I have been preaching without a pulpit for several years now. I came into it rather slowly and it is not an issue of profound concern to me. But many preachers, if pressed, would staunchly defend either using one or not using one.
Make no mistake. The divide has nothing to do with liberal vs. conservative Christianity. Preachers on both sides are divided on their opinion of the importance of a “sacred desk” when preaching. Ironically, many liberals who have abandoned the errorless authority of Scripture still relish the pulpit. It’s ironic because pulpit-defending conservatives argue that the pulpit serves to convey the authority of Scripture.
Preaching without a pulpit doesn’t make you a liberal. Nor does it makes you “seeker-sensitive.” Preachers who forsake exposition in favor of making the sermon more palatable to unbelievers have abandoned the gospel, never mind the pulpit. They haven’t all forsaken some form of a pulpit either. Glass, welded pipes, music stand — they just want something to hold their notes or tablet.
The arguments for or against the use of a pulpit are typically going to involve opinions based on culture, upbringing and ministerial context. We’re not going to find a chapter and verse. To make a pulpit out of Ezra’s platform is a stretch at best and blatant eisegesis at worst. Perhaps rather than couching the conversation in terms of right or wrong, we can acknowledge that there are pros and cons to both approaches. Some love having a pulpit but still elect not to use it. Others feel that the pulpit takes the attention off of them.
Here are three pros and three cons as I see it, though of course many would beg to differ, and that’s ok!
Advantages to Preaching Without a Pulpit
1. The Bible is more visibly prominent
I know that sounds backwards to many. Isn’t the pulpit a way to communicate the authority of the Word? When the reformers moved the pulpit to the center of the room instead of off to the side, sure — they were emphasizing the centrality of Scripture. But I am still preaching from the center of the platform except my Bible is not hidden behind furniture. I am standing there with my Bible in my hand and nothing else. It’s me and my Bible and them and their Bibles. I think that communicates the centrality of the Word.
2. Heightened personal connection
This is, again, a matter of preference. But think of the counselor or academic advisor who chooses to come out from behind the desk to sit together with you in the chairs in front of the desk. They are communicating that they are on your level and want to build trust and mutual respect. If they stay behind the desk they might be communicating authority and separation. Some preachers may want this — the high act of preaching may demand a degree of separation between preacher and listener. For others of us we see the advantage of allowing the Bible to bear its own authority while connecting with the listeners in a more immediate, connected way. It’s more conversational and less rigid. More personal and less distant.
3. Enhanced listenability
Without a pulpit or something like it, I am forced to forgo a manuscript or elaborate outline. The result is a more conversational, fluid style. I am more listenable. We can probably all think of exceptions — preachers who excel while virtually reading their entire sermons. But most will come across like they’re reading. Either way, the more notes you have the less eye contact you will make. I want to look at the people who have privileged me with their listening.
Disadvantages to Preaching Without a Pulpit
1. May not work contextually
It may be true that in some churches a pulpit just belongs. It communicates more of a high church feel and is quite fitting in churches where there are ornate woodworkings, tables, organ pipes, etc. This is not to say that a preacher could not go no-pulpit in settings like these. You might even come out from behind it to preach most of the sermon. But if you’re in a church where much has been invested in the furniture and architecture to convey reverence and holiness, you might be wise to dwell on this a bit before making changes.
2. Can lower the sermon
For many, going no-pulpit means there is less of an elevation of the sermon as a sacred function distinct from a pastoral “heart-to-heart.” Preachers who want to visibly set the sermon apart from other modes of communication may desire to do so with a high-church looking pulpit.
3. No place to hold your notes
This is simply a practical reality. If you are heavy on your notes, you’re going to need a pulpit or a lectern or a stand of some kind. One way around this would be to use a tablet, where you have your Bible verses pasted into your manuscript or outline. But then you lose the first advantage I listed above, at least in my opinion. Another way would be to get your notes down to a small, manageable size like perhaps one double-sided 8 x 5.5” sheet. You simply hold it together with your Bible. The easiest solution would be to go ahead and use something to hold your Bible and your notes.
Questions for the pulpit-less preacher (as I currently am):
• Where do you put your Bible?
I hold it in my hand most of the time. When I am introducing the sermon, and often when I am wrapping it up, I place it on a stool next to me. No, I didn’t pick this up from the super-cool seeker-friendly preachers. When I first went no-pulpit, I looked around me and there were several stools up there for the musicians and I simply commandeered one. I suppose a small table could work, especially if you want a place for your water.
• Do you memorize your sermon?
No, not word-for-word. That would take way too much time for me and I know it would sound too memorized when I do it. I put a little sticky note somewhere on the Bible page I’m on just to keep track of crucial notes that I don’t want to forget, like the order of my main points, transitions, and key thoughts I don’t want to forget. How I explain those points is a mixture of memorized and impromptu speech.
• Were people upset when the pulpit disappeared?
Not that I know of. One person made a comment about the prominence of the Word in preaching being lost. My response to that is that the pulpit used to hide my Bible whereas folks can now see I’m simply reading and explaining what’s in my hand for all to see — the Bible.
• Would you ever use a pulpit again?
I certainly would and I do. When I preach in places where that’s the norm or the expectation, I use it. Even though I don’t need it. I’m there to respect their ministry context. Further, if I pastored a church that met in a building that demanded a pulpit, I’d keep it. If there’s flying buttresses I’m preaching from a pulpit!