Question 88 of the Shorter Catechism asks, “What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” The answer comes, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his Ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer, all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” It is the preaching of the Word that God uses to draw sinners to Himself and to feed and sanctify believers (Rom. 10:14). Fisher comments that every other means and dispensation is “always to be considered in a subserviency to the word, Acts chap. 16:25-33.” The Principles of Christian Religion that the Scottish Presbyterians held to argue that since “God is the author of these writings [the Scriptures]…therefore they are of most certain credit and highest authority.”
So, “because the Word is indispensable, the pulpit, as the architectural manifestation of the Word, must make its indispensability architecturally clear” (Bruggink and Droppers, 80). The sacraments are necessary. Congregational singing is important. Prayer is needed. Proclaimed gospel, however, has historically held and should hold primary importance in Protestant worship. Everything else in worship and the sanctuary should revolved around it and point to it. Presbyterians, low Anglicans, Baptists, and Methodists (among other Protestant groups), despite their differences, all originally put the preached Word front and center, theologically and architecturally. This most basic element of biblical Christianity found consistent architectural expression across the board. You will see in old churches that have not renovated their sanctuaries, that even in times of strong denominational affiliation, large, beautiful, central pulpits were ubiquitous.
The pulpit was large, not only so that it was visible from all parts of the sanctuary, but also so there was space to hold the preacher’s notes, a hymn book and a copy of the Scriptures which the congregation could see. The other reason that pulpits were large was to make the minister look smaller, hiding most of the man behind this architectural manifestation of the Word. When a man preaches Christ faithfully, he himself begins to disappear in the minds of the hearers, as God and His work is magnified. Large pulpits facilitate this reality.
Pulpits were the center around which every other piece of furniture in the sanctuary was arranged. They were also usually the aesthetic center of the sanctuary; the motifs decorating the pulpit drew together the designs on the windows, stone sills, pew ends, balcony railings and the supporting pillars. Just as the preaching of the Word drew together all other elements of worship, so the pulpit pulled together all of the architectural details in the sanctuary.
Pulpits were often guarded by two or three chairs for the elders of the congregation, where they sat and listened to the preaching, protecting the congregation from a preacher who would preach something other than the Word. Preaching is not something to be taken lightly, or left to the whim of one man. It is so important that it needs theological and ecclesiastical protection. These chairs signified this.
Pulpits were also often raised well above the pews. The height of the pulpit allowed the minister, at eye level with those in the lowest pew of the balcony, to speak easily to his entire congregation, enabling eye contact with most parishioners.
Most Presbyterian churches also had no pipes or organ bench behind or beside the pulpit, creating more space at the front of the sanctuary around the pulpit, emphasizing the prominence of the Word.
Now, having a large, central pulpit does not mean that a modern sanctuary has to look Victorian. I have been blessed to worship in many congregations from Dutch Reformed to southern Baptist to Presbyterian which recognize the centrality of the preached Word and have large, central, unmistakeably modern pulpits. The style of the pulpit will change with time and taste. But the place and function will not. Literally front and center, the pulpit should function as an aesthetic and doctrinal fulcrum.
Such an architectural statement does two main things. First, it reminds the congregation that they are there to hear the Lord speak to them. So often we can come to worship thinking that we are there to do something, pray something, give something, etc.. We are there to sing, pray, praise, give tithes and offerings, but the biggest item in the liturgy is the preached Word because through that Word, God by His Spirit works justification and sanctification in His people.
Second, a central pulpit makes a clear statement to any stranger walking in the door: “We have something for you to hear. It’s not what we say, it’s what God says in His Word. The pulpit looks important because what you are going to hear from it is essential for life and eternity.” A large, central pulpit also tells a new person that the congregation is under the authority of God’s Word. We’re not there because we thought it was a good idea – we’re there because of a command of our Creator and Saviour, and you need to join us.
These are powerful effects. Churches must preach the gospel, and they must use words because they are necessary. A large, central pulpit aids in reflecting this reality.