Friday, November 30, 2012

Stay in the Pulpit! When the Preacher Wanders from the Pulpit, He Often Strays From the Faith

It is hard to preach in an era when everybody already knows everything and when everyone demands to be entertained. Everybody already knows everything because all knowledge is now just a good Google search away. Whereas learned men once possessed "inside" knowledge that it took years to acquire, now anyone can acquire piecemeal information on their smartphone. Everyone demands to be entertained because an affluent society that is used to distraction and breeds a mentality of "if it isn't fun, it's not worth doing," being entertained is the crucible by which public discourse is assigned value. 

These are two serious challenges to the art of preaching in our time, and they explain a lot of the preaching we see in our pulpits, or on our stages. It helps to explain why fewer and fewer people consumed by the Entertainment and Information Ages are sitting through traditional preaching and it explains why pastors are changing their style of preaching…and fast. Pastors believe that traditional preaching that includes occasional doctrinal teaching and careful exegesis of scripture simply can't compete. So they script sermon "series" that find their origin not in scripture, but in a theme. These series are more palatable to an audience that prefers to think in story and can't be bothered with substantive points. They also allow the pastor to offer relevant life tips as a life coach might. (In truth, most pastors have watered down the office of preaching to a mass life coaching session.)

But without going down the road to critiquing megachurch preaching (go here and here for that), I want to speak to something more fundamental. When did this regression of sound preaching begin? It didn't start with the megachurches. It started when pastors who should have known better started wandering away from the pulpit. Probably to prove to the congregation that pastors were just one of the folks, they began to drift from the pulpit, free of a manuscript and free to be more emphatic, dramatic and climactic. They walked around like they owned the place, not wanting to be relegated to a distant wooden box any longer, but wanting to be near to his dear flock. 

The pastor wanted to become an entertainer, too, not content to merely remain a valuable teacher or authority figure. He was tired of the shackles of leadership and for once, he wanted to blend in. Now that the congregation had conferred authority to this pastor, he traded in his authority for a few cool points. If, in their preaching, they wandered among the congregation and their preaching became more accessible, the pastor could become a bit more like his parishioners. He could symbolically leave his office while he preached and become more like a friend or a companion or a colleague than a pastor. Amazingly, congregations obliged. 

Why? Because they understood what the pastor was doing. He was forsaking some authority (albeit symbolically at first) and they agreed to embrace him as a friend. Really, they were happy to do this because they were tired of "boring" sermons and they didn't really want anyone telling them what to do or think anyway. The parishioners should have been demanding the pastor stay in the pulpit; that is his proper place to address them. But they compromised because, in truth, they don't want a pastor as much as a life coach whose advice they can either reject or ignore. Pastors who speak with Godly authority can be neither rejected nor ignored. 

It's a deal that all in the congregation make, so all are guilty. The pastor agrees to be less of an authority and the congregation agrees to be his friend. Can I really tell all this just from a guy who leaves the pulpit? Well, of course, to a degree I am exaggerating. I've known great and faithful preachers who did not preach from the pulpit. 

But the pulpit is more than just a piece of liturgical furniture. It represents historically, liturgically and architecturally the entire office(s) of pastor and preacher. It represents the stability of the office from person to person. No matter the warm body that occupies that pulpit for 15 minutes a week, that pulpit will be with that congregation for generations, maybe centuries. Preaching is not about the pastor, much less his personality. It is about God's Word and the need for the people to hear that Word week in and week out. 

Ultimately, that is what the pulpit represents more than anything: the Word of God. That is what happens there. The Word is proclaimed in that place. Pulpits represent that which is unchanging, reliable and solid. If the pastor can arbitrarily leave the pulpit, he is forsaking that permanence, that solidity. And for what? A few jokes? A more conversational style? A "relevant" sermon series? 

More often than not, a pastor willing to forsake the pulpit is a pastor who may be on a glidepath to rebellion. If they aren't willing to commit to the permanence of the pulpit - even the symbolism of it! - then good theology may be next to go. Once preaching becomes person-centered and driven by the "felt needs" of the "audience", there is no way that the costs of discipleship, the cross, shed blood or matters of doctrine can be tolerated. Once the permanence of the pulpit is symbolically dislodged, it is that much easier to really dislodge it from the art of proclamation.

I can offer no proof. Only anecdotes. Virtually no megachurch pastor uses a pulpit. Mainline Protestants (whose track record is getting poorer by the day) abandon the pulpit more than use it. Charismatics have probably never seen a pulpit. Meanwhile, those tried and true, i.e. "traditional", more often than not will have a pastor willing to see himself as an office holder who uses the ancient symbols of that office. Orthodox preaching is simply more likely to come from such a man. 

I'm not promising that every problem will be solved by staying in the pulpit. Bad sermons, of course, will still be given from there. But it would be a great start if men called to proclaim the Word would do so from the place intended for that purpose.


TeeJay said...

I find it telling that in Genesis we have the voice of the priestly caste and the Elohist that comes from lofty heights, and also the words of God related as earthly and lowly by the Yahwist. We also have the sermon on the mountain and the sermon on the plain, delivered by the same Lord. Thus I judge the method or proclamation for any community to be governed by the need for effective communication to the listener, and not nade to endorse any architectural design preference. For example, the original Christian churches were in house churches (haustafel), wherein the preacher stood preaching as centered amid those gathered. Should we return to that tradition? Or should we be flexible and use whatever works?

Benedict Augustine said...

"--being entertained is the crucible by which public discourse is assigned value." Well said. What we observe in other information outlets unfortunately makes its way to Christianity. Hence, we're told to look at the world and its values askance, not embrace them and adulterate the faith.

TeeJay's references are appreciated. The prophet and teacher had some kind of natural pulpit that served to metaphorically elevate his message. Seems like a precedent to me to have something for our pastors.

The Aesthetic Elevator said...

Thanks much for sharing. Agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, but I might argue that story can still be useful without detracting from the authority of the office (and is actually an integral part of Scripture itself, in both Biblical presentation and as an example of teaching). Minor point in the scheme of the article, but it was what came to mind.

geordieshaw said...

Uhh.. sorry to break it to you, but Jesus didn't preach from a pulpit. And he was the best scripture teacher of all time!

He also spoke in parables, so his audience could relate to the scriptures. Likewise, many preachers today use anecdotes and stories to illustrate the application of God's word to our lives. This can only be a good thing. 'Same message, different method'.

relieveddebtor said...

To all,
I very much appreciate your comments. I thought I had posted a reply earlier, but must have done something wrong, so hence my delay. Of course I understand that Jesus didn't preach from a pulpit. He also didn't preach in what we would call a church, save for Luke 4. Whether he preached from that synagogue's version of a pulpit would be interesting to investigate. But what is normative for Jesus is not necessarily normative for us. Yes, some may, in some places and contexts preach in a style of Jesus' ministry, but most of us in America go to churches, where architectural choices clearly reflect something deeper. Stages supplant chancels, no pulpits replaces pulpits, rock music replaces hymns beloved for centuries. Yay for the new way of doing things!

In the wake of the Great Commission, we have instituted means to teach, preach, and baptize in a regular and orderly way. While religious architecture is not defined in the scriptures, most human experience demand architectural preferences and insights for orderly living. Only the very eccentric would disagree with that. I see no reason worship spaces shouldn't be the same. My point is that religious services and architecture convey truth through words and symbols, including the symbolism of the pulpit. I agree anecdotes and stories are helpful, but should probably be limited to say a few per sermon. Over-reliance on the narrative approach has turned preaching into story time and that is a shame.

And please do not say that Jesus told simple stories with the parables. Matthew 13 tells us Jesus did not intend to clear up things with parables, but to confuse, for they only make sense if one assumes the Kingdom of God. If someone says parables are simple, they are in grave danger of human arrogance.

So again, some of that is helpful, but too much of it makes preaching an exercise in entertaining tidbits, not truth telling. And it is only my observation, but what I have found is that when one can move from the pulpit, the art of traditional preaching changes.

geordieshaw said...

Perhaps your sarcasm ("Yay for the new way of doing things!") betrays your belief that old is automatically better.

How do you expect a new generation to discover the love of God, singing the previous generations songs? Perhaps the 'rock music' you detest is closer to a valid expression of praise and worship than you realize?

God simply desires to be worshiped, I don't think he cares about style. Though perhaps there is a stronger Biblical foundation to contemporary worship than your old acapella hymns. See Psalm 33:3 - "Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts."

Besides this, the last article on your blog contained this gem "It just seems like Catholic preaching rarely rises above the level of pithy moralism." From what I understand, Catholics still preach from a pulpit?

My point is, relative proximity to a piece of furniture/architecture doesn't increase your chances of 'truth telling'.

relieveddebtor said...

I don't know that I would say old is automatically better. But I certainly would be slow to throw off customs that I inherited. That just seems prudent, wise and in keeping with the commandment to honor father and mother.

I don't know why, as a logical matter, the previous generation's songs cannot help this generation discover the love of God. They have certainly helped me. Does this speak to the narcissism of this generation? Are we the first generation to make such a demand? Surely my grandparents didn't mind singing the previous generation's songs. For that matter, why would we sing the canticles of Mary or Elizabeth from Luke or the song of Miriam? They were a previous generation's. And I love rock music. Just not in church. I don't listen to organ music as I drive around town. But I find it peculiarly well suited for the objective worship of a transcendent God.

I completely agree that God doesn't care about style, per se. African Christians do not sing European hymns with an organ in the background. Granted. The question is, what forms the faith of the worshipers? A style that is inescapably subjective and related to the emotional experiences of the hearer (like rock music)? Or a style that is so different from the culture that it helps to direct our sensibility towards the otherness of God? The otherness of hymns and liturgy is helpful precisely because the culture does not proscribe them; indeed the culture hates them.

And no, Catholics, at least some or many, do not preach from pulpits anymore. I'd recommend Patrick Day's "Why Catholics Can't Sing" to detail this trend going back to the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the service I commented on featured a priest abandoning a beautiful pulpit so he could wonder among the flock. I think I stated that staying in the pulpit is no guarantee of good or orthodox preaching. I do not think myself a great preacher and I'm in a pulpit. And I know many excellent preachers who don't use the pulpit. I'm just saying it should be the exception to the rule because I think it is a clue that the preacher may be willing to become unmoored in other ways. And sorry, but I would say the sermon series of most megachurches as good evidence for this. Jesus gets honorable mention, the pastor becomes a life coach, and the Bible is cherry picked instead of leading the way. I listen to a lot of megachurch sermons, and I just don't hear much preaching that the ancients would recognize or support.

I'm willing to admit I may be the only person that feels this way and that I am probably the most out of touch 33 year old on the planet. That's fine. I just can't share an ethos that says that this is really a new day or a new time that demands new ways of worshiping. I seek no entrepreneurial ideation in my preaching and leading of liturgy. Marketing and evangelism...that is where I agree we should exploit every entrepreneurial gift.

Thanks agin for your thoughts.

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Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this article. Human nature even teaches you, climb to a higher level when speaking to people to place importance on what is spoken. God spoke from on high and good gifts come from above. I find two words that make this article realistic, entertainment and authority, they go together like oil and water, one produces fire the other gets you wet. Entertainment awakens pleasure which is temporary, authority awakens us to truth, which is hard to swallow and requires effort having long lasting results. The pulpit is definitely just a piece of architecture, but we cannot deny that as we have stepped away from the authority Christianity has become less committed.

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