Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lowering the Pulpit: A Theology of the Pulpit

I have noticed that as churches embrace more of popular culture, especially in worship forms, the pulpit disappears or is lowered in elevation. One church has the sermon delivered on a riser on a lower level than the stage on which the worship occurs. Another church has an elaborate stage, but a tiny, transparent podium with no substance.

Pulpits at one time were sturdy, large, and central in Evangelical Churches. In Lutheran Churches, where they are off to the side, they are big and tall.

We need a theology of the pulpit. The Word of God is above us. The preacher should explain and proclaim and defend Scripture as true and holy. He or she is a servant of the Word and should be a deep student of its truth (2 Tim 2:15). There is, therefore, good reason for the pulpit to be central and raised up, since Holy Scripture is central and exalted.

I recently preached in a small church with a high pulpit. (The entire liturgy was the deepest I have heard outside of an Anglican Church.) There was no room to prowl around up there, as I sometimes do. That would mean falling off the raised square. It was a bit awkward, but the idea is strong. Too much of preaching is personality-driven, consumerist, and informal. The authority of the Scripture is eclipsed by the personality of the speaker, who must be interesting, dynamic, a good salesperson. This is deeply wrong.

We are creatures of place and symbol. A low, small, pulpit (or even a music stand, which I hate with a perfect hatred) does not communicate authority or transcendence. Of course, a bad preacher in a good pulpit is a bad preacher still. Yet, the pulpit itself speaks, both to the congregation (not an audience) and to the preacher. If you climb up into it, you had better be ready to deliver Spirit-led, biblically faithful words of truth.



Brandon Corfman said...

Jesus preached on the side of the hill. Paul preached in an amphitheater ... in a house ... or sitting by a river. The Bible has nothing to say about the height of a pulpit because it isn't important. It definitely isn't theology.

Sam said...

I have been dealing with this issue myself lately. I am not yet convinced that your point is right, but I am searching and am beginning to lead more that way. I guess part of my reluctance stems from my job as a youth pastor. I know that I would not use a pulpit to teach youth, we would soon have no one left in attendance. And so, I struggle with finding the line where relevance moves from good to bad. Certainly we can strive to be all things to all men, and we would also love to understand the times like the men of Issachar who understood the times. But, when does this understanding of the times move to becoming like the times? Who knew a pulpit could reflect so much about the cultural assimilation of our churches today?

Doug Groothuis said...

Your comments are simplistic. I never said you had to have a tall, study pulpit to preach, teach, defend trut. I arged that it is advisable. If one has control over it in a church, the pulpit should be a serious place.

My saying it is not important, you are essentially being Gnostic--mateterial objects, symbols, location is irrelevant; we have to escape into pure spirit. That denies the goodness of creation and our responsibility to use it wisely in accord with biblical truth.

Place matters; space matters; symbols matter.

Dave said...

A deeper problem is that the majority of clergy in America have such a low view of Scripture. Although I can't remember exact statistics, it is always depressing learning about recent polls that show how many pastors in various denominations actually affirm the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible.

As Os Guinness once remarked, American Christians have replaced theology with pop psychology. That is a natural outcome when confidence in the authority and reliability of the Word is lost.

Ben said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I like your assessment of the symbolism of an elevated pulpit. Our environment does matter, especially when we have control over our surroundings. But the stereotype of the lowered pulpit and extravagant personality has its counterpart in the exalted pulpit and the dry and dispassionate lecturer; sort of a Puritanical authority figure who exposits the Word as though delivering a paper to the ETS. I think we could easily find examples of both.

I would, however, advocate a middle way. An elevated pulpit commanded by a diligent workman who communicates passionate conviction to the congregation. The Word should stir our hearts, minds, emotions, everything that is reflective of the imago Dei.

I've thought some about these things being from a Southern Baptist background, having functioned in smaller and larger churches. The contemporary worship wars are another manifestation of this issue. There is an inherent tension between two divine attributes: transcendence and immanence. Both of which are legitimately reflected in our worship services (or liturgy) all the way to the very architecture of our buildings.

I preach in the lower church traditions, but I take the pulpit seriously and attempt to project a certain authority while in that space. It is because I have spent a great deal of time with the text from which I preach. I have labored in exegesis, reflected on contemporary issues to which it speaks, and at the end of the sermon writing process, believe that I have a Word from God that should be heeded by the congregation. All of this is tempered with humility due to the eternal and divine import of the preaching event as well as recognizing my own limitations as a finite and sinful man. Hence, I approach the pulpit with confidence in the message I have, confidence in the Holy Spirit's leadership, yet with great fear of the One who I represent.


Ben Kimmell

Charles E. Whisnant said...

Now there is a topic I have not address in a post. We need to change from the Pulpit Committee to the Pastor's Search Committee. It seems every pastor has his own pulpit idea. What is up with that. You are right in your comments. The point is, you have a point when you change the pulpit or get rid of it. Some speak from a chair or in a boat. What does that say about preaching?

pgepps said...

I very much like your general point about the relation of "style" to truth; they are interpenetrating features of proclamation, and thus neither is indifferent or subject to endless pragmatic adaptation.

I'm not positive the pulpit itself is the place I would start that critique, but I do know that I experience what one of my grad profs called "The Church of the Holy Overhead Projector" as a devastating flatness and void.

Sage said...

Hi Doug,

I agree that form and symbolism are significant (religiously and aesthetically). However, I also consider Paul's words to the Roman church (Chapter 14) to bear on this discussion. Here are verses 5 and 14:
"One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind...Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another."

The height of a pulpit, and the symbolic import a congregation attaches to that form, seems to me a personal matter that is up to the individual and the congregation to determine. As long as there is a Scriptural basis to the symbolism such as avoiding Pharisaic ostentation, or simply an application of good stewardship with the allocation of the church budget, then I respectfully submit that we ought ought not to judge how congregations configure their sanctuaries.

Considering form is good. Judging those considerations seems unwarranted.

Grace to you,

Doug Groothuis said...

Romans 14 should not be used to promote relativism. It seems that whenever I take an unpopular stand, people use Romans 14. We need to go deeper than that and adduce principles for our positions--for or against what I'm saying.

Sage said...


I agree completely - Romans 14 adjures us to wrestle with applying God's explicit teachings to practical areas where His word is not explicit. And we ought to evaluate the merits of differing positions. This is a worthy topic. (I majored in Fine Art in a Christian college, and considering how space conveys meaning is very dear to my heart.)

However, when two mutually exclusive applications both have Scriptural merit, we ought not to seek to establish either view as normative. This is not moral relativism - what's wrong is universally wrong. How we apply the absolutes to practical matters is right inasmuch as it is done unto the Lord, consistently with the absolutes. Our liberty in these matters forces us to form mature convictions - even when we reach opposing applications of the same principles. So we're not carving out the Right answer, but building our convictions of propriety. These convictions are inherently personal and varied. What counts is the merit of the basis of our view, and our sincerity toward God.

Phil Taylor said...

It would be interesting to know the history of the pulpit. When was it invented? When did it come into common use? What politics were connected to it? What did the poorer, rural congregations do when wealthier counterparts began building grandiose pulpits? I heard that Criswell, from First Baptist Dallas stood on a lift, so that when he made a big point, he could press a button and raise himself up, just a little more. What kind of theological point is made there? Our church is a young church plant with no money. We rent a hall on sundays and set everything up each week, then tear it down afterwards. You might enjoy the fact that while we use a music stand as a pulpit, it is in fact the biggest music stand on the stage. (I believe it was called a conductor's stand). I tend to think that at times, the size and nature of the pulpit may have been driven less by a respect for scripture, and more by an inflated ego. Interesting conversation though.

His and glad said...

It seems tome that you are missing the other part of the symbolism. Imagine yourself on a rocky ledge. The breezes blow the on the plants that survive the harsh environment and the eye is drawn to their movement. Look out on a fallow field in winter and if a doe comes out of the woods, your eyes go to the doe.

While the height of the pulpit may have some meaning to the speaker about the reverence that the church has for the word of God, for the observer in the pew, it has to do with the animate figure in the pulpit - the preacher. Where preacher is highly elevated a gulf is created between him and the congregation. On the whole, it is my experience, these fifty-seven years in the church, the higher the pulpit the less involved the congregation.
In the same time, I have not been able to discern any relationship between pulpit height and respect for the scripture -churches have it or they don't.
It does little good to expect that symbols are going to do what the scripture tells us is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Donald Kaspersen

joshua.erlien said...

Dr. Groothuis,

Thank you for posting this relavant topic. Some time ago, I heard Alistair Begg make a similar remark about what pulpits convey; I've been chewing on this ever since. A question I have is, how do we elevate the Scriptures without unduly elevating the man?

There are some forms that foster a priestly class (titles, robes,...pulpits?). I have observed that people under 'priest-like' preachers tend to be some of the most spiritually stunted people in Christendom.

While I can appreciate the symbolic meaning of an elevated pulpit, I wonder if there are other means that we should consider.

Again, thanks for the post. I hope the disscussion isn't over already.