More than 30 years ago, I heard a man declare: “The age of great preachers is over; the age of great congregations has begun.” When I heard this assertion, my response was ambivalence.
On the one hand, I was stirred to think of the power that would be unleashed if ministers would really equip the saints for ministry. I didn’t think (and I still don’t) that the visible church would have any significant impact upon the world unless the laity was mobilized.
In Acts 8:1–4, we read the following: “Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.”
We notice in this record that the supreme preachers of the early church were the apostles. During the persecution in Jerusalem, all except the apostles were scattered. Yet the ones who were scattered went everywhere preaching the Word. This is exhibit A of a mobilized church that had been equipped for ministry. So the idea of an age of great congregations was a thrilling concept to me.
On the other hand, the above announcement included the ominous note that “The age of great preachers is over.” That prospect saddened me. I think the church desperately needs great preachers in every age.
Two thoughts have stuck with me since I first heard this comment. First, saying that we can have great preachers or great congregations is an example of the either/or fallacy or the fallacy of the false dilemma. There is no reason we can’t have both. Indeed, there is a compelling reason to assume that the two are not only compatible, but virtually necessarily connected. Theoretically, it may be possible to have truly great preachers without great congregations, but such is hard for me to imagine. Great preaching is Gospel preaching, not mere oratorical talent. Great preaching declares the whole counsel of God with power and accuracy. Such preaching simply does not return unto God void. To be sure, there are those who sit under great preaching who never are moved by it, but such preaching is the “foolish” means by which God has chosen to save the world.
My second thought is that it may be possible to have a great congregation without great preaching, but it is hard.
When I was in college, I joined a club called Karux. The word karux? is derived from the Greek word for “preaching.” The club was organized for students who were preparing for the ministry. I suppose that when the club was first established, its founders chose the name Karux because they saw preaching as the primary task of the minister.
The book of Acts contains several examples of what scholars call the Kerygma. The term kerygma may be distinguished from the word didache. Kerygma refers to the “proclamation” of the early church, to the content of the message that was preached. Didache refers to the “teaching” of the early church.
We still may distinguish between preaching and teaching, but they should not necessarily be separated. Most of my work focuses upon teaching, but many times when I am teaching 1 also include preaching; I move from giving information to exhortation. Likewise, when I am preaching, I normally include a large dose of teaching.
As a teacher, I prefer to be a peripatetic. That is, I love to walk around the classroom engaging students in dialogue as I teach. 1 don’t like to be restricted to a single spot behind a desk or a podium. During Ligonier conferences, I roam back and forth upon the platform as I teach.
However, last year our church completed its initial building program. During the planning stages, our building committee asked me whether I wanted to have a pulpit. The committee members were aware that I like to roam while I talk, so they assumed I would not want a pulpit. I told them I not only wanted a pulpit, I wanted an elevated pulpit. Why? To exalt the preacher? God forbid. I wanted an elevated pulpit to elevate the Word of God, as well as to say “no” to the current trend in church architecture of dispensing with pulpits.
The year I was born, the classic movie Gone with the Wind was released. I fear that the history of this church era may be summarized by the headline, “Gone with the Pulpit.” I fear that when the pulpit is removed, so is a high view of preaching. The modern church has exchanged the fixed pulpit for a plexiglass lectern that can be removed easily to make way for the drama team or to remove any sense of preaching as a threatening voice from on high that might be seeker unfriendly. Pulpits are too “churchy,” and churchiness is now déclassé. What is in is pop psychology or entertaining anecdotes. (I once heard a well-known preacher give a riveting story. At its conclusion, he said: “What am I illustrating? Nothing. I just think it’s a great story.” That in itself was an illustration.)
Of course, there are preachers who are preaching the whole counsel of God, sound expositors of the Word, who use portable lecterns and the like. There are also preachers who spew forth secular platitudes from raised and fixed pulpits. I’m speaking of trends and what they signify. Every form is an art form and every art form communicates something. My question and my fear is: What does the disappearance of the pulpit communicate with respect to preaching? The preaching is not in the pulpit; it’s in the preacher. But when the pulpit goes, can the preacher be far behind?.