The Place of the Pulpit

Kenton C. Anderson

My church bought a new pulpit this year. Gun-metal grey, portable, yet solid, the design offers an understated utility. Suited to the contemporary ambiance of our architecture and worship style, the new pulpit is intended to provide minimal interference to the communication process while still offering preachers a handy place to rest their notes.

I don’t like it. Give me the old oak pulpit, oiled by fist pounding and stained with preacher sweat. Give me “the sacred desk” or give me nothing at all. None of these acrylic, see through podiums for me, thank you very much. Give me the “furniture of authority” or else let me wander free like Whitfield in the country. Maybe that’s even better! Perhaps you should let me loose to walk among the people, just like Jesus, communing and communicating with the people without the barrier of pulpit furnishings.

Last Sunday I was invited to preach in a recently planted church. They offered a fine wooden pulpit. It looked a little odd set in the middle of the high school gym were they met, yet I was sure it would provide a perfectly good place to rest my Bible and hide my knees should they commence to knocking. To use or not to use, that was the question. On the one hand, the people obviously expected me to use the pulpit. Even in the short space of that church’s history, the people were accustomed to hearing their sermons from that particular spot of real estate. Would I somehow be diminishing the power of the preached word by moving away from the symbolic authority of the furniture? Would I cause too much disquiet by upsetting the people’s traditional expectation? Would I draw too much attention to myself by placing my person front and center without the discreet covering of the pulpit? On the other hand, was the pulpit necessary at all? Wouldn’t it just get in the way? Couldn’t I communicate more effectively by eliminating the barrier and adopting an intimate, face to face posture among the people?

 

The History of the Pulpit

There are no pulpits in the Bible. Somehow, Jesus managed without a pulpit in his sermon on the mount or any of his other discourses. Even in the synagogues there is no evidence that Jesus, Paul or the rabbis would have used anything approaching our contemporary conception of a pulpit (Hoppe, 1). Of course the early church met primarily in homes. It was not until the third century AD that Christian congregations began to build and furnish structures intended to house the worship of a local congregation (White, 19).

The first reference to a pulpit is found in a letter of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, in the mid 3rd century. Cyprian makes several references to ordination as it relates to the pulpitum of his church building (White, 69 n.18). In fact, this is one of the first references to any sort of formal development of the building of churches. Michael White, says,

The term seems to refer to a slightly raised dais or platform at one end of the assembly hall where the clergy sat. In one instance the honor of ordination is symbolized in ascending the pulpitum in the loftiness of the higher place and conspicuous before the whole people. The phrase “to come to the pulpitum” even becomes the technical term for the ordination of a reader in the church at Carthage (White Vol.2, 23).

While this indicates a special place for the clergy in the sanctuary, it may more accurately indicate what we might call the platform in contemporary church buildings. There was no indication here that this pulpit was set apart for the preaching of God’s Word.

Around the fourth century AD, reference begins to be made to the altar and to the ambo as furnishings in the church. Dargan describes Chrysostom, for example, variously sitting in the ambo or “in the preacher’s usual place,” standing on the steps of the altar as he preached his famous sermons (Dargan, Vol.1, 88). The ambo was a small desk used for the reading of lessons and often for the preaching of sermons (Fiddes, 29). Originally the ambo was placed front and center in the sanctuary. By the ninth century the pulpit appears in a lateral (sometimes elevated) position in the basilican cathedrals of the day (Fiddes, 30). This move represented the less prominent place of preaching in the congregation and the heightened emphasis upon liturgical aspects of worship (Dargan, 109).

Eventually, pulpits became extremely ornate in their construction. Carved stairways, intricate ornamentation, and grand canopies describe the pulpit as a piece of art in the pre-reformation european cathedral (Bangs, 31-43). John Throop describes preaching in one such pulpit at the Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. “To reach the marble pulpit in that church,” he said, “I had to climb nearly 12 feet up a long flight of circular steps. I couldn’t tell whether the breathlessness that followed was from being up so high, or being in a pulpit from which, hundreds of years ago, holy and articulate preachers, perhaps even the Bard himself, preached GodÈs Word (Throop, 48).”

The reformation led not only to a renewed emphasis upon the sermon but to the repositioning of the pulpit in the center of the sanctuary (Fiddes, 42,43). This better symbolized the reformation emphasis upon the centrality of God’s Word. In contemporary protestant churches this tradition has been continued. The pulpit assumes a central, though less ostentatious position. Today pulpits tend to be built more for functionality. Aesthetics have not been abandoned entirely, however. It is possible today, to purchase pulpits made of granite, acrylic, steel, or even wood. There are pulpits to suit every taste and purpose. The proliferation of styles, substances, and price points, only serves to complicate the contemporary confusion about the place of the pulpit.

 

Implications of the Pulpit

The central position of a fixed pulpit is thought to suggest a theological prominence about the preaching of the Word of God. It is thought that somehow, the furniture represents the authority of Scripture in a visible and tangible way. Many churches offer a “lectern” for liturgical readings so that the pulpit can be kept solely for the high purpose of preaching. It is therefore, not without pause that the preacher abandons the sacred desk.

However, one of the lessons of the reformation was that the Bible belonged to the people and that the preaching of the Word was not bound to officially sanctioned locales. The pulpit of St. Janskathedraal at s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands offers insight. This ornate, wooden pulpit is intricately carved with images of Moses, Christ, the apostles, and the church fathers, right down to the patron of this particular church. Bangs says,

Presumably the continuity (from Moses through the Fathers) was perceived to reach down to the preacher in that pulpit. The pulpit was built and used when contrasting preaching was fully known to be taking place in houses and fields without such visible support from the reassuring imagery of Roman Catholic tradition (Bangs, 42).

While the pulpit may well serve as a symbol of authority, it is worth remembering that the pulpit, and the ecclesiastical authority it may represent, must not place boundaries around the preaching of the word. The joy of the gospel must be preached wherever the feet of the preacher may take him or her, even to the fields (Rom. 10:15).

The act of leaving the pulpit is also symbolic. The preacher who walks out from behind the pulpit offers a nonverbal affirmation of interest in and proximity to the people. 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.” This movement, is not without risk, however. Fred Craddock says, wisely, that “the pulpit reminds me that I am one of a long line of people whom the church has called to preach and teach. It’s a humbling thing to approach the pulpit. With no pulpit, I come on stage, and I am the center (Throop, 48).” Craddock’s point is well taken. 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 indispensable to the process.

There is something to be said for the extemporaneous immediacy of pulpitless preaching. Many years ago Charles Koller described the power of expository preaching without notes. More recently, Walter Ong has described the renewed emphasis upon orality in our post-gutenberg age. It may be, as Clyde Fant has suggested, that in such an age a look-them-in-the-eye approach might be just the ticket (Fant, 165-68). A sermon can be just as faithfully researched and carefully constructed without adopting a literate pulpit style that is clearly less effective in this television dominated age. It’s hard to imagine Jay Leno doing his nightly monologue from behind a pulpit.

Coming out from behind the pulpit is not for the weak of heart. It takes more work, rather than less, to offer a careful, expository treatment of the Scriptures without reference to a sheaf of detailed notes. It requires the preacher take time to assimilate the message so that the sermon comes from somewhere deep within. Structures will have to be memorized. The material will have to be mastered. It will be hard to make all of this happen late on Saturday night. This, of course, is not a bad thing. Experienced preachers may actually be refreshed by the challenge.

In the end, I chose not to use the pulpit that Sunday in the gymnasium. At first I think a few of the people were a little disappointed. Certainly there are those who think the preacher should know and keep his place. As I told the story of Jesus walking on the water, I simulated Peter’s experience, literally stepping down from the platform and walking out into the congregation. It felt risky. I’m sure there were a few that didn’t like the fact that I was invading their space. I’m confident that most of the others, however, we’re too busy imagining the waves and wind. Once we were rolling I’m sure that most of the people that Sunday we’re too busy listening for the voice of God in the words of that sermon to be concerned about the lack of a pulpit.

I love pulpits. One day I’d love to find a fancy big antique pulpit. I’d like to buy it and put it in my office. It would look good there as a symbol of my occupation as a preacher and teacher of preachers. But when it comes to Sunday morning, and the people have all gathered to hear from God, there may be too much at stake for me to hide behind the pulpit. Next Sunday, I imagine, you will find me out in front of the people, looking them in the eye, and pleading for the gospel. You’ll forgive me for that, I trust, understanding that the power is in the Word and not in the furniture.

 

Reference List

Bangs, Jeremy Dupertuis. Church Art and Architecture in the Low Countries before 1566. Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 37. Kirksville, MI: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1997.

Cook, John W. “Pulpit.” In Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, 393-94. William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer, eds. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995.

Dargan, Edwin C and Ralph G. Turnbull. A History of Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1974.

Fant, Clyde E. Preaching For Today. Rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

Fiddes, Victor. The Architectural Requirements of Protestant Worship. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Press, 1961.

Hoppe, Leslie J. The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.

Koller, Charles W. Expository Preaching Without Notes. Grand Rapids, MI:Baker, 1962.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982

Throop, John R. “Pulpits: A Place to Take Your Stand.” Your Church 44 no.2 (Mar/Apr 1998):48.

White, L. Michael. “The Social Origins of Christian Architecture.” Harvard Theological Studies 42. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International/Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

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