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Portable Seating Adds Flexibility to Worship

Portable Seating Adds Flexibility to Worship

When the Second Chance Church, formerly The Grove Church in Peoria, Ill., moved into its permanent facility, church leaders wanted seating that was casual, durable and portable. The church decided on chairs with a fold-up table and cup holder so parishioners could enjoy a cup of coffee during the service. But more importantly, the chairs allow the pastor the flexibility to set up the seating to best enhance his sermon.

“We have a stage where the pastor normally preaches from,” explains Jeff Huebner, facilities coach. “But sometimes he wants to preach from the floor. We can set up the chairs so he is right in the middle, or we can set up the chairs split into two groups, facing each other. It all depends on the point he wants to make.”

And when the service is over, Huebner adds, the chairs can be moved aside for other activities.

A Branding Tool?
Seating arrangements go a long way in branding a church. “Seating takes up a bulk of the visual space in a church,” says Bruce Prock, vice president of and marketing with Bertolini Direct in Chino, Calif. “Seating is usually where a person gains his first impression of the church. If the seating is traditional pews, it is branded as a traditional church.” In fact, he adds, that first impression is why Bertolini’s popular line of church chairs is called The Impression 7 Series.

But a church with auditorium or portable seating is often seen as more contemporary, more participatory and more welcoming. The chairs can be arranged for people to interact with each other—at least let them see other faces rather than backs of heads—and then rearranged again after the service for social gatherings. Portable seating can take a huge room and make it intimate, yet can adjust for services such as Christmas and Easter, when the congregation swells in size.

Chair seating can also give a church an upscale look, Prock adds, by using different color schemes.

“A church in Chino uses stackable chairs using four different fabrics from the same color family,” Prock says. “This gives the room a random feel, but because of the way the colors work together, the room doesn’t feel empty, even if it is.”

The Case for Portable
Portable—or flexible—seating seems like a relatively new idea, especially as many church facilities take on multiple purposes. However, Kevin Callahan, CEO and design director of Callahan Studios/Soul Space, says flexible seating is actually a throwback to the original churches.

“The idea of attaching seats to the floor is relatively recent, in the past 60 years or so,” Callahan says, adding that for many years, churches were designed more as lecture halls. “They make worship space one-dimensional and [they] are not participatory at all.”

When he designs a church, Callahan’s motto is “Worship is Participation, Not Performance,” and he takes his cue from the old cathedrals in Europe, where the space was designed to complement the liturgy, and that includes using portable seating.

Callahan considered the liturgy when designing a Catholic Church in Florida. “The church is designed in the round with a platform and the baptismal font is in the main nave,” he says. During ordinary time in the church calendar, the seating is in the round. “At Lent, what they do is rearrange the space, facing the font, which is actually drained and replaced with sand to give it a parched look. Then on Holy Saturday, the seating is facing each other to be more communal,” he says.

“We advise our clients about the difference between flexibility and adaptability,” says Callahan. “Flexibility is what we’re going to do in the near future. Adaptability is what our kids are going to do in the future; we don’t have a clue.”

Callahan, then, works to design the audio, video and the lighting to work with the changes in the seating arrangements. Perhaps no better example of this is Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Ind.

Grace Community Church has 500 moveable seats and 900 fixed seats on tiers. The seating arrangement allows for eight different layouts.

The portable seating in Grace Community Church enhances the service, says Pastor Jeff Unruh. “It also gives us more seating space, but creates a more intimate setting,” he says. “It … allows us to change the layout of the room and give people a fresh perspective of both the people leading the worship and the people they are worshipping with, particularly when we go in the round and the floor becomes the stage.”

The chairs used at Grace Community Church came from Sauder Manufacturing Co. in Archbald, Ohio.

“At Grace, they were looking for beauty as well as function,” says Kelvin Friesen, vice president of sales and marketing for Sauder. The chair is wood with a beech veneer and an upholstered seatback. “Because of the grain of the wood, no chair looks exactly like another.”

“We were looking for neutral elements in the materials,” says Unruh. “The room is built in woods with exposed steel. The seats dress up the room a bit.” Also, these chairs are sturdy but light, making them easier to move, which Unruh thinks will encourage the church to utilize flexible seating arrangements more.

Getting the Right Look and Feel
Not only do chairs need to look good, but they need to feel good, too.

“Ironically, the chairs that many buyers find most comfortable are those that are made from the cheapest raw materials,” says Ron Ogden, vice president of sales at Series Seating in Warsaw, Ind. “Inexpensive, low density, laminated foam tends to be very soft. This gives the occupant more ‘travel’ as they settle into the seat, which has an initial appeal to an uninformed buyer. Many prefer this softer feel when comparing various chair samples.”

However, Ogden adds, these softer foams will be quicker to bottom out and lose shape and buoyancy. “The softer foams also do not provide the long-term ergonomic support that is important when sitting for longer periods of time. The ideal material for the foam seat would be a cold molded foam as opposed to the laminated (slab) foam. A properly engineered stack chair with cold molded foam and well crafted ergonomics might cost the buyer about $75 per chair, compared to the $40-$50 range of commodity chairs.”

Even though portable seating is gaining in popularity, it is rarely used exclusively.

“Most churches that are using fixed seating that is anchored to the floor are using theatre-style seats instead of conventional pews,” says Ogden, siting Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., as an example. Willow Creek incorporated a number of stack chairs into its 7,200-seat sanctuary to gain flexibility where needed.

“We’re seeing a move to stackable chairs, similar to what is used in hotels and banquet rooms,” says Prock. His company sells a Pew Stacker, a stackable chair that can be linked to other chairs to create a pew-like feel.

Churches will usually choose different styles of chairs for different areas of the facility. Upholstered chairs are more likely to be found in the sanctuary, while areas that are geared for social or children’s activities will often use plastic molded chairs that are easier to clean.

One thing that hasn’t caught on in church seating is the use of green or sustainable materials. While there are churches that are interested in using green products, the bottom line is the expense. “Recycled material will add $10-$15 to the price of a chair,” says Prock. That doesn’t seem like much for a few chairs, but it adds up when a church is purchasing hundreds or thousands.”

A church is, of course, more than its chairs, but it is also where the typical parishioner will spend the bulk of his or her time during a service. “When you go into a church, what do you touch?” Callahan asks. “The doorknobs and the chairs.” And, he adds, you want to have seating that invites people to enter your church and stay a while.

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