Why Do You Preach From that Old Pulpit?

There’s a criticism I hear quite often about pulpits.

“Pulpits are a thing of the past and are a sign of superiority and inappropriate hierarchy within the church.”

“They separate you from the people!”

“Raised pulpits make it seem like you’re trying to seem better than the people as you look down on them!”

To be honest, this question and response stem from a sermon I saw not too long ago that pushed me over the edge of frustration and led me to provide a clarification for an apparently common misconception. I was watching a service from another church (one might put the congregation into the category of a “hip” or “trendy” church). The pastor made a snide comment about the arrogant pastors who preach from a raised pulpit looking down at the people. This was said as he spoke from the floor level of the worship space without manuscript (but using an outline via screen behind the congregation) about 3 feet from the front row of a smoke machine haze-filled room. (I’m providing the extra visuals to give a context to show the contrast between his environment and what he was criticizing)

Perhaps he had a bad experience at a congregation where there was an arrogant pastor, but that one experience doesn’t disqualify all ancient forms of church architecture.

Pulpits have not always existed. No, really, it’s true. Nor is there one right way to set up a worship space. However, what we do in worship, and how we arrange a worship space should be done with care and thought. And that care and thought should be taught to those within the church so everyone knows why we’re doing what we’re doing. What we do shapes what we believe.

It’s neat to visit old churches or to see designs and pictures of ancient church buildings and to see the visual aesthetics that shaped the early Christians. Just as there weren’t always pulpits, there weren’t always buildings. There were times when people would meet in houses because of their inability to gather publicly for worship (in many countries that’s still the case. However, when Christians had/have the ability to join together there is a great desire to do so and to be united with the rest of the body of Christ in a building and that building was usually organized in such a way as to shape the faith.

We often talk about the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) when we talk about how we worship. This phrase suggests that how we pray and worship shapes what we believe and vice versa. The same is true in the worship space. For example, some congregations strive to create a space that is beautiful to reflect the glory of the one true God that we worship, while others strive to create a worship space that looks like an abandoned warehouse of an industrial complex. (That’s actually super popular in mainstream churches as of my writing this). Is one MORE right than the other? Not necessarily, but how is the space shaping the belief and how does our understanding of Scripture shape how we worship?

Note, I’m talking about intended design. I’m not saying that a group of people who meet in an abandoned warehouse are somehow inferior. Nor am I suggesting that a body of Christians that pridefully shows off by spending millions of dollars on a golden altar is right (Actually, if the latter is the case, we have a whole different problem).

I can’t speak to the motivations of other congregations and pastors. I can only speak with regards to pastors in history who have explained their motives and about what we do at Immanuel. Immanuel has a pulpit that is slightly raised up to the right side of the altar when you look at the chancel area. There is a visual aesthetic to it. God’s Word is raised up to prominence. It’s not about the pastor. Instead, it’s about God’s Word which is being shared.

When you have a “stage” rather than an “altar”, and a music stand with a one-man show for 45 min to an hour each week, what comes through as the prominent part of the service? God’s Word or the guy sharing it?

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m NOT saying that it’s evil to preach from a “stage” rather than an altar/chancel area. It is not evil to stand in the center to preach to the people with either a simple stand of some sort to hold a sermon or to preach freely without a manuscript. Those are all great ways to share God’s Word. Culturally and so on our method of delivery adjusts and such.

The point is, what we do shapes what we believe whether we intend them to do so or not. Raised pulpits are not designed to elevate the pastor, but the Word of God. The church building is designed to draw our attention to Christ and His work for us rather than to us and our work.

Does that mean there are never arrogant pastors who relish being the center of attention? Of course not! Every pastor should pray for encouragement from the temptation to be a prideful leader rather than a humble servant.

Does that mean that a group of Christians isn’t REALLY the church because they don’t have an elegant wooden (or some other nice material) pulpit? Of course not! But we should always be thinking about why we do what we do and how it shapes our Christian faith.

When you walk into the church building pay attention to what is where and how that shapes our faith in Christ’s good work for us.

If you have questions, want to chat, agree or disagree, please feel free to let me know.

Blessings on your day!

Pastor Merritt