Being a missionary for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod means I have the privilege of visiting many of our fine and faithful parishes across the nation and partner churches around the world. Upon one visit, logistics were coordinated by the congregational president for my brief stay to preach and present the LCMS’s Eurasia Mission. I was delighted to read a line in his email which said, “Use the pulpit, please.”
When the Sunday arrived, I asked the congregational president about that line. His response was interesting and, in my view, resonated with kingdom motifs of the Gospel: “Preachers serve in an official capacity when preaching,” he said.
In sum, he conveyed the idea that, when it comes to the sermon, a Christian congregation should not expect a conversation from a friend or a TED Talk from an expert. Instead, they should anticipate a royal proclamation from the King’s ambassador, notwithstanding the friendliness and familiarity a preacher may (or may not) enjoy with his congregation.
Unless, of course, the congregation has been conditioned to expect otherwise.
In my experience, far too many parishes have come to expect otherwise: Instead of well-prepared and circumspect homileticians, they receive ad-libbing walker-talkers, for whom neither official setting nor emblematic accoutrements matter. One wonders if the comfort level of their hearers stands as a foremost consideration or the likability which comes with a relaxed atmosphere, sprinkled with humor, and evocative of, “A Night at the Improv.” However it may be, such pastors should be mindful that every aspect of the Divine Service bespeaks a theology, that is, conveys a notion about God, whether intentional or unintentional. When it comes to preaching, using or neglecting the pulpit remains tethered to the maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi. Cozy informality begets a cozy, informal God, where auditors come as they are, with little expectation of a regal proclamation from the King of Kings. Matters of life and death, judgment and justification, recede into the background just like the vacant pulpit. Front and center is the speaker, his personality and presentation in the foreground, with a confronting Altar and undomesticated Crucifix no longer the foci. The impression many receive, consciously or subconsciously, is they have imbibed the pastor’s message, not Christ’s proclamation. Parishioners say so themselves when they gush about how great a “speaker” their pastor is, as opposed to him being a serious preacher of Jesus’ own Gospel.
The impression many receive, consciously or subconsciously, is they have imbibed the pastor’s message, not Christ’s proclamation.
To be sure, while pulpits are not necessary for Christian ministry, they retain an irrepressible and universal association—both visibly and situationally during the liturgy—with a formal pronouncement from Christ Himself to His kingdom people. That drama is retained where pulpits are present and utilized, signaling altered roles during the sermon between preacher and parishioners… or not.
An iconic fixture in Christian churches since the late patristic period, the pulpit or “ambo” unambiguously lends itself to the formality and official distinction between the commissioned herald and the King’s people, the congregation of the faithful. It eschews informality and familiarity, lending itself to notions of authority and definitiveness, with its usual elevation evoking a suspension between Heaven and earth, the loftiness of the Scriptures, and a mediation on the Word of God as the preacher declares in persona Christi the Law of God and Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The word “ambo” comes from a Greek word meaning “step” or “elevation.” Since the fourth century, Christians like Saint John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) were accustomed to using a raised platform during Mass to chant or read the Epistle, the Gospel lesson, and preach. Some historians believe it is connected to the platform used by Jewish rabbis to read the Scriptures before the people, like Moses on Sinai or Ezra in Nehemiah 8:4. Spiritually, it is derived from the action of Jesus when He, “Went up on the mountain, and… opened His mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1, 2), which found political affinity with royal proclamations in Rome. The ambo, therefore, spatially connoted—in one fixture—the divine Word of Jesus and the authoritative proclamation of the empire’s sovereign. From the ambo, King Jesus issues forth His royal will and gracious decrees. Consequently, ambos adopted the appearance of a balcony extended from a palace or, alternatively, Heaven itself.
Ambos were designed in various ways, always with a place for the Bible to be read and preached, with several steps leading up to it. This necessitated the lifting of the eyes toward Heaven to hear the Word read and proclaimed. By the ninth century, ambos had become the pulpits (pulpitum) we know today, enlarged and adorned with carvings for the purpose of aggrandizing the Word and minimizing the preacher. This architectural design exaggerated the sense that the exposition and declarations were far-grander than the preacher, indeed, that they were from God. So, pulpits purposely dwarfed the preacher, quelling both ministerial egos and congregational inclinations toward a cult of personality. Such thinking seems a world away from preachers who saunter about like Plato in his peripatetic Academy or those who employ music stands and transportable lecterns.
Pulpits purposely dwarfed the preacher, quelling both ministerial egos and congregational inclinations toward a cult of personality.
In fact, pulpits were designed to convey notions of permanence, immutability, and stability, just like Christ’s Gospel and Kingdom. They were made of marble, stone, and heavy timber. The pulpit at Grace Lutheran Church, San Diego, is one such pulpit, with a striking resemblance to the stump of a giant sequoia, whose roots go deep beneath the church, never to be uprooted. Such pulpits are meaning-laden. Transparent, easily manipulated lecterns (where so much as even these are used) are meaning-light and devoid of traditional import.
One argument for the peripatetic preacher appeals to Jesus Himself. Our Lord walked among the disciples teaching them. This is true. But He also ordained apostles to proclaim His Gospel, and, thereby, yielded to the Church a topography of representative and commissioned (not intrinsic) authority. That commission to proclaim the authorized announcement of Christ, over time, has come to be spatially associated with the pulpit and temporally connected with sermonizing during the liturgy. At a time when all forms of authority are being assailed by iconoclastic radicals, and the monuments of and within the Church are literally being attacked and smashed, reasserting the authority of God’s Word and ultimacy of Christ’s Gospel from the iconic pulpit truly stands contra culture, rather than with the culture, where all and none speak with authority. The pulpit becomes, for the faithful through its contemporary employment, a dispensary of comfort and truth; the Word from the One who truly is in charge, even during rioting and episodes of uncertainty.
We are talking about intimations here; the pulpit as an aid, a visual and meaning-laden aid, to the preacher’s task. The Word of God brings comfort. The Word of God has power and efficacy, not the pulpit. But the use of the pulpit does bring the added benefit of the power of association. So, while there remains an inherent uncertainty by way of cultural association from the preacher who walks and talks among us as one of us, the pulpit lends itself to notions of greater certainty that Christ’s Word is being sermonized. For that reason, if no other, this and future generations of Christians entreat all preachers to use the pulpit, please.