A Pulpit Is Not A Platform
Since the early 18th century, American Christianity has been dominated by personalities. George Whitefield, the Wesleys, and Jonathan Edwards feature prominently in any narrative of the history of eighteenth-century American Christianity. When we think of the 19th century we think of figures such as Charles Finney. Twentieth-century American evangelicalism was dominated by the likes of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. Many of those figures were not associated with any particular pulpit. They were traveling preachers. They developed a following. American evangelicals have tended to gather around personalities and platforms rather than around preachers and pulpits.
We know what a literal platform is: it is raised surface on which a speaker can stand in order to be heard. It is a stage. It highlights the speaker, the personality. A platform has sound and lighting technology, designed to highlight the speaker. The platform has room enough for the speaker or entertainer to walk about (with a follow-spot) and to engage the audience dramatically.
A pulpit, however, is another thing. It too is raised. Depending upon when it was built, it may even have a sounding board above it, in order to help project the sound of the preacher’s voice out to the congregation. That was sixteenth-century sound technology. Unlike the platform, however, the pulpit was designed to highlight neither the preacher nor his personality. Unlike the stage or platform, the pulpit is a single-use piece of furniture. It is designed to facilitate the preaching of the Word. In architectural terms, a true pulpit is not just a lectern placed on a stage. It is at the top of a short flight of stairs. It has a door. The pulpit is a box. By design, once the minister enters the pulpit there is no place for him to go and nothing for him to do but one thing: preach the Word.
Traditionally, the pulpit was inhabited by an ordained man, i.e., a man educationally prepared for pastoral ministry, with a twofold vocation: first from God and second from the visible church, recognized by the church, set apart, and installed in office. Until relatively recently, when fulfilling this aspect of his vocation, the minister would wear some distinctive clothing. In Presbyterian and Reformed practice, the minister wore the Genevan robe, a plain black robe (modified by Luther in the 1520s from the academic robe). The robe not only served to signify his office (in the same way that other distinctive uniforms signify an office, e.g., judicial robes, the physician’s lab coat etc) but it also served to obscure his personality. It made him more or less interchangeable and, in certain lighting, all but invisible. The pulpit and the robe were the anti-platform. My intent is not to argue that ministers should wear robes. It is truly a matter indifferent. The point here is to note the function the robe played.
A pastor-friend and I were discussing the difference between pulpits and platforms the other day (hence this reflection). Of course, when we speak about platforms these days we are most probably speaking metaphorically. The sentence “He has a big platform” signifies that a personality has a certain visibility with a large audience. That translates to influence. In business terms it equals market share. In broadcasting, they talk about ratings. On the internet it is about clicks (downloads) and viewers, how many people came to a site and how many of them downloaded a page to view on their device. The more viewers and clicks, the bigger the platform.
One of the great temptations of late-modern ministry is to seek to transform the literal pulpit into a figurative platform. Because I teach at a seminary I get to see the process of the formation of ministers from the beginning, through seminary, and through to the outcome. Some of graduates are content with the pulpit. They want nothing more than to prepare faithful, Christ-honoring sermons, to preach them well and graciously, to visit the flock, to provide comfort in suffering, to rejoice with those who rejoice and to grieve with those who grieve. Occasionally, however, there are those who want more than that. They seem more interested in a platform than a pulpit.
The internet has given rise to the phenomenon of dual realities: preachers with one kind of actual church life and another kind of brand. Positively, some preachers have tall steeples, big pulpits, and big platforms. The late James Montgomery Boice was one of those. He was minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for many years. He preached weekly but he also wrote regularly. Indeed, he spent part of his week away from away from Philadelphia where he could study and write. Much of what he published was material with which he fed his congregation. There was a symbiotic relationship between his preaching and his writing. In the providence of God, however, not every minister is meant to be a James Boice. Time in ministry is a zero sum game. Hours spent preparing conference talks and books are hours that cannot be spent visiting parishioners or writing sermons.
The lure of the big platform can be destructive. Think of Mark Driscoll. He is a classic American religious entrepreneur. He and others started a congregation in Seattle that developed around his personality into a major concern involving tens of thousands of people. Behind the scenes, however, over time, patterns of behavior and ways of treating people became manifest. The platform and the brand became one thing, the reality of church life and ministry another. The brand and platform in Seattle became a façade obscuring the crumbling infrastructure, which became evident when the whole thing collapsed suddenly. Of course, in the tradition of the traveling religious entrepreneur, a few years later, Driscoll has re-emerged and re-branded himself in Phoenix. We could go on. Jimmy Swaggart never really went away, but his platform became less visible. Jim Bakker is still on television. Old hucksters never die, they just lose market share.
Am I saying that preachers should never write blogs, articles, and books? No. After all, I write posts, articles, and books. As a teacher I am required to write. It is part of the call I have from the church. It is an expectation of my employer. I got started blogging only because my church (and others) asked me to do it. It can be good for pastors to research and write occasionally. I am saying, however, that students should not come to seminary with the hope of becoming famous. There is a difference between writing occasionally and deliberately setting out to build a platform and a brand. The church hardly needs more people using the pulpit as leverage. A minister ought to be content to fulfill his vocation. He ought not seek a platform at the expense of his congregation. Seeking a platform and a brand when one’s own congregation is in crisis is like proposing an ocean liner when the dinghy has sprung a leak. The priorities are out of whack.
We began by thinking about the inherent differences between platforms and pulpits. We have also thought a little about branding. Consider the metaphor. It is something a farmer or rancher does to livestock. A hot, formed piece of iron is placed on the skin of a calf marking it permanently. A brand tells others to whom the animal belongs. Christians are marked in their baptism. In confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches, ministers are branded, as it were, when they are ordained, when hands are laid upon them, when they are set apart for ministry and installed into office. Thus the importance of the nomenclature of minister and why we must recover the distinction between pulpits and platforms. By definition a minister is a servant. That is what the word means. Perhaps only 70 years ago it was not uncommon to see the initials VDM after a minister’s name. They stand for the Latin expression, Verbi Dei Minister, servant of the Word of God. That was the minister’s brand, if you will. By definition, a minister has no platform but only a pulpit, a place to announce the Word of the King. So it is with ministers. His platform is nothing. His brand is nothing. Paul was never in trouble with Jewish and Roman authorities because of his platform, brand, or personality but because of his Savior and his gospel. So it should be with us. The thing for which he was to be known was not himself but, to borrow a phrase, Christ, his gospel, and his church.