By Daniel Martins

In 1965, the suburban Chicago Baptist church of my childhood built a new worship space. To match the rest of the physical plant, it was rendered in the “colonial” style of architecture; and, to match the theology of their tradition, the building featured an imposing — by some lights, perhaps, massive — pulpit “center stage” on the platform, with subtle abstract carved decorations, painted white and trimmed in dark walnut. It was not only wide, but high, leaving no ambiguity about the nature of the central act performed regularly in that space.

After I was grown up and had moved away, the pastor who succeeded the one who had overseen the design of the building determined that the pulpit was too high, and had it shortened by about a foot. I was later told that his successor, who served the congregation for a long number of years, had it shortened even more. The last time I was there, for a family wedding a decade or so ago, there was just a plexiglass lectern where the pulpit had once been.

When I was in my early teens, while traveling with my family, we worshiped with some friends in their church, which had a “divided chancel” — that is, an altar/communion table where I was used to seeing a pulpit, and two pieces of furniture on either end of the platform, one a little larger and fancier than the other. Once I overcame my shock, and attended to the worship, I intuited correctly that the lesser object was for the reading of the Word of God and the greater object for the preaching of the Word of God. During my senior year in college, I began worshiping in liturgical churches where, of course, the “divided chancel” is the norm — indeed, as I learned, the historic norm.


What is interesting is that, despite the differences in their understanding of the relation between Word and Sacrament, the liturgical/sacramental and free church/evangelical traditions each have, in their own way, a high regard for the ministry of preaching. Only rarely in the “divided chancel” scheme are the lectern and pulpit of equal glory. Both in size and design, the pulpit is usually accorded a much greater weight and dignity. It is presumed that the occupant of a pulpit has special training and skill in breaking open the holy Scriptures for the edification of God’s people, and in teaching the faith, and thereby commands respect.

The dignity of the pulpit, whether it is centrally located or off to one side, reflects the importance of the preaching office in the life of the Church. In some Christian traditions, a pastoral interregnum is symbolized by the expression “vacant pulpit,” and the group of lay leaders charged with finding a new pastor is styled the “pulpit committee.” There was a time when one could readily find references to large and prominent churches as “influential pulpits” in their denomination or community or region of the country.

As I entered adulthood, pretty much along with the advent of the 1970s, two homiletical trends starting gaining traction that began to undermine the pulpit. One was rooted in the Liturgical Movement of the previous several decades, which sought to highlight the unity of the Liturgy of the Word in the celebration of the Eucharist, in a relationship of parity with the Liturgy of the Table. In the design of new churches, or the renovation of old ones, planners were encouraged to have a single piece of furniture to robustly symbolize the ministry of the Word, a pulpit/lectern combination that is sometimes styled an “ambo.” The reading of Scripture and its proclamation in the sermon are essentially different facets of the same activity, and are properly identified with a single symbolic object.

The other trend that gained a lot of energy in the 70s flows from the cultural tenor of the times, with a growing sense of informality and casualness in attire and demeanor. Preachers began eschewing the physical pulpit (or ambo) and delivering their homilies at nave level, without text or notes, standing in the aisle (and sometimes moving continuously up and down the aisle). This is a trend that has continued into the present moment, and, in some contexts, is seen as normative, de rigueur. Both preachers and parishioners have testified that it makes the preacher feel and seem more human, more connected, more “one of the people.” Congregations seem to appreciate it when they are spoken to in a manner that seems “off the cuff,” authentic, rather than artful or contrived.

Call me a contrarian, but, in my thirty-plus years of regular preaching, I have tended to preach from the pulpit (or ambo, if that’s the situation), and to work from a prepared text. (That is, on Sundays and other high occasions; a midweek liturgy with only a handful of people present calls for something less formal.) The truth of the matter is that the quality of a sermon is not determined by the style of its delivery. It’s quite possible to be lively and engaged preaching from a pulpit, using a manuscript, and it’s equally possible to be completely stultifying while preaching from the aisle, without notes. Aisle preachers, however, do seem rather more likely to succumb to rambling incoherence, not quite sure how and when to “land the plane.” (I say this from the experience of sitting in the cockpit!)

It has also been my experience, both as a sermon-hearer and as an occasional aisle preacher myself, that the practice can tend to leave one more vulnerable to the urge to indulge in grandstanding and self-approbation. Some years ago I attended a wedding, in a Roman Catholic church, where the priest presided over the whole event, including the homily, as if he were the host of a daytime television talk show with a studio audience, wandering all over the place, cordless mic in hand. I’ll grant him the presumption that it was not his intention to do so, but his behavior had the effect of making it all about him, rather than the couple exchanging vows, and still less about the glory of God.

A pulpit reminds the preacher that he or she stands in a tradition and under a discipline. I’m always grateful when I step into one of the pulpits in the Diocese of Springfield and see a brass plaque right where my text goes, quoting the Greeks who approached Philip in John 12:21 with the request, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” The pulpit is a sign, both to the congregation and the preacher, that preaching is not a free-lance endeavor. It exists within a network of accountability — accountability to the gospel, accountability to leading people to “see Jesus.” A sermon is never rightfully “a few words about what’s on my mind.” It is a weighty privilege, a joyful responsibility, worthy of the preacher’s best art and craft in the moment. The whole communion of “saints, prophets, apostles, and martyrs” is listening in to hear a word of good news.

In a similar fashion, a pulpit reminds the congregation that they are not in church to be entertained or enthralled, and that the preacher speaks with authority. In the Anglican tradition, one of the visible symbolic acts in the liturgy of ordination is when the bishop presents the new priest with a Bible, saying, “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given to you to preach the Word of God …”  That conferral of authority is a solemn moment. Those listening to a sermon owe the preacher a presumption of trust that he or she has indeed wrestled with the message, and is, in fact, delivering a “word from the Lord.” Somehow, a proper pulpit helps make that trust more credible; a plexiglass stand, not so much.

Can aisle preaching without notes be excellent? Certainly. Can pulpit preaching from a prepared text be horribly dreadful? I not only believe so, I’ve witnessed it! (I have probably also committed it.) I’m not trying to shame the practice of aisle preaching. But I am trying to encourage some restraint on iconoclastic impulses, and a recovered appreciation for the solemnity and dignity of the ministry of preaching.

Daniel Martins is the 11th Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in the Episcopal Church.

About The Author

Bishop Daniel Martins is retired Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in the Episcopal Church, which encompasses central and southern Illinois. He is also secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors. Among the members of the House of Bishops, he hangs out with the group known as the Communion Partners. He has previously served parishes in the dioceses of Louisiana, Northern Indiana, and San Joaquin.

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4 Responses

  1. The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

    Thank you, Bishop Martins, for this piece, and for expounding on the real reason for using the pulpit. It’s not about being a stuffy traditionalist, and it’s certainly not about wanting to exalt oneself above the people. It’s about exalting the work of preaching–the ministry of the Word of God–reminding the preacher and people that the sermon is serious business. It is about God, and not the preacher or the people. A pulpit expects (though it cannot guarantee) that ego will yield to exegesis, and that through the opening of the Word, lives will be changed.

    I’m reminded of the time a guest preacher at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, SC–a stunningly beautiful old building with very limited sight lines–eschewed the pulpit in order to walk around the crossing and transepts delivering his remarks. At one point in his perambulations he disappeared behind a pillar, completely invisible to 80 percent of the congregation. And what was he saying at that precise moment? That “people today need visual connection and stimulus. Unlike past generations, we just don’t respond to some disembodied voice proclaiming from a lofty perch. They need to be able to see what we’re saying!” If only he had been in the lofty perch, he wouldn’t have become the disembodied voice of his own denunciations!

    But there is one thing about this piece I would quibble with, and that is the assumption that pulpit preaching will necessarily be manuscript preaching. The practice I have developed and continue to refine–and I pray God that it is a faithful and a fruitful one–is to preach from the pulpit without a manuscript. I find that this requires of me significantly more preparation than the writing of a manuscript, and yet yields a much deeper, more intimate connection to the congregation. It brings together the immediacy, accessibility, and urgency of aisle preaching with the authority, seriousness, and self-forgetfulness of pulpit preaching.

    Furthermore, before developing this practice I found that manuscript preaching was leading me into the very snares that Bishop Martins associates with extemporaneous aisle preaching: i.e. a self-centered, self-conscious concern about my own position as preacher. The weighing and refining and editing and re-editing of my words had begun to distract from The Word. And I will say (with humility, I hope) that this is a problem I have discerned in the preaching of many others, and especially in Episcopalian preachers. Not all, to be sure! But enough of my own limited sample set to lead me to believe it is a widespread problem.

    So this piece left me wanting to issue a challenge to my colleagues: Get into the Word, get into the pulpit, and get out of your own way. Prepare rigorously, and then try going into the pulpit with just your text and your wits. The product may not be ready for publication the next morning. But it may well, by the power of the Holy Spirit, break open some stony hearts. And isn’t that what a pulpit is for?

  2. Scott Knitter

    In some situations when a preacher has eschewed the pulpit and is at ground level, especially in a very grand church, I think the effect is the same as when a lector says “I don’t need the microphone” – forgetting that the pulpit (or for the lector, the microphone) is not for the speaker’s benefit but for the hearer’s. In many places, the pulpit is best for getting the voice across to the people and for people to see the preacher, whether for facial expressions and gestures or for lip-reading for those who benefit from that. A constantly moving preacher at ground level may be leaving some hearers out of parts of the sermon. The preacher might not need the pulpit, but some in the pews might. Any decision about whether to use the pulpit or not needs to consider how the sermon will be experienced from the pew.

  3. Rev. Alex Andujar

    Thank you for this lovely offering. I stepped into a parish with the tradition of preaching from the aisle. I learned that this had become the practice for two reasons. The first was that the pulpit was not elevated and thus allowed everyone to see the preacher. The second was that it was so far to one side that half the church felt a sense of disconnection from the preacher. In an older congregation where some have poor eyesight or poor hearing these can make hearing and feeling connected to the preacher difficult. I have found that there is a real temptation to be that “talk show host”. However, I also believe that I have seen preachers use the pulpit as a shield where they do not have to interact with the people on their level. I enjoy being able to look into the eyes of the congregation and gauge whether or not they are listening. I am no way opposed to pulpit preaching. I believe that in the right space it can be incredibly effective. Anytime a preacher steps into a pulpit or the space they have chosen for their preaching, it should be a holy moment that is not about them but rather about preaching Christ crucified. As we continue to build and renovate our worship spaces we should give special attention to where we situate our preacher and if it allows that connection to take place.

  4. The Rev. Amber Sturgess

    Dear Bishop Martin, thank you for your wisdom and insight. I have enjoyed listening to sermons delivered from the pulpit as a life long church goer. Preaching from the pulpit certainly gives an air of authority and even a transcendent and lofty quality. In my early years of preaching I stayed glued to the pulpit, preparing every sermon with perfection, agonizing over just the right word, but in the end I discovered my ego was more tied up in getting it perfect and it left very little room for the spirit to guide.

    The other problem for me in preaching from the pulpit is that I’m very short and I seemed to disappear behind the edifice even with a booster. Only a head appeared to reach the microphone.

    My congregants kept inviting me to preach on the ground and with that came humility and no manuscript. I felt like I was jumping off a cliff and waiting for God to catch me. The response was overwhelming, because I was more vulnerable people could receive the message without putting up walls. I found my heart also to be more engaged with the congregation and with the spirit which engaged their listening hearts. I began to receive responses of how the sermon changed their life or helped them to think differently.

    As you said it is much harder to land the plane in free style. Both pulpit and ground have their pros and cons. I think preaching from the pulpit works for the long time churched but for the unchurched it is often officious and feels to them as top down, the super ego keeping us all in line. The church has lost the place of authority in society that it once held because of so many scandals and I find that immanence, in my experience, being among the people on their level works more effectively to change our lives.

    I still preach occasionally from the pulpit depending on the occasion and I think both are appropriate. For me, it depends on the place and the people to whom I am preaching and it requires flexibility.

    Thank you for opening up the conversation.


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