A Pulpit Is Not A Platform

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. 
 
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.
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