As for the pulpit in particular- it is big, central, and strong, for a reason. It is meant to promote the preaching of God’s inspired, inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative Word as the central activity of the Church. The pulpit is bigger than the preacher. The pulpit requires the person who brings the Word to stand up and step into it. It demands the preacher consider the solemnity of the role he is exercising when preaching the Word, leading the congregation in prayer, or otherwise leading elements of the worship liturgy.
We had the opportunity to build a new sanctuary fifteen years ago and we opted for an Old School style complete with wooden pews, kneelers, choir in the back, digital pipe organ and a big central pulpit. This post is not trying to convince anyone they should do what we did, but rather to offer an explanation for those who wonder and even an encouragement for those who worship in older buildings that have a similar set up. The various features of our church architecture and layout are based on things we see as biblically important. Our building looks a certain way for a specific reason. Our choice of furnishings and the particular layout of the pulpit, baptismal, and communion table are purposeful.
It is not that other types of church buildings or layouts are unbiblical or wrong. For example, it seems the big, central, wooden pulpit is often rare in newer church buildings. Many modern churches opt for a large stage for a worship band and a portable stool or chair in front of a Plexiglas lectern for their casually dressed pastor to sit and teach or “talk with” his congregation. I do something similar on Sunday nights and in other teaching venues. Certainly, the Word of God can be taught or preached in different set ups. Jesus taught in various settings throughout his ministry, as did the Apostle Paul. The Bible doesn’t prescribe the arrangement of furniture in a church worship setting.
The pastor, sitting with small Plexiglas lectern on Sunday morning, definitely communicates casual, informal, personal interaction. It seems such a setup is intended to make the pastor come across as non-threatening, even a bit less authoritative. The pastor in that posture is about to have a conversation or fireside chat with his family and friends, it would seem. I suspect this approach might be a reaction to the yelling, pulpit-pounding, white-suit wearing, hanky in one hand, fire and brimstone preacher. The stool and lectern approach is meant to put people at ease as they listen to a “message” from the Bible. The pastor’s choice of casual dress while teaching or preaching Sunday morning tells the congregation- “Hey, I’m one of you! Let me tell you what I’ve learned this week.” I think much of the trend toward a casual set up for teaching and preaching Sunday morning has come from current generational pressure. Millennials and Gen Zs are characterized as being skeptical or dismissive of authority. The traditional big, central pulpit with the pastor wearing a suit or robe is a bit offsetting to a generation that doesn’t acknowledge levels of authority readily.
Let’s be honest-whatever your set up, something is being communicated. Our intention is to communicate importance and authority by the chancel arrangement we have. The most important activities of the church are signified by the furnishings we have the pulpit, the baptismal, and the communion table. The ministry of Christ’s church is the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. Our furnishings are meant to make a statement about the priorities of the church.
As for the pulpit in particular- it is big, central, and strong, for a reason. It is meant to promote the preaching of God’s inspired, inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative Word as the central activity of the Church. The pulpit is bigger than the preacher. The pulpit requires the person who brings the Word to stand up and step into it. It demands the preacher consider the solemnity of the role he is exercising when preaching the Word, leading the congregation in prayer, or otherwise leading elements of the worship liturgy. Yes, the big, central pulpit is meant to exude authority-the authority of the preached Word primarily. This authority is not based on the preacher, but on the Word that is preached. In our church, the pastors wear robes so the congregation’s attention is not on his clothes, but rather the role he is filling for that hour. Some will say, The robe distracts me…it reminds me of when I was Catholic.” Possibly. But I am guessing a good number might say, “Skinny jeans on Gen Xers, untucked shirts, and preachers in sneakers are distracting too”. The pulpit manned by a minister in a robe communicates reverence and authority. But this article is not really making a case for robe-wearing, so forgive the rabbit trail!
Back to the big central pulpit set up. Preaching is proclaiming the word of truth and exhorting the congregation to believe and obey. The pastor is commanded to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2) as part of his essential shepherding duties and the central pulpit arrangement can serve to encourage this practice. The central pulpit set up is a reminder to the pastor and the people about God’s authoritative Word. There is a sense in which pastors come and go, but the big, solid pulpit from which the Word is preached, will remain for generations. A preacher “filling the pulpit” is a great way to describe what a faithful pastor should be doing. He should know what the pulpit is meant for (preaching the Word) and do the task. In other words, many important messages can be relayed by architecture and setup.
To be clear, I would rather go to a church that has a modern set up with the stool and Plexiglass lectern where the pastor believes and preaches the Bible faithfully than a church with a traditionally arranged big, central pulpit, but the pastor does not believe or faithfully teach the Bible. The essential priority for a biblical, healthy church, is a right view and teaching of the Bible, which can be done with no pulpit at all. My purpose here is to offer explanation for a big central pulpit set up like ours and possibly provide some ideas to share with your church members if you have a similar arrangement.
Dr. Tony Felich is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as the Pastor of Redeemer PCA in Overland Park, Kansas.