Saturday, August 11, 2012

How Did We Get the Pulpit? (It Wasn't In the First Churches)

When I was developing the model that we now call member-driven church, I did a 2 year study of what the Bible actually said about how to do church. The biggest revelations came when I realized how much of what we do for church is "extra-biblical". We added rules and habits the Bible doesn't require.

A great example is the pulpit.

The Bible calls us to teach the word, to study the Bible, naming teachers and preachers as spiritual gifts from God. And we've had sermons delivered from a pulpit for centuries. So when we read the Bible today, it's easy to assume that it has always been done this way. I once did.

But it's simply not true. Our modern practice a weekly sermon delivered from a pulpit was added to church life many centuries after the church began. The Bible calls us to teach, yes, but not necessarily to use the sermon method of teaching every week. It's merely one of many good options. (Think about the variety of ways Jesus developed his disciples.)

And here's how the pulpit became the centerpiece of the typical church. Here's the History of the Pulpit. (Note: the pictures are illustrative, not the actual items. Those weren't considered important enough to capture in images.)

1st-2nd Century - Adding a Chair To Communion
Sometime around a hundred years after the cross, many churches put a chair behind the Communion Table, and the leader would sit there and offer spiritually encouraging thoughts before passing out the bread and wine. Then they shifted to a desk--a chair with a flat surface to hold papers--to make it a more practical space for him to read from documents during this time.

The most common centerpiece of the service was Communion and the speaking was a bonus while they passed out the elements.

3rd-5th Century - Raising the Desk (Birth of the Stage)
By around 250 AD they put the desk on a stage and by around 300 AD a few churches started raising the desk platform higher so the leader could stand instead of sit. It was the birth of the modern pulpit--but the big shift, sparking a new name, wasn't about a place to put notes, but having leaders stand on a stage. (Pulpit comes from Latin, "pulpitum", meaning stage.)

However, the teachers didn't talk weekly and were still considered a support feature to Communion.

6th Century-16th Century - Pulpit Becomes Standard Architecture
Even then, it wasn't until  between 500-600 AD that it became standard for churches to build a what we'd consider a true pulpit. And it wasn't until then that sermons were a weekly occurrence. But these weekly sermons were typically merely 3-5 min long. It was still an inspirational bonus to the service, not the main event.

16th Century-21st Century - Sermons Supplant Communion
It wasn't until the Great Reformation that sermons began lasting 25-45 min. It was also during this time that the Reformers decided to make the sermon the centerpiece of the Sunday service..

Today's Assumptions
 It's often assumed that being called to ministry means being called to preach.

Pastors today protect the pulpit (who gets the speak behind it and what they say) as if it was the cornerstone of their church. So letting someone speak from the pulpit is considered something to be preciously guarded. I'm not arguing for careless preaching. I'm just saying it wasn't always that big of a deal.

Our Approach
We don't have a pulpit in our church. Before you nod and say, yeah, we don't either--I'm not saying we use a simple music stand or even a super-hip iPad stand (I just saw one for the first time--the medieval church goes 21st century). Remember the original Latin root word was about the stage, not the note-holding stand.

Our members sit in circles to study the word. If I need to introduce the Bible study, I like to walking around the room as I talk. Often I'll get out a chair to sit down and talk with them about the Bible (it's a true dialogue where I ask questions and they even ask questions). I don't raise myself above them or restrict the conversation to my thoughts only (lecture-style).

Final Reminder
Keep in mind, I'm not opposed to a stage. The stage is my personal background and gift-mix. I've seen many life impacted by stage-based ministry--mine included. Our music team doesn't sit around a table when they play. We have the drums and keys and guitars clustered at one end of the room. Stages have very practical purposes.

I don't want us to mindlessly become anti-stage and reject that tool. I just don't want us to be mindlessly stage-based and assume that teaching means stage-delivered lectures. They're not wrong, per se. They're just not required by the Bible.

What would it look like for you to take one step out of your assumptions? Maybe you could get down from your stage and walk around this Sunday? Maybe you could get out a chair and sit down on the floor level with everyone?


  1. I was curious about the origin of the pulpit a while back and the best example I can find for it in the bible is in Nehemiah chapter 8 specifically mentioned in verse 4.

    1. Great reference. Thanks for sharing! The wooden podium Ezra uses in the passage is a great example. And while Jesus didn't use a podium per se, he often went up on a hillside--or one time stood in a boat--to help people see & hear him better.

      If you are going to speak a crowd, then it's a smart idea to find a way for everyone to see you.