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 They have been replaced by spare, anorexic imitations of their forebears.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.

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Published by

John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

16 thoughts on “The Power of the Pulpit”

  1. While I agree that the transparent or small pulpit can minimize the importance of the proclamation of God’s word, I’ll argue that this is a reaction to the perception of what the pulpit represents. The massive huge pulpit came to represent an elevation of the proclaimer over the proclamation, regardless of what the designers intended. I believe that when this happened the imagery of the huge pulpit needed to go. What’s missing in many contemporary churches today is a substitute metaphor to emphasize the importance and centrality of the Scriptures.

  2. Chasen-Good questions. There is no record that Jesus used a pulpit-though I suppose he may have rested the scroll on something as he unrolled it in the synaguge in Nazareth. But of course there is much that Jesus did that we do not do and much that we do in the context of worship that he did not.

    Jeff- You make a good point too. Although I would argue that the proclaimer needs a little more elevation these days. I will argue in my next book that the preacher plays a unique role in the preaching event and should not be invisible. More on that later.

  3. Should the focus be more on the Word of God and us putting it in action, then where the Word of God is preached from? There are many heretical church that have large center pulpits, and there are many more solid bible believing churches that have nothing more then a bible in the preachers hand.

    Another question I have is this: Can the pulpit be exported to Christians worldwide? Meaning, Should a house church in China have a pulpit? Or a poor church in USA buy a pulpit instead of paying the preacher or helping the poor?

    Thanks

  4. I tend to agree with you. I think in our effort to friendly up churches, we have stripped some much needed respect and authority. Personally, I have always appreciated some of the pomp and circumstance of Roman Catholic tradition which emphasizes God’s holiness. The pulpit is just a small part of that, of course, but evangelicals might have let the trend swing much to far in the other direction.

  5. As Redeemer Fellowship launched in an mid-century Baptist church building not only did we remove the old wooden pulpit from our “sanctuary,” but we didn’t replace it with a lectern or music stand. I don’t even have a stool to sit on for those “let’s take it down a notch,” reflective parts of the sermon. 😛 I stand before our church with nothing but a Bible and my notes written on a small piece of paper tucked into my Bible. And yet, I would not dismiss John’s words.

    At the heart of what I hear in this post is that what we do in worship matters, and even the things that we often consider inconsequential do in fact have an impact on those participating. Every church, and every worship gathering, has a culture that we should not only be aware of, but intentionally cultivate to reflect the wonder of God and the gospel. This means things like Powerpoint and pulpits matter. In my estimation, a great pulpit can communicate everything John has said, but depending on how it is used and the people who gather it may not communicate those things.

    1. There is clearly a cultural dimension to this. I am thinking more of the symbolism implied by our practices. I am not really trying to set up a “law” which says we should always preach from a wooden pulpit. As a rule we evangelicals act as if there is no significance to the artifacts and structures associated with our worship, yet their importance is often implicit in the decisions we make. The argument against using a pulpit actually implies that its presence makes a statement. The designation of “house” church is another example. Those who identify with the house church movement would argue that the building is not important yet they identify themselves with a label that emphasizes the place where they meet.

  6. I would like to know if there is anything wrong with a church having a pulpit in the altar and having a pulpit on the main floor in front of the altar. I have heard many people say that a church should not have 2 pulpits it should only have one pulpit and that it should go on the altar.

  7. Blanca:

    The Bible doesn’t address the question-so there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” location. Those who object to a particular placement usually do so because of what such placement might imply about the priority of preaching in the service. When churches have two pulpits one is usually used for the reading of Scripture and the other for the sermon. Perhaps this is meant to distinguish God’s word from the words of the sermon. Thanks for the interesting question.

  8. In response to a previous question about Jesus preaching from a pulpit….it may be a strectch…but He spoke 7 Words from the Greatest Pulpit…the Cross on which He was Crucified. I have a couple of other comments I will save for later. Just wanted to share this observation.

    1. I love the metaphor of Jesus preaching from the cross. Of course, His seven “words” were not preaching in the formal sense. In fact, three of His sayings were addressed to the Father. Two could almost be characterized as “conversational.” But a good reminder, especially at this time of year.

  9. I was inspired by your post to do an article on why some churches have two pulpits in them. You seem to be very knowledgeable about the usage of church pulpits, specifically within the Protestant church, so I thank you for your knowledge!

  10. Funny how the Protestant Church was a departure from the elevated stature of the priests in the Catholic Church but over the years returned to the same habits and ways. Protestants literally do 90% of the things that Martin Luther protested against. Simply amazing. Also take time to read on the fall of Satan and notice his elevated status, one that denotes authority and respect. Do you want to emulate this same stance and therefore experience the same fall? Awesome!

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