UPDATE: For the first time in the existence of Parchment and Pen I am heavily moderating these posts. There seems to be quite a bit of emotion going on with this post along with a lot of misunderstanding. If you are going to comment, be calm, actually read the post, and don’t type in all caps…they don’t help. Thanks.
The pulpit is gone. Pulpit makers are going out of business. There is no wooden semi-circle of representative authority for today’s preacher. There is no longer an elevated status for the “man of God.” Therefore, there is no need for an elevated stand. Kids today may have to learn about pulpits from museums or pictures on the internet.
If the pulpit disappears, where shall we go for truth? Has the pulpit been forgotten? Oh pulpit, where art thou?
I was at one of my “stand-by” churches today. (These are the churches that we go to when a satanic tornado of confusion and disarray storm the Patton castle on Sunday morning and we don’t have time to drive 35 minutes to our normal church—or when we just have slept too late). I have a love-hate relationship with my stand-by churches. They serve as a place where I can go and fellowship with other believers, but they also serve as a place where I put on my hyper-critical hat of unspirituality and critique every aspect of what happens, from the parking lot to the pew. Today, I was wearing more of a critical hat. While I should have been listening to the Easter sermon, I was critiquing the techniques of the performance service. More specifically, I was thinking about the pulpit, or lack thereof.
You may have noticed that most evangelical churches have abandoned the pulpit for a more seeker-friendly wooden stool. Why? It is the spirit of the age. Wait . . . that sounds too negative too quickly. It is an attempt to disarm people by making the pastor seem more authentic.
Getting ahead of myself . . . Let’s back up for a bit and look at what the pulpit is.
The word “pulpit” comes from the Latin pulpitum meaning “scaffold”, “platform”, “stage.” The Latin word is used as a synonym for the Greek ambon. A dictionary definition might look something like this:
A platform or raised structure in a church, from which the sermon is delivered or the service is conducted.
It also is used symbolically for the ministry in general or, more popularly, as any “stage” for your beliefs to be proclaimed. “From the pulpit” is a phrase that is often used to communicate the authority of the message.
In Protestantism the pulpit stands as the iconic symbol for the very foundations of the movement. Of course, Protestants did not invent the pulpit, but they popularized its use in a very unique way.
I teach a teacher training course. During this course we discuss the way that one communicates non-verbally during a presentation. For example, when one wishes to teach in a more Socratic method, they will ask questions of the audience. The goal is maximum participation. Here, the desire is to make your audience think critically, expecting them to carry some of the burden. This method is accomplished best when the teacher is walking among the audience (peripatetic). He or she should not be on a raised platform, for this communicates a level of authority that will hinder participation. One wants to communicate that they are leading the discussion, not autonomously telling people what to think. Therefore, being on level with the audience is the best method.
However, if one is to speak authoritatively, this is not the best method. In this case, one wants to be seen as the teacher, not merely a participant in the learning or a discussion guide leader. Here preparation, authority, and command of the subject are communicated in two ways: 1) Elevated height. When one is physically raised above the audience, this not only gives the speaker the ability to be seen and heard, it demonstrates their unique position as the teacher. 2) Pulpit or podium. The podium serves as a separation between you and the audience demonstrating the authority of that which you are teaching.
In traditional Protestantism, the pulpit has served to position the Scripture as the ultimate authority. After the Reformation, the pulpit was moved from the left hand side of the nave (sanctuary) to the center. It is even placed above the alter and/or communion table. This placement serves to illustrate how expositional preaching (preaching from the Scripture—not using the Scriptures and a spring-board to one’s own ideas) is the central foundation to spiritual life. As you may have noticed in the past, many pulpits have a picture of the Bible carved on it. The surface of the pulpit is designed to house the Bible and other study material. In every way it is meant to communicate that the Scripture alone is our final and only infallible authority for our faith and practice (sola Scriptura).
But things have changed for many reasons.
First and foremost, people don’t trust the figure behind the pulpit as they once did. Sociologically, the authority of the local pastor has become little more than that of a motivational speaker. When one assumes to communicate their interpretation of the Bible, many simply believe that it is just that—their interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, people are more likely to listen to someone share of their lives, experiences, and encouragements than they are to let someone speak on behalf of God by interpreting God’s word. You can share, walk around, and/or discuss, but don’t get behind the pulpit and preach. People are very suspicious of your motives and ability to tell them how things “really” are.
As well, people have been burned. They have seen too many hypocrites behind the pulpit. Enough is enough when I allow someone authority over me who is out cheating on his wife, avoiding taxes, or involved in some type of embarrassing public scandal. Alleviate yourself of the pulpit and I will cut you some slack. Authentically share of yourself and I will listen, relate, and laugh.
It is as simple as this: pastors and church-goers alike are abandoning the pulpit for more “authentic” relationships. This may sound nice, but, in the end, I fear it is representative of something very tragic and dangerous—the abandoning of the authority of God’s word.
Pastors are conceding in many ways. Many don’t even bother going to seminary anymore, focusing on communication styles and the development of their own charisma. The pastor of the church I went to yesterday had the best of intentions, and, I am sure, loves the Lord dearly. But in his own desire to concede to the prevailing distrust and desire for authenticity it seems that he may have abandoned the only truly life changing source that is available. In the end, he is not a pastor who is leading his flock over which he has been placed, but he is a motivational speaker for the community. Sure, motivational speakers are great and God can use them, but they are not shepherds of the church of God.
With the pulpit comes preaching. Yes, preaching. There most certainly is a time to teach. There is a time to walk around soctratically engaging your audience. But there is a time to preach. There is a time to speak authoritatively. If you are too afraid to do this, it is noble for you to stay away from such. Not everyone is called to teach and shepherd the church of God. But please don’t replace the need to have the word of God preached with an artificial substitute. Don’t remove the pulpit and replace it with a stool. There is a power in the pulpit (preaching) that is much different from the power of teaching. There is a power in the Scriptures that is unique—more so than motivation speeches.
Of course, I am speaking a bit metaphorically here. I understand that one can have a pulpit and not preach the word. I also understand that one does not necessarily need a pulpit to faithfully exhort God’s people through the Scriptures. But I do think that the disappearance of the pulpit from the furnishings of the church today is a sign of the times that does not bode well for us.
Again, I am not here to necessarily argue for return of the pulpit per se, but to discuss how its absence might illustrate the Evangelical church’s shift compromise to a postmodern mindset. I understand and empathize with how this has come about, but in no way yield to its longings. Even with the possibility of abuse and ill-founded interpretation, the pulpit is necessary as preaching and authoritative guidance are necessary.
Removing the pulpit is not a humble relational escape from responsibility. One can be authentic and authoritative at the same time. If you have been called to shepherd the church of God—if you have been called to be behind the pulpit—you must realize the importance of not only authentically relating to the people, but also of authoritatively proclaiming God’s word. Being behind a pulpit does not mean that you are perfect or that you have it all figured out, but it does mean that you are taking seriously the responsibility of your leadership under God.
Next time, don’t forget the pulpit.
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Tim. 4:2-3)
“Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:13)
“These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (Titus 2:15)
“For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith.” (Titus 1:13)
Does your church use a pulpit? What do you think about their disappearance? Am I reading too much into this? (Now . . . look at me, getting Socratic at the end).