Some of the pulpits I have known through the years are quite unforgettable. There was the crude pulpit, the promotion-filled pulpit, the high and lofty pulpit, and the modernistic pulpit. Especially intriguing was the pulpit that caught fire, and the wobbly pulpit, and the fully equipped pulpit. Most interesting, perhaps, was the wirepulling pulpit. Pulpits are as different as people and as full of their own personality. It all adds up to quite a collection of pulpit friends through the years—and some meditations about each one.
Every week we ministers sit behind the pulpit in some church. It is logical for us to focus our attention on the pulpit, for we sit right behind it and it is the only thing we can observe at close range. Sometimes it doesn't take too much imagination to think in terms of what we see, for we notice the pulpit from a different angle than others. It has been a custom of mine, each time I am called to a new pastorate, to go directly to my new church and examine the pulpit from which I will be preaching the Word for the next few years. So usually I wander up front, mount the rostrum, stand behind the pulpit, put my hands on it, and get the feel of the spot where I will be giving the message we love. And so through the years I have become acquainted with some unusual pulpits. I would like to share a few of them with you.
First, I would like to speak of
The Crude Pulpit
I found this one in a large church after crossing the country to a new pastorate. We went directly to the church, found it open, walked in, and at once I noted this pulpit. It was large, crude, and ugly, made of ordinary plywood, rather badly designed and poorly constructed. One could see the nails from the rear of the church. Often when I sat in that sanctuary for other meetings, I would lose the blessing because of the distracting influence of that pulpit.
And it set me to thinking—about crudeness in the pulpit. Do our worshipers ever lose a blessing because of crudeness on our part? I heard one minister remark: "If the English grammar gets in the way of my message, it is too bad for the English grammar." I was not happy to hear that attitude on the part of a fellow minister. For the words of the psalmist came to mind: "Let the words of my mouth ... be acceptable," and I was reminded too, of the solemn counsel: "Every minister . . . should bear in mind that he is giving to the people a message that involves eternal interests. . . . And with some souls the manner of the one delivering the message will determine its reception or rejection."
Not just the truth, but the manner in which it is given can determine an eternal destiny! We are told that "a jovial minister in the pulpit, or one who is stretching beyond his measure to win praise, is a spectacle that crucifies the Son of God afresh, and puts Him to open shame."
Next we would like to take a look for a moment at
The High and Lofty Pulpit
This one was seen in a great European cathedral. It was beautiful, ornate, and high above the congregation. The minister entered and ascended in his splendid robes, like a mystic oracle, and began to preach —words that were as much above our heads as was the pulpit itself. And I wondered—are we ever tempted to be eloquent rather than plain? Not that we ought not to look up to the pulpit, nor that we should not be oracles of God as the Spirit moves us, but neither should the message be so far above the reach of our hearers that there is no connection. There is no point in preaching if it cannot be understood.
Somehow, in that cathedral, I felt that the pulpit was far away; something to gaze upon but not to connect with; something out of my sphere of life. Forbid that our pulpits should be like that. In the words of Carlyle B. Haynes: "It is the very highest eloquence to make things plain. It takes very little learning to make easy things appear hard, but to make hard things easy is the very highest art of good preaching. The most forceful preacher or the very best orator is the one who can make himself best understood."
"Don't preach above people's heads," says one observer. "The man who shoots above the target does not prove thereby that he has superior ammunition. He just proves he can't shoot."
Paul intimated that the man is a barbarian who uses languages that the people do not understand. Doubtless referring to this, Charles G. Finney observes: " 'I have sometimes heard ministers preach, even when there was a revival, when I have wondered what that part of the congregation would do, who had no dictionary. So many phrases were brought in, manifestly to adorn the discourse, rather than to instruct the people, that I have felt as if I wanted to tell the man, "Sit down, and not confound the people's minds with your barbarian preaching, that they cannot understand." ' "
The next pulpit I would like to mention is
The Modernistic Pulpit
While teaching in an overseas junior college, I often preached from this pulpit. In remodeling the chapel, the architect had lavished his most functional ideas on the pulpit, and it was, indeed, an example of modern design. I never felt quite at home behind that pulpit, though, of course, there was really nothing wrong with it. But it did set me to thinking—about the possibility of modernism in our pulpits. We shudder to think of that, for of all men we are most fundamental. I am not thinking of yesterday's modernism of Fosdick or Eddy or Matthews, but rather of the new modernism that has some earmarks of fundamental preaching and is easy for an Adventist preacher to get into. This is the kind that has the psychological approach, the peaceof-mind appeal, the "what can I get from God" attitude, the sort of message that is sure to elicit the comment: "I surely enjoyed your sermon today!"
I recall with apprehension the five years I preached in New York City, just at the time when some of the nationally known popular pulpit masters were beginning to draw their record crowds in this way. I listened to them, followed their methods, read their books, and studied their delivery, and then suddenly awakened to realize that I would be giving my people a pseudo-gospel if I followed that trend very far.
Charles Clayton Morrison, himself a modernist, says: "The pulpit, which is the throne of Protestantism, seemed to have become the footstool of a new ruler—the Cult of Consultation. The sermon had lost its character as an Event, either for the preacher or the congregation. It has become hardly more than a space-filling homily in a highly liturgical or folksay impromptu exercise preparatory to the coffee break."
A message that appeals to the selfish ego of the unregenerate heart of one who wants mental peace without being disturbed very much by the sterner attributes of the gospel, is something we should shun with all our hearts. While we, of all men, should bring a message of peace, it must never come from any other source than the cross.
Another intriguing pulpit I would like to describe is
The Wobbly Pulpit
In mid-Manhattan we searched for a space in which to hold a midweek Bible study course in connection with a Sunday evening series, and we found one in a friendly second-floor employment agency. All space was at a premium, and so the only storage that could be provided was a tiny cupboard, in which we must store all our materials—including a pulpit. Under such conditions the only possible pulpit was a folding music stand! Before I became accustomed to this one, I had tipped it over several times, losing my study notes and Bible in the process. Finally, I learned never to lean on it or to touch it in any way but to use it simply as a place on which to keep my lessons.
But it did start me to musing about the solidity of the Christian pulpit. Today men and women look for a solid pulpit, something steadfast in a shaky world. As watchmen in God's pulpit we must give a certain sound. People should know exactly where we stand.
You may have heard this description of modern preaching: "You must repent after a fashion, you must be converted in a measure, or you will be damned, to a certain extent." Today we need a voice of authority—not of man, but of God's Word; pulpits that are solid, that will not fold up under pressure; pulpits built on the Rock of Ages.
The next pulpit is one that has troubled us all perhaps from time to time. We shall call it
The Promotion-filled Pulpit
We were called to labor in a great Eastern city and had entered the empty church to get acquainted. I made my way up front, sat down where we usually sit to get the feel of the new surroundings. The pulpit was good-looking, solid, well built, but from the back I saw something else. Inside were two shelves, both heaped high with the most complete collection of promotion remains I had ever seen. There were In-gathering materials, various building fund blanks, literature campaign folders—in fact, a complete history of all promotion of the past few years.
Once more I began to meditate—this time about promotion in the pulpit. As a boy in the twenties, I became an Adventist in the time sometimes referred to as the heyday of promotion, when entire Sabbath morning hours were devoted to projects of all kinds. Mother and I always hesitated to bring our friends, for we never knew what an eleven o'clock hour might bring forth. And even today, promotion reigns supreme in many pulpits. What is the remedy for all this? Banish all promotion? We can hardly do that and remain in our work. We recognize that, as long as time lasts, we shall have these campaigns and projects. What, then, shall we do?
We need to plan and pray that promotion may be handled without using the sacred Sabbath morning hour. I appreciate a resolution from a recent General Conference Fall Council, urging that we safeguard the Sabbath sermon hour. We should so plan our service that when our people look wistfully to the pulpit at this time, they will hear preaching and not promotion. We must assure our people when we come to a new church, that they may bring their Catholic or Baptist or Methodist friends and they will hear God's message at the eleven o'clock hour.
Promotion can be handled in other ways —by the pastoral letter, by the church newssheet, by telephone, and other means. Personal experience has shown that campaigns handled with little or no Sabbath promotion actually have better results.
Now, for one of the most intriguing of all, we shall note
The Wirepulling Pulpit
Some years ago I pastored a church whose sanctuary had been purchased from a Spiritualist congregation. When the church was remodeled and the old rostrum removed, an intricate system of wires and pulleys was found, leading from the pulpit to the church office. Evidently it was necessary to assist the "spirits" in this way that they might function properly!
And it was easy to begin to think about wirepulling in the pulpit. Are we ever guilty of that?
One day I talked to a fellow worker who was aspiring to something more glamorous than his present work. I suggested that according to our philosophy of life God has a special place for each of us and He will guide us into that place if we permit Him. For we are told that "not more surely is the place prepared for us in the heavenly mansions than is the special place designated on earth where we are to work for God." ' In view of this there can be no need of, or purpose in wirepulling. Manipulation for influence in our work is an unfortunate method of seeking advancement. If we have found our place and remain surrendered to Him, what more can we desire?
The next pulpit I would like to tell of is
The Fully-equipped Pulpit
My church was being remodeled and the building committee went all out on the pulpit. I almost felt like a jet-plane pilot preaching there. It had every kind of gadget: an electric clock, a red signal complete with switch at the presiding elder's chair, several microphones, a compete signal system, and the pulpit was adjustable for preachers of various sizes.
There was nothing wrong about all this, but it did remind me of a trend in our work, the use of gadgets and gimmicks and accessories of all sorts that tend to push preaching to the side. Doubtless many of these are good, but has this trend weakened the strong central fact that preaching, good straight-from-the-shoulder pulpit work, is still most important?
We note: "Evangelistic work, opening the Scriptures to others, warning men and women of what is coming upon the world, is to occupy more and still more of the time of God's servants." s Certainly this indicates a reversal of the trends of today.
Now I would like to acquaint you with three pulpits that I like very much. The first one we shall call
The Pulpit on Fire
My electrician friend had equipped my pulpit with a rheostat for dimming the church lights during public meetings. It worked beautifully, but he had warned me never to leave the control lever part way on, for it would overheat. One prayer meeting evening, I walked up to the pulpit beforehand, and discovered it was so hot that I almost burned my hand. We quickly carried it into the office and opened the pulpit door as a puff of smoke came out. The pulpit was on fire!
It was only natural to think, Is not that just what we need today? Lukewarm pulpits surely have no place in Adventist churches. It has been said that next to godliness comes enthusiasm. The biggest compliment I ever received was when someone said: "You preached today as if you really meant it." People will come out to see burning pulpits.
I thought of the words: "Every discourse should be given under a sense of the awful judgments soon to fall on the world. The message of truth is to be proclaimed by lips touched with a live coal from the divine altar." c'
Another pulpit I like very much is the
It was used by an evangelist friend for public meetings—a rustic pulpit made of two logs in the form of a cross, and as the congregation looked toward the preacher they saw first, the cross. It was not a beautiful, ornate cross, but the old rugged cross, that somewhat must have resembled the original one. And I thought, Is not this the supreme purpose of all preaching? To make the pulpit remind our people of the cross is the only true purpose of its existence. As hungry worshipers look toward the pulpit, may they see first the cross. Again we are reminded: "No discourse should ever be delivered without presenting Christ and Him crucified as the foundation of the gospel." "
The final pulpit, one I shall never forget, is
The Life-saving Pulpit
I saw this one once, and preached one sermon from it, but it made an unforgettable impression. We were returning from Europe, and the ship's steward requested me to preach on shipboard that Sunday morning, which I consented to do. As I stood behind the sacred desk out on the high seas of a stormy Atlantic, I was intrigued by the pulpit from which I preached. It was large and square and solid, but of what it was made I could not tell, for it was completely covered by a large American flag.
After the service I lingered in the salon; curiosity got the better of me and I lifted the flag. I discovered that the sailors had used a number of square life preservers piled like bricks, and then covered the whole with the flag. I thought, what better symbol of the pulpit could we possibly find than this—honoring our country and saving souls for eternity! And I asked myself, Is my pulpit a lifesaver and a life preserver to my people? Do I bring life to others through the work of the pulpit message? Paul aptly says that men are saved, not by foolish preaching, but by "the foolishness of preaching." All about us are earnest people looking wistfully to the pulpit for the strength that they need as they struggle on, often in the dark.
May they never be disappointed.
1 Psalm 18:14.
2 Christ's Object Lessons, p. 336. Italics supplied.
3 Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 146, 147.
4 Carlyle B. Haynes, The Divine Art of Preaching, p. 134.
5 Ibid., p. 140.
6 Christianity Today, June 7, 1963, p. 3.
7 Christ's Object Lessons, p. 327.
8 Evangelism, p. 17.
9 Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 36, 37.
10 Ibid., vol. 4, p. 394