Recently, I visited a church in which the platform and pulpit were raised higher than what I’m accustomed to. When I sat down in the pew and looked up, my first thought was how this arrangement might affect me physically — whether or not I would get a crick in my neck.
But then I was reminded of the theological implications of the higher pulpit — emphasizing the value and authority of God’s Word being preached.
I’ve been reading some material which advocates more of a discussion-oriented atmosphere in churches instead of a one-sided proclamation of a sermon. It suggests that there needs to be a spirit of openness and acceptance in an environment where people can feel free to share different ideas, raise tough questions and even express their doubts.
It stems from a belief that people today are more resistant to being lectured about what they should be doing and more receptive to informal conversation about relevant issues.
Similar lines of thought result in the opposite of the raised pulpit. Pastors try to get down on the same level with their congregations, not only physically, but also in the way they dress and by speaking in more of a conversational manner as opposed to an oratorical tone.
I’m not sure that we have to choose one or the other of those two approaches to ministry today. I can see where both are helpful and can be incorporated into the life of a church.
We need small groups where both the churched and the unchurched can feel comfortable in the love and acceptance of others as various ideas are freely shared. We need to create gatherings in which each person is unafraid to open up, be vulnerable, and share what they really think or what’s truly going on in their lives.
But at the same time, we also need to hear from God. We often need the reminder that there is solid truth in this world, not just ever-changing opinions. While we may have our various views, there is a divine authority that overshadows all of our wisdom and knowledge.
Sometimes, we simply need to hear “thus says the Lord.” And in light of God’s Word, there are times when our response shouldn’t be doubt or discussion, but simply receiving, believing and obeying.
In the familiar Christmas story in Luke 1, we see an example of this. When the angel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary that she was going to have a Son, she responded with the question “How can this be?” The angel went on to discuss with her how such a seemingly impossible occurrence would take place.
However, Zacharias had also received a message from this same angel. He had been told that he and his wife were going to have a son, the one who would be known as John the Baptist. But when Zacharias asked, “How shall I know this?” he was struck with the inability to speak because “you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time” (Luke 1: 20).
This indicates that there is a place, as in Mary’s case, for raising doubts, asking questions, and having discussions. But there are also situations, as with Zacharias, when we just need to hear what God says, believe it, and submit to Him, whether we fully understand and agree or not.
So whether we sit in a pew and listen to a sermon from a raised pulpit, or sit at tables discussing issues over a cup of coffee, hopefully we can make sure our churches are places where both of these important qualities can be experienced.
The Rev. Tony W. Elder is pastor of Wesley Community Fellowship Church. He can be reached at 770-483-3405 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.