As you might imagine, a multitude of factors the type of atmosphere you wish to create, efficiency, comfort, cost, your style of worship, how you use your gathering space enter into the decision-making process.
Every congregation needs to first determine how the sanctuary will be used and the vision they wish to project with that space, according to Amanda Opdycke, worship market manager for Ohio-based Sauder Manufacturing Co.
If they are thinking along strictly traditional lines, then pews are likely to be their selection, Opdycke notes. But, "If they are looking to update, or bring a more contemporary experience during the service, auditorium or flexible seating may offer the look and feel they are trying to accomplish."
Fixed or Flexible?
One of the major decisions a church that wants to update its look and feel from traditional pews will have to make in selecting seating, is whether to go with fixed-form auditorium/theater/stadium seats or go with flexible seating that is portable and as the name suggests, can be rearranged in countless configurations. These individual chairs can also be stacked in a storage space when not in use.
Chairs that Move You
"Churches with sanctuaries and auditoriums that have a flat main floor should consider portable and stackable seating to get multi-purpose use from their facility," says Robert Wiltsey, director of church sales for Chino, California-based Bertolini Inc.
If a church is limited on space, or is taking advantage of using a multi-purpose room, then using stackable chairs that can be removed from the space and stored elsewhere provides it with flexibility to recreate the atmosphere needed on a given day or time, shares Opdycke.
An advantage of stackable seating is the ability to squeeze more in the seating itself, according to Wiltsey.
For example, three children can sit across two seats, he notes, adding "We have seen churches with sloped floors remove their pews and replace them with stackable interlocking seats for this very reason."
There are disadvantages. Flexible seating doesn't always give a worship space the same quality of look-and-feel that fixed seating provides. "It can feel informal," Opdycke notes. And at the same time, "If it moved frequently, could be subject to substantial wear and tear if the product is not made of quality materials."
Not All Flexible Seats Stack Up the Same
And when it comes to stacking up chairs when they are not in use, take care to keep perhaps-not-obvious considerations in mind, adds Ron Ogden, owner/president of Winona Lake, Indiana-based Worship Space Advisors.
"If a multi-purpose space requires seats to be moved and stored in a temporary location, it is important to determine how much space is required to store the chairs," says Ogden. It pays to shop around, he notes: "The market offers upholstered stack chair designs that will stack up to 20 seats high, and store in one-half the space of most church chairs."
"If you have a large auditorium, you need to consider your storage area for the chairs," notes Wiltsey. Chairs typically stack 6-8 high and each stack needs about 2' by 2.5' of space per stack, he notes and adds, "This means for a 400-seat auditorium, you need at least 250 square feet of space to house your seats when you clear the floor."
Planning is Key for Successful Fixed-Seating
Sloping main floors and the presence of a balcony typically slant churches towards selecting fixed seating.
It's integral to note that properly installing fixed stadium/ theatrical/ auditorium-type seating is more involved and takes more planning than figuring out how many chairs you can place in a space.
"For fixed seating, you need a design team that will collaborate with the construction company to ensure the concrete and electrical systems are designed to support the [chair] anchor systems and lighting," Wiltsey says.
Your seating vendor can be of great help in this process, according to David P. Strickland, principal and director of the Religious Studio of Marietta, Georgia-based architect CDH Partners Inc.
"Most companies can provide you with a computer-generated layout giving you a floorplan view of the space, so that you can double-check the number of seats," Strickland explains. Three-dimensional representations of the space, meanwhile, can provide views of how the seating array looks from different angles, such as the pulpit area, "so you can get a true sense of the intimacy of the space you are creating."
Deeper Investment Higher Perks
Fixed seating options are more expensive than its flexible counterpart but it does have a variety of advantages.
"Auditorium seating can provide a contemporary aesthetic to the sanctuary," says Opdycke.
At the same time, auditorium seating provides for a much more efficient usage of space than the traditional pew.
With the auditorium seat, "Rows can be put closer together, and can be longer, due to the ability of the seats to rise up and be out of the way, allowing for fewer aisles and more seats per square foot than traditional pews in some cases, creating a ten percent to twenty percent increase in seating capacity," Opdycke explains.
Seating utilization is also maximized because every person in attendance can take up only one seat, Opdycke notes and adds, "This makes it easier for the ushers during those busy times!"
Also, "Churches often have programs or special events where there may be a need or desire to sell tickets, and individual fixed seating provides that ability," says Opdycke.
There are some disadvantages to this type of seating. "It does feel more theater-like, and may make those accustomed to traditional worship spaces feel less welcomed," she notes, adding "Individual seats often don't create the sense of closeness and community found in pews."
Partial to Pews?
Advantage-wise, pews provide a traditional feel and sense of community, according to Opdycke. At the same time, "Wood is a natural element that can add a sense of warmth' to a space," she says, "and since pews either use wood exclusively, or show a large amount of wood, their design can be incorporated into the overall feel of a space by matching other woodwork and artwork."
Also, she says, churches can easily embellish pew-ends with symbols or shapes that allow for a customized look. And, "Pews offer the ability to add appropriate matching accessories to aid in overall service, such as book holders, card and pencil holders, communion cup holders and kneelers."
At the same time, pews aren't at the top of the list when it comes to making maximal use of a worship space.
"Many churches we do still utilize pews, and they are very appropriate in a wordship setting where many people assemble," says Strickland. But, "The old '80 percent rule' for pews is hard to escape, except maybe at Easter and Christmas people spread out, put down their Bible and their coats, and all of the sudden a pew that should be able to seat 10 is only seating eight.
Of course, a lot of the old rules are made to be broken. Strickland notes that, in recent projects, CDH has made use of a sort of "hybrid" pew/individual seating that incorporates flip-up seats with standard pew backing and ends.
Seating Purchase Tips
Looking for new seating? With any of the seating styles, "A prospective buyer should consider the company in addition to the features and specifications," Opdycke advises.
Ask questions, she says, such as "How long have you been in business? Can we see any local installations? Can we visit the factory? How long is the warranty and what does it cover?"
"Whether fixed or stackable, it is best to stay with seating manufactured in the USA," adds Wiltsey. For stackable seating, he notes, "You want to pick a standard fabric from a US mill to ensure you can reorder the exact fabric five, ten or fifteen years from now for additional seats or repairs."
Test Drive? Absolutely
And ask for a test drive of that individual seat.
"In order to get the best understanding of the quality and comfort of a chair or seat and its components, it's advised to test a sample," says Opdycke. "The best-case scenario is to have an authorized sales associate present the features and benefits, and then have the church test the sample in its own environment over a period of time;" Great advice, since your church's pews and/or seats, whether fixed or not, will be a permanent part of your facility for years to come.