No one is sitting there. Can we take those seats?”
“No, I’m sorry,” the usher politely explains. ”Those are owned by the Johnsons. Wonderful family. They’re on vacation in Ocean City this week. All that’s available is the standing room in the back.”
Crazy right! That would never happen in today’s culture. Contemporary American churches are at the other extreme. I’m routinely shocked every Easter by articles about insane churches raffling away flat screen T.V.’s or helicopter rides to visitors who show up for the worship service.
This illustrates to me how radically the position of church in America has changed in the past 200 years. It use to be something people paid to attend. Now it is something we try to attract people to with wild antics. Since Boston I’ve been thinking about what church membership is and what it might become.
Jesus has a crazy moment in the Gospel of John. In chapter 6, Jesus miraculously feeds five-thousand people. Because he has been healing people, doing wild and crazy stuff, and teaching in a way that separated him from the contemporary religious leaders, a crowd of people is following him around. While listening to Jesus speak, they get hungry. So Jesus takes a little bit of bread and fish and – whammy-zammy – feeds everybody. Then he crosses a lake to get away.
The next day, the crowd follows Jesus across a lake. Once they’ve caught him, the crowd begins demanding to be fed. They say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Kingdom of God. Blah, blah, blah. More food! How are you going to give us bread today?” (my paraphrase of John 6:28-34)
Jesus responded by telling the crowd that if they wanted to consider themselves his followers, if they wanted to join his mission, they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:35-60). This makes them mad. They are like, “This dude is crazy. We out!” There are only a few of the thousands left. So Jesus turns to them and is like, “You want to go too?”
In John 6, Jesus is not declaring himself to be a zombie or a cannibal. Rather, he is saying if the people of the crowd want to be part of what he is doing, they need to join him in “dying to themselves.” This is a phrase Jesus uses that means followers must give up personal ambition and replace it with devotion to God’s mission of rescuing the world.
Jesus gathered crowds, but just hanging out and listening to him talk didn’t make you a member of his movement.
At the same time, anyone could join. You didn’t need to have cash to get in…because the membership fee was far more expensive than what money can afford.
Being a member of Jesus’ movement was about adopting a lifestyle. It was about taking on the challenge of developing your character. It was about taking on specific attitudes, letting His love guide your behavior, and devoting yourself to his mission. The cost was your life.
Not a part of your life. Not a few hours on Sunday.
Your entire life. To be a member of Jesus’ movement you had to redirect your heart, soul, mind, and strength toward the pursuit of imitating his love.
I feel this understanding of membership has become cloudy in our institutional church context. We no longer think of joining the church as joining a movement. Rather we treat it as an organization we are a part of. We join the church like we join the Neighborhood Association or the Travel Soccer team. There is sacrifice involved…but its not the same type of sacrifice.
I think this will change as we move deeper into the digital age.
Any thoughts or push back you would like to share are (as always) welcome in the comments.