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Alex's Blog - November 7, 2009 - Where Have All the Pulpits Gone?
By Alex Dodson
As I was sitting in the chapel of a local seminary where a congregation was meeting temporarily, I noticed the pulpit had been moved to a far corner. The stage where the pulpit had probably once stood in the center was cleared. The musicians had taken over the stage and when it came time to preach, the minister used a small music stand to put his Bible and notes on. So many evangelical churches today have put the pulpit aside and cleared off the stage. Many preachers do not even use a lectern any more. They just walk around on the stage to give their message to the people. Could this be an indication of the value that modern evangelical churches put on the Word of God? Where is the powerful preaching of the Word of God that was heard by generations of the past? It seems that that kind of preaching has largely faded away. Most evangelical preachers today seem to give talks to their congregations rather than powerful sermons from the Bible. Of course there are exceptions to this but this seems to be the fare in most modern evangelical churches.
The chapel of the seminary that I attended years ago had a high pulpit. The pulpit dominated the whole chapel. It was in the center at the front of the sanctuary and you had to climb several stairs to get up to the top to preach. It towered over the congregation. I learned that this type of pulpit was patterned after churches of long ago during Reformation and Puritan times where the preaching of the Word of God was central and supreme. I had the privilege as a student of preaching in that pulpit a couple of times. After climbing the steps and finally getting into the pulpit, the preacher would look down and first of all see a large pulpit Bible open before him and then he would see a small gold plate visible only to the preacher which had engraved on it these words - "Sir, we would see Jesus." When the preacher saw those words, he would know what he was in that pulpit for. It was to proclaim the Word of God and show Jesus to the people.
The powerful preaching of the Word of God has mostly been replaced today by friendly talks from the stage. However, this has not always been the case. In times past, the pulpit was a powerful place and men came to church to hear the Word of God proclaimed with great conviction. Today's friendly talks fall far short of the powerful preaching that occurred in the pulpits of the Reformers and others who saw the Bible as the very Word of God. John Knox preached a famous sermon on November 8, 1559 from Psalm 180. Iain Murray in his book A Scottish Christian Heritage writes, "For years to come men spoke of the effect of that one sermon. The listeners acted like men brought back from the dead. The words of the English ambassador, spoken on a later occasion, describe it perfectly: 'The voice of one man is able in on hour to put more life in us than five hundred trumpets continually blustering in our ears.'" (p. 28) A student in Edinburgh, James Melville, wrote about the impression that John Knox made on him when he taught the Word of God, "Of all the benefits I had that year (1571) was the coming of that most notable prophet and apostle of our nation, Mr. John Knox, to St. Andrews…I heard him teach there the prophecy of Daniel that summer and winter following. I had my pen and my little book, and took away such things as I could comprehend. In the opening of his text he was moderate the space of an half hour; but when he entered to application, he made me so shudder and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write." (Taken from A Scottish Christian Heritage, p. 29)
The great revivals of the past have been accompanied by powerful preaching of the Word of God. For a thousand years, the gospel had been veiled. Superstition and idolatry had crept into the church. The Bible had been taken away from the people and preachers taught the traditions of men. Then suddenly in the 16th century the Reformers came on the scene, dusted off the Bible and began to proclaim it with great power and the whole world was changed. Iain Murray writes that the Word of God is like a trumpet to awaken the people. He says, "Reveille, the morning hour of wakening in the army, is announced by a bugle. When times of awakening occur in the church the preaching of the Word serves that same function…" (p. 5-6 The Old Evangelicalism)
Where have all the pulpits gone? Might we better say, "Where has the powerful preaching of the Word of God gone?" There is a dearth in the land. We need to pray that God would once again restore the powerful preaching of the Reformers and those who followed them of the same spirit. John Owen in 1674, when there was a decline in powerful preaching in Britain, looked back to an earlier time when great preaching had been common in the land. He writes, "They had a useful and fruitful ministry in the world, to the converting of many to God. But we have lived to see all these things decried and rejected…all conviction, sense of and sorrow for sin; all fear of the curse and wrath due unto sin; all troubles and distresses of mind on account of these things, - are 'foolish imaginations, the effects of bodily distempers, enthusiastic notions, arising from the disorders of men's brains'… and the whole doctrine concerning these things is branded as novelty, and hopes expressed of its sudden vanishing out of the world." (taken from The Old Evangelicalism p. 25) Yet, suddenly, the great preaching came back within seventy years of John Owen's writing these words. It came back in the Great Evangelical Revival through the preaching of George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley and others. God sent a great revival that changed England and brought back the preaching of the Word of God in the spirit of the Reformers. Today, we must not give up. It is still possible that the pulpits can come back and that great convicting preaching can return. It may be that God will once again raise up preachers who will cry with Jeremiah saying, "Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay." (Jeremiah 20:9 KJV) We must pray to that end!
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise.
Murray, Iain H. A Scottish Christian Heritage. The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 2006.
Murray, Iain H. The Old Evangelicalism. The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 2005.