Monday, December 27, 2010

The Eclipse of the Pulpit

The classic Nonconformist conception of the ministry has been to view it first and foremost as a preaching office. In distinction from the Laudian conception of the minister as a priest, the Independents, Presbyterians and Baptists regarded the minister's role as primarily prophetic, not in the sense of receiving new revelation from God, but in the sense of declaring the Word of God to the people. The minister was regarded as God's herald, declaring the Word of the Lord. Hence the form of the traditional English Nonconformist service, dominated by a sermon that typically takes up half the time of the service, more or less. It was a man's power in the pulpit, his ability to faithfully handle the Word of God, that determined his popularity, and the presses were occupied printing volumes of sermons. Thus Spurgeon was "The Prince of Preachers", and Joseph Parker was called "The Immortal Thor of Pulpitdom." The central feature in any Nonconformist chapel was a pulpit, whether a simple wooden box, or the vast marble construction of Parker's City Temple. The pulpit might be any sort of shape, but it was central, and it dominated. From that throne, the Word of God went forth. Typically the Communion Table was central too, below the pulpit, but it was the sermon, not the Sacrament, that was the centre of the service. Indeed, some of our Nonconformist brethren erred in practically neglecting the Sacrament. Of their emphasis on preaching we might say, "This ought ye to have done and not left the other undone."

One result of this emphasis on preaching was that the English Nonconformists had some of the most knowledgable congregations in the world, where cooks and cleaning-ladies could hold conversation on theology. It drove a publishing industry that ensured that millions of copies of sermons were sold at a penny a time in bookstalls and news-stands.

But the pulpit has been eclipsed. The illustration is of a battered and vandalised pulpit salvaged from a derelict chapel, but it illustrates a sad fact that in Nonconformity today the preaching of the Word is devalued. When a preacher takes his cues from the latest blockbuster movie, or 'felt needs', he is not preaching the Word of God. When the emphasis is placed on spectacle, theatre and dance, music and supposed manifestations of the Spirit, again, the Word is neglected. And ironically, whereas in non-evangelical Nonconformity what happened was that the Lord's Table replaced the pulpit as the architectural centre of the Church, the tendency among modern evangelicals is to move both out of the way and replace them with a stage, a performance space!

The imperative given to Timothy was "Preach the Word," and it is still the imperative for the minister today. Word and Sacrament ministry is what we need, not attempts to draw people in with spectacle. The crisis in Nonconformity is one of confidence in the Word of God, leading to a loss of the note of authority in preaching. Restore the pulpit, and let it enthrone, not the pastor, but the Word of God which endures for ever.

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