The Power of the Pulpit

The pulpit has fallen on hard times in today’s evangelical churches. While I don’t have scientific data to back this up, it’s my personal observation that the pulpit has fallen into disfavor. Of course pulpit furniture, like any other kind of furniture, is subject to the whims and vagaries of designers’ tastes. The pulpit furniture of some churches seems dated, like the stainless steel and sputnik inspired décor that filled many of the homes we grew up in during the 50’s. Still, as a preacher, I have always had a great affection for pulpits. I am disappointed that they seem to be becoming a relic of the past.

 The place of the pulpit in worship is more than a merely pragmatic decision. It has always had theological as well as aesthetic significance. Many churches that come from a sacramental tradition locate it to the side, so that the altar where Eucharist is served can have center stage. This is no accident. This is a way of focusing worshipper’s attention on what is considered to be the most important aspect of the service. In these churches the sermon is important but not as important as the sacrament. Some churches in this tradition actually use two pulpits, located at each end of the chancel, one for the reading of Scripture and the other for the sermon, with the altar at the center. Following the Reformation, churches in the Protestant tradition relocated the pulpit to the center. This was intended to symbolize the centrality of the word of God and highlight the importance of the sermon in the worship service.

 My favorite pulpits are in the classic style. Massive and sturdy, they are broad shouldered and look as if they were intended to bear weight. They are dark and imposing, as if their designers expected the word of God and the sermons they were meant to cradle to bear down on them. I like a pulpit that is wide enough to grip and durable enough to support me. I want a pulpit I can lean on. Like the tree from which it was carved, I want one that feels as if it has immovable roots. I want a pulpit that has an air of dignity and history. I want a pulpit worthy of the title “sacred desk.”

Sadly, the church treats these old pulpits as if they were an embarrassment. They have been hidden away, relegated to dusty closets, musty basements, and the occasional out of the way Sunday school class. They have been replaced by spare, anorexic imitations of their forebears. Undernourished and gaunt, they are not pulpits at all but really only lecterns. Many modern pulpits are designed to be invisible to the worshiper. Made of Plexiglas and plastic, they are built to disappear, in the hope that they will not be perceived as a barrier between the preacher and the people. While I understand this sentiment, I think it is foolish and wrong headed. It implies that the preacher ought to be the focal point of sermon. I disagree. The focal point is the message not the messenger.

Even worse is the tendency to replace the pulpit with a music stand. This substitution is often not only functionally inadequate; I believe it sends the wrong message to the congregation. It treats the Bible and the sermon as if they were merely afterthoughts. It gives the appearance that the word of God has been shoehorned into the order service, squeezed in after its most important elements have been completed. I am not suggesting that our churches will be transformed if we dust off the old pulpits and restore them to their former place. That will depend upon what is done with the Bibles that are placed on them.