Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

If It's Worship Then Stay in The Pulpit

     We received a good sermon this morning. The preacher did a good job and conveyed a message that challenged the congregation to live as though God mattered.
     However, half way through the sermon I had to close my eyes and listen. The preacher was moving around so much on the chancel that I was beginning to get dizzy. His constant movement from one side of the chancel to the other was distracting. It was too much of an effort for my brain to follow both his message and his body. I suspect that much of his movement was nerves.
     The pastor of our congregation also insists on preaching away from the pulpit. He does not move around as much as the young man who preached in his place this morning. He tends to stand beside the Lord’s Table and sometimes steps down from the chancel into the congregation. I find this practice to be more of a distraction than a help to conveying the message.
     My experience has caused me to reflect on the importance of the pulpit. I suspect that the compulsion to step out of the pulpit is driven by the confusion about worship and evangelism that exists in the church today. This confusion has been with us for many years.
     One of the consequences is that many church members now regard Sunday morning worship as a performance for them. They are the audience. The pastor, choir, choir director, organist/musicians, and liturgists are all the performers. The purpose of the performance is to make the audience feel good enough about themselves and their experience to return for more the following week. Many people come with the expectation that they will “get something” out of the worship experience that will inspire and sustain them through the coming week.
     It makes sense then that the preacher would feel compelled to step out of the pulpit and make himself or herself more visible to the people. When people go to a concert the performers never stand behind a lectern or pulpit. Also, the entertainers are the center of attention, they are the reason the audience has purchased their tickets. Consequently, when the preacher steps out from the pulpit he or she makes himself or herself the center of attention in worship. The audience is impressed because their preacher is preaching without the benefit of notes or manuscript. This gives the impression that the preacher is speaking directly from his or her heart, inspired by the Holy Spirit. We certainly hope this is the case.
     This state of affairs reveals a church that has seriously confused worship and evangelism. What I’ve just described is practices that would be perfectly appropriate for an evangelistic event. Such an event would be completely aimed at the audience. It’s purpose is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ so that it is good news to those who hear it. If we think about the message of evangelism in grammatical terms, the subject of the event is the people who attend. Everything that happens in the event is planned and placed to tell them about God’s good new for them in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only expectation of the people who attend is to be receivers of the message. We should not expect that they will sing hymns or praise songs, say a creed, or pray a prayer of confession, or come to the Lord’s table. We hope that one of the outcomes of such an event would be that some people would respond to the invitation to commit their lives to Jesus Christ and to accept him as their savior and Lord.
     If we apply the same grammatical illustration to worship, the subject of the sentence becomes God. Everything that happens in worship is directed toward God. The congregation is the “performer” and God is the audience. This is why liturgy that is well planned and lead helps the congregation to actively participate; to play their part in the worship of God. They participate through prayers of confession, praise, petition and thanksgiving, singing hymns, reciting a creed, and coming to the Lord’s table to be fed and sent out to serve and witness in the world. Worship is the work of believers who know God and who are seeking to grow in loving God and those whom God loves.
     Because the center of attention in worship is God, and God’s might acts of salvation in Jesus Christ, the Lord’s table should always be prominent at the center of the worship space. The pulpit and lectern are located on either side of the table. The lectern is where the Scriptures are read. The pulpit is where the Scriptures are interpreted and proclaimed. I’ve become convinced that preachers should preach from the church’s pulpit. This is so for at least three reasons:

  1. The pulpit keeps the preacher in her or his place. The preacher’s task is to help lead the congregation in worshipping God. He or she should not be the center of attention. When the preacher stands in the pulpit he or she is appropriately to the side. This prevents the temptation to walk or stand at the center of the chancel, in front of the Lord’s table which should always be the center of attention.

  2. The pulpit represents the preaching office of the church. It is not intended to be a barrier. Rather, it is a symbol of the power and importance of the word. Preachers need to claim the authority, power, and responsibility of their office as heralds of God’s word and good news for the world.

  3. The pulpit allows the preacher to use an outline, notes, or manuscript to guide her or his preaching. This will keep the message focused and minimize the tendency to wander and ramble and unnecessarily lengthen the sermon. Not only does the pulpit help to keep the preacher focused on the proclamation of the word, it also helps to keep the people focused on the word and not on the preacher. This is so because the pulpit minimizes the preacher’s movement and is less of a distraction. The word becomes more important than the preacher.

All of the best sermons I’ve heard were preached from a pulpit. When God is the subject of our worship, it makes sense to me that preachers should do all in their power to prevent from putting themselves at the center. When the event is evangelism and the subject is the audience and eliciting a response from them toward God then get rid of the pulpit, jump up and down and do what ever it takes to get that response.


Blogger Kurt M. Boemler said...

I never thought about it like that. I feel like such a hypocrite now. I used to complain that the first church I served had a pulpit-centric sanctuary with the Lord's Table on the floor in a subserviant position. However, I would stand on the floor in front of the table to preach.

Likewise, I was lamenting that my upcoming charge wants me to preach from the pulpit and I like to move about. I have a feling that I'll end up behind the pulpit now, but while teaching what you wrote in your blog.

2:20 PM

Blogger Andy B. said...

Interesting thoughts. While I certainly resonate with your theology of worship, I am not sure that walking around while you talk does very much to detract from God. It strikes me that preaching is an incarnate, embodied event. I am unable to disconnect the words of the sermon from the personality of the preacher quite as easily as you seem to do in this post. I love to hear/see/experience a preacher whose sermon is so filled with energy and passion that they cannot be contained by the confines of the pulpit. It is, for me, a reflection of the incarnate, energetic, passionate presence of God.

3:57 PM

Blogger gmw said...

I'm with Andy B. on this. The sermon is an incarnational event. God is the center of our worship during the sermon not because of where the preacher delivers the sermon, but because of how well embodied and engaging the Word is. A rambling preacher is a rambling preacher no matter where they stand. A boring preacher is a boring preacher no matter where they stand. But an engaging preacher is usually more engaging when they are not behind the pulpit. The pulpit may not be "intended to be a barrier," but that doesn't mean it succeeds.

12:15 AM

Blogger Jason Woolever said...

Steven, do you know when the pulpit became a fixture in the worship space? it couldn't have been in the first century, could it? just for arguments sake, I'm curious. i'd hate to say its more biblical to preach from the pulpit. i think that would be a stretch.

12:04 PM

Blogger Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I have only preached a few public sermons and all have been from a pulpit. That said, as I understand it, in our over-visual-stimulation culture most people are simply bored by a stationary talking head like we find with a pulpit. A preacher who walks around is generally percieved as more dynamic and engaging than one who stands behind a pulpit. Most of the reading done in my seminary's preaching class supports this position. I think most Americans are not so 'distracted' by this moving beyond a pulpit, but are rather more engaged by it. I do think though that we lose some powerful theological symbolism if we eschew pulpits altogether. Certainly we should avoid any "entertainment industry" conception of what goes on in worship in which the worship leaders become performers and the worshipping congregation becomes an audience. One easy way to do this might be to ask the questions "What is worship? and Why do it?" and address these in our teaching.

10:41 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

3rd century

5:51 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pulpit wasn't in the bible days of Jesus. It came in the 3rd century. Jesus walked amongst the people when He spoked. If not staying behind the pulpit is wrong tell Jesus. He didn't have one. Nor did the deciples. I suggest you get focused on God and not what is going on around you. There will always be distraction. I had to get over them myself. When you get so locust focused on the Lord nothing will distract you from hearing is word.

6:00 PM


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