Why a Pulpit?
I'm asked now and again why I don't preach from outside the pulpit more often. Folks tell me that it helps them feel closer. They like the informal feel, the sense of spontaneity. And folks often comment, "Wow. You did that without notes!"
I will preach from the chancel steps on occasion--but very rarely. I might come down if there's an event that I feel calls for a certain intimacy of comment. I also might do this if I feel like I need to wake folks up for some reason (though pounding on the pulpit works too!). But the times are intentionally rare--no more than two or three times each year.
Why? I know many disagree, but I'll still say it: I believe in the pulpit. I think it serves a theological purpose that is essential both to our worship and to the integrity of preaching.
But first let me tell you something I reject. Some criticize the pulpit for separating the preacher from the congregation and putting him or her into a place of strained authority, above the congregation, protected from the congregation, looking down on the congregation. Forgetting that one of the main reasons pulpits were set high in old churches was so sound could carry, folks sometimes point to the elevation of the pulpit as evidence for how preaching is overly didactic, or overly masculine. Now I've no doubt that there are preachers who can abuse the authority of the pulpit. But there are also preachers who can abuse the authority of the chancel steps, or the aisle in the center of the church, or the middle of a church in the round. There's nothing inherently abusive or authoritarian about a pulpit.
I'd go so far as to suggest that the idea of a preacher standing with nothing between her or him and a congregation holds its own risk. It's the same risk that comes if I don't pray before I preach, and so don't symbolically remind you that I seek to be as humble before the word I preach as I hope my hearers will be.
In my view of it, the pulpit is a rich symbol of the fact that all preaching is subject to the authorship, and so authority, of a Spirit not our own. The power of my words doesn't depend on me alone--and so I can fail (and I often do) and yet still pray that God might heal my words on their way to their destination. Words move over a transept into worship, and as they do they are no longer mine. Hearers have a role to play. They have a role to play in preparing, listening well, forgiving, expecting, and asking to be more than entertained or soothed. They are co-creators of the preached word, and that takes some work. Most folks might not think the pulpit says that, but I want to remind them that it does.
And so the pulpit also symbolizes the fact that while preaching teaches, it is something different from teaching. And while preaching inspires, it is something different than just inspirational speaking. And while preaching comforts, it is something other than just words of reassurance or confirmation. Preaching is testimony. Full stop. It is testimony invited by the church. And it is testimony to what the preacher has heard in prayerful study of, and response to, four things: scripture, tradition, world, and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. The pulpit is the witness stand from which this testimony is offered.
I believe that too many preachers put themselves somewhere else in the imaginary courtroom of the Word. Many see themselves as one of the attorneys, either defending God or scripture against attack or prosecuting something for crimes against truth. But that's a fool's errand, I believe, and it is not characteristic of how scripture imagines the witness of preaching. Some preachers see themselves as the judge, setting themselves above it all and outside the ambiguities of life. Some might even see themselves as the defendant, begging for a judgment in their favor. But I invite you to imagine the preacher, as I've suggested, as none of these--but, instead, as a witness.
As a witness, I can't start the trial. Nor can I end it. I can't control the jury. Nor can I control the courtroom. The trial is not mine, nor in the end are the questions to which I seek to respond. But as a witness I can still make a world of difference in the trial. Under oath, I take responsibility for my words, even to point of putting my integrity and reputation on the line. I must describe what I see and know (if only in part) in a believable way. I must acknowledge what I don't know.
Now one can certainly preach as a witness, offering testimony, outside a pulpit. And many preachers do. I'm not saying a sermon outside a pulpit is not a sermon. But I still believe that the pulpit is a unique physical reminder of some important things. It's that witness stand.
But are you wrong to enjoy the feeling of informality and intimacy you sometimes find when a preacher comes out of the pulpit? Are you wrong to enjoy the spontaneity and apparent wonder of someone speaking coherently without notes (or with scant notes)? No, you're not wrong. Those desires are genuine and worth a preacher's attention--including my own. But that said, I still invite you to redirect your attention to what the pulpit can give us too. It can be a beautiful thing.
This is my witness to the nonviolent power of the pulpit.