Years ago while I was serving as pastor at First Church, McAllen, the congregation decided to repaint and refinish the entire sanctuary, including the pews. These pews had been installed in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and were lengthy, heavy, and well-built. I hosted various woodworkers, furniture refinishers, and other craftsmen as we were taking bids on the project. At one of these meetings, I crawled under the pews and noticed that each pew, beneath each seat-width, had a wire rack attached. There were hundreds of these in the sanctuary, unseen by anyone for years. The racks were screwed closely to the wood’s surface, under each and every seat. Imagine sitting in a pew, leaning forward, reaching between your knees up under your seat—that’s what you’d need to do to touch one of these racks. Any idea what they were for?
It took me a minute when I first saw them. And then I started to laugh. From that moment on, whenever I’d give someone a tour of the sanctuary, I couldn’t help but point out the unseen racks under the pews.
These were men’s hat racks! They were designed for people with Western hats (welcome to Texas!) with wide brims to slip their hats upside down underneath their seats! When the church was built and the pews installed, people probably thought this was just the coolest thing ever. They were used regularly in the 1930’s. They probably had not been used a single time in the last fifty years
The hat racks were vestiges of a by-gone era. A vestige is a visible trace, evidence, or sign of something that once existed or served a purpose, but does so no more. (The buttons on the outside cuff of my suit coat are vestiges—they serve no purpose now, but they are a reminder of the functional placement of buttons on men’s suits more than a century ago!)
The discovery of the hat racks caused me to look around at other vestiges, and I discovered that our church was full of them. There were furnishings, cabinets, and accessories in our foyer that no one ever used. There was a large carpet-covered box at the front of the sanctuary that was visible to everyone which no one knew the purpose for. (It housed the old controls to a long-deceased carillon linked to our bell tower. It had not been operational for forty years!)
Some of these vestiges are quaint and humorous. On the other hand, they should give us pause to think about why we have what we have and do what we do. How can we move toward providing the accoutrements that support ministry today rather than maintaining objects and processes that no longer serve the present age?
I’m reminded of a story someone shared about how their church worked with the Five Practices. The church council studied the book, and then decided to walk through the building to talk about how the facility might be viewed from the perspective of a visitor. Before they began, they brainstormed about the foyer/entryway area. They asked themselves, “What are the two or three most important things to have in the entryway to help with the weekly gathering of members and visitors?” They named things like an information booth, an attractive display of brochures about church ministries, an up-to-date bulletin board full of photos about congregational life that invites people to upcoming events. They talked about perhaps having a name-tag board for members and guests, a place for a volunteer in an identifiable vest to help with information, and maybe even a rocking chair for parents who need to step out from the sanctuary with a baby. Then they proceeded to actually walk through the foyer to see what they currently had in this important space for new impressions and first contacts.
In the foyer was a large glass case with a huge Memorial Book that records gifts to the Memorial Fund. Interestingly, the last entry was nearly 20 years old! And there was a large, heavy pedestal with a Visitor Registration Book stuck in a dark corner. The book had three signatures from the last year, even though the congregation receives about five new visitors each week. There was a sizable display soliciting gifts to the Gideons, even though that was not an adopted priority of the church. There was a built-in wooden shelf with drawers and a lift-up top that held candles, old usher tags, unused offering plates, and other items that had not been used in years. In short, mostly they found vestiges of another era.
Courageously, the congregational leaders began the process of changing the foyer to serve the purposes and needs of the church today. They moved some things to other places in the church, did away with some things altogether, and added what they needed to have a useful, positive, appealing, and helpful space conducive to welcoming both newcomers and regular members. They even added more light, painted the walls a lighter color, and made the space seem more open and inviting.
How do we move from systems, processes, accessories for ministry that are mostly vestige to those that serve the mission of the church today?
Yours in Christ,