Sacred Desk or Sacred Cow? Perspective on the Pulpit (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Changing the Pulpit?

We’ve argued that the big wooden pulpit is not an element but a circumstance of worship. Technically we don’t have to use a pulpit for preaching or teaching. Or we could exchange the old pulpit for one that’s newer and portable. But, as the old adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In other words, we may change, but we don’t have to change. There should be some benefits or advantages to circumstantial changes in order to warrant such changes.

Below I’d like to suggest a few possible benefits and advantages of making the transition from an older large pulpit to a newer, smaller, and more portable pulpit. Let me quickly add that these proposed benefits and advantages may not apply to every local church’s cultural and ministry context. Wisdom is needed.

1. The older symbolism may not be necessary

It may be argued that the symbolism of a centralized pulpit served a useful purpose in the days of the Reformation and immediately following. But we don’t live in 16th or 17th century Europe. Even if some of our church members appreciate (without idolizing) the history and culture of the old pulpit, it’s unlikely that the uninitiated who come among us do. And I don’t believe the best way to show newcomers that we highly esteem God’s Word is to preserve the big pulpit. Our commitment to “the centrality of the pulpit” is communicated best not by furniture but by the place we give to biblical exposition in the worship and ministry of our church. Forty minutes of solid biblical exposition will do more than 400 pounds of milled lumber!

But what if your church meets in an older building? Won’t the removal of the older pulpit and introduction of an updated pulpit result in architectural dissonance? If the sanctuary was originally designed for the large sacred desk, doesn’t aesthetic sensibility demand we keep it that way?

In response I would point out that one can find many newer and smaller pulpits that still have a traditional look. Moreover, with time people can become accustomed to modern looking fixtures in an older looking sanctuary. For instance, many older meeting places were built before the widespread use of audio amplification and visual presentations. No doubt, the new speakers and projector screen (or flat screen) may have seemed “out of place” initially. But now they seem commonplace. Similarly, a more modern looking pulpit will probably blend in with time.

2. For the greater visibility of the preacher

As we noted above, some churches designed large pulpits in order to hide the minister. The aim was to magnify God’s Word and to minimize the preacher. Apparently, clerical gowns served a similar purpose. They didn’t merely distinguish the preacher as clergy, but they served to draw attention away from the man and, instead, to the Word of God preached.

Of course, every godly pastor should, like John the Baptist, be willing to decrease in order that Christ might increase (John 3:30). Even so, I’m not convinced the best way to achieve this worthy goal is to create physical barriers between the preacher and the congregation. If that were the case, we might do better to imitate the character in the Wizard of Oz who hid from sight behind a curtain as he thundered forth the decrees of the Great Oz!

The only pulpit mentioned in Scripture (Neh 8:4) was built to stand upon, not hide behind. And a casual reading of the biblical narratives reveals that the prophets and preachers in Scripture normally communicated to their audiences in plain sight. One gets the sense that they wanted to be seen as well as heard. That is, they wanted to relate to their audience and convey accessibility and ethos.13 Though they sometimes communicated to their audiences in abstentia via written epistle, they preferred “face to face” communication (Col 1:10; 1 Thess 2:17; 3:10; 2 John 12; 3 John 14). Eye contact and body language were not only an effective form of body language then (Pss 32:8; 47:1; Prov 10:10; 16:30; 30:17; Lam 2:15; Ezek 4:4-7; Acts 13:16; 19:33), but they are valued in our modern culture as well.14

Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree to which the bigger pulpit creates a barrier between the preacher and the people. Even larger pulpits allow the congregation to see the preacher’s face and upper torso.15 Nevertheless, I would still argue that larger pulpits can tend to stifle body movement. And as communications expert Lonnie Polson remarks,

Unless speaking from a manuscript, most speakers should move about while speaking. This movement is effective to point up transition from one idea to another, to emphasize important points, and to recapture your audience’s sagging attention.16

Applying this counsel to the art of preaching in our 21st century American context, pastor and “media missionary” Steven Koster remarks,

In contemporary times, we’ve seen a reduction of pulpit size generally because of our culture’s increasing emphasis on the person doing the preaching. We don’t want our preachers hiding behind a wall. We want to see them, and connect with them as people, not just with their spoken ideas. That emphasis has its pastor-as-rock-star dangers of course, but it’s also an expression of the incarnated Word. God comes to us not as an idea, but as a person who empties himself of greatness and loves and suffers and dies along side us and in our place. The preacher does the same in trying to bear witness with their whole being (emphasis his).17

I don’t think preaching from a manuscript or from behind a large wooden pulpit necessarily denotes detachedness or a lack of authenticity for everyone. But like it or not, that’s the way some of the people we’re trying to reach with the gospel may view it. In such cases, I recommend accommodating to the scrupulous consciences of the target audience we’re trying to reach in the spirit of “becoming weak to the weak” (1 Cor 9:22).

3) To increase the versatility of our sanctuary

In some churches the preachers share the platform with music leaders. And some music leaders use an acoustic guitar to lead the congregation. Guitars are rhythm instruments and as such they serve to keep the congregation singing in sync. But the rhythm of a guitar is discerned not only audibly but also visually. Seeing the strumming patterns in addition to hearing them can aid the congregation in keeping time. I know it works that way for me.

The gesture of sharing the platform and lectern with music leaders need not be interpreted as an elevation of congregational praise above preaching. Many Reformed churches view hymns and prayers as secondary “means of grace” and prefatory to the main event. If one combines the teaching that takes place in Sunday School with the Sunday AM and PM sermons, the proportion of the ministry of the Word considerably outweighs the time given to singing and prayer. Even so, I think there’s warrant for viewing congregational singing as another facet of “the ministry of the Word.” After all, a large part of our singing involves letting “the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:29).

So I don’t think using a lectern or podium that’s versatile enough to work for the preacher and the music leader need be interpreted as signifying a movement away from the centrality of preaching. Instead, it shows that we’re concerned about every element of worship. It gives those of us who are preachers the opportunity to “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4).

Some Final Thoughts

In summary, the physical pulpit is not a biblically sanctioned symbol. It’s simply a cultural circumstance of worship. Consequently, preachers have the freedom to use a pulpit or to refrain from using a pulpit. Churches have the freedom to keep the old sacred desk or to update to a newer style pulpit that suits their needs and that may better accommodate a 21st century audience. A judicious and prayerful consideration of the church’s ministry context, congregational make up, and missional objectives in the light of general biblical principle and sanctified common sense will guide.

Notes

13 As homiletician Kenton Anderson notes, “Preachers are not performers drawing attention to themselves. Yet, sermons are delivered through preachers, and the character and presence (Aristotle’s ‘ethos’) of the preacher is indispensible to the process.” “The Place of the Pulpit,” accessed Dec 17, 2012 on the Internet: http://www.preaching.org/the-place-of-the-pulpit/.

14 Lonnie Polson writes, “Establishing eye contact with your audience helps establish your credibility. In our western culture we associate dishonesty, insincerity, and fear with the person who refuses to ‘look us in the eye’ during conversation. Certainly, many honest and sincere people are simply timid and find direct eye contact with another person uncomfortable in some circumstances. To be an effective speaker, however, you must overcome this shyness and use direct eye contact to establish good rapport with your audience, maintain their attention, and observe their reactions to your presentation.” Effective Speech for the Christian (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2006), 197. Homileticians make a similar point about the importance of body movement and eye contact. See the following works: C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 272-304; John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4th edition, ed. Vernon L. Stanfield (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 290-98; Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980), 198-202; Gwyn Walters, “The Body in the Pulpit,” in The Preacher and Preaching, ed. Samuel T. Logan Jr. (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986), 445-63; Wayne McDill, “Preaching is More Than Words”; accessed January 2013 on the Internet: http://www.preaching.com/sermons/11565640/page-7/.

15 Though at 5’-7” I’ve preached in a few situations where the top of the podium nearly reached my chin.

16 Effective Speech for the Christian, 198-99. Of course. Polson qualifies his remarks by encouraging the speaker to “avoid needless pacing back and forth and be sure all movement has meaning or purpose. If there is no legitimate reasons to move, then don’t (199).

17 “Where’s the Pulpit Go?”; accessed Dec 17, 2012 on the Internet: http://www.leadingwithlight.com/2008/06/sanctuary-furniture.html. Kenton Anderson concurs and writes, “Contemporary audiences are little inclined to respect authority on the basis of position (“I am the preacher, listen to me”) and even less to the trappings of authority (clerical collars, pulpits). Today’s listeners will commit to a preacher that attracts them relationally. Coming out from behind the pulpit pictures the preacher saying, “I like you. I want to be close to you as we talk about these things. You can trust me.’” “The Place of the Pulpit.”

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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Bert Perry's picture

Specifically, I'm reminded of how I'd been in the faith for 20 years before anyone explained to me why the pulpit is in the center of most churches.  Now I don't know which of my pastors had perhaps been blessed or impeded by that setup, but what I do know is that if my churches were counting on me (and probably 95% of other congregants I'd guess) "getting the point" on why the pulpit was there and benefiting from it, all that effort was wasted.

Even now that I do know, what matters to me far more is that the person in (or near) that pulpit or podium actually preaches from the Word, as the writer says.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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