Some implications of an empty pulpit

Whether your cup is half empty or half full in the current global crisis, whether you credit or descry online ministry, the fact cannot be avoided that the era of vacant church buildings and silent pulpits is a significant and sad chapter in the history of the church. We are in the midst of a famine of live preaching which is unmatched within living memory, and extremely unusual in church history. One Lord’s Day has lapsed in to another where the pews have remained unfilled, and where if the preacher has mounted the pulpit steps it has been to face a camera, and possibly his own family. Whatever other opportunities Covid 19 is providing, this is a loss which we should take time to lament, a space in which we should think through what our God might be saying to us in the silence.

In this post I want to suggest a few things which our empty pulpits communicate to us, and some lasting applications we can take from them for future days.

Pulpit ministry is irreplaceable
As pastors and preachers, many of us have grasped the nettle of preaching into our phones and broadcasting our sermons. This is not a format that many are comfortable with, but we have quietly rejoiced at the fresh forum that has been provided for us to proclaim the perfections of Jesus. Many of us have also felt to the core of our being that this is not a substitute for preaching in the living context of the gathered church. Aside from the doleful experience of hearing one’s own voice and seeing one’s own mannerisms, there is something absolutely missing from the exercise, something which makes it of a different stripe and order than the act of preaching in a congregation.

This loss is good for us if it persuades us afresh that preaching is irreplaceable. Custom and habit have perhaps inured us to the abstraction and cultural oddity that preaching ministry is culturally. We become preoccupied with preparing sermons, or as a congregation to listening to them, and we quickly take for granted the humanly bizarre thing that it is for a majority of people in a room to listen to a minority of one declare God’s counsel. There is no other forum outside of politics where this brand of speech exists, and the agency and efficacy of the medium is unique to the church alone.

Such angularity is typical of the way our God works. The Apostle Paul was gripped with the social misfit that preaching is. Jews and Greeks alike bristled against it for different reasons, spiritual and cultural, but Paul persisted because preaching Christ crucified was a uniquely God-given conduit through which he brought unbelievers to life eternal.

In a world awash with influencers, vloggers, and celebrity preachers, Covid 19 has shown us that there is simply no replacement for local men, standing in local pulpits, before a local church, declaring the excellencies of Christ. Don’t we miss this dynamic week on week? Isn’t part of our longing to return to public worship that we might rejoice once again in the foolishness of preaching, wherein God is glorified in the company of his people?

Preaching is also irreplaceable in terms of the teaching of the hearts of God’s people. We are a highly literate society, academically and technologically. Christian printing presses mill out tomes on every topic, with every theological corner covered, and every therapeutic option offered, but preaching does something more and deeper than all of this work. There are people in our church fellowships who are not readers by temperament or by education. There are hands-on people who can turn wood before they would turn a page, who can fix an engine for hours but simply cannot fix their attention on reading. For them, the pulpit is a rich volume which addresses their hearts, which helps them to follow Christ, which educates their mind, warms their heart, and steels their resolve to continue on in the Christian path. Nothing can replace this, not the best boffin on his podcast, not the slickest preacher in an online pulpit. Men and women listen to men whom they have come to know and love, who have stood with them at gravesides, and wept with them in hospital wings, and the teaching communicated through personality and relationship often breaks down their personal educational barriers to growing in Christ.

Pulpit ministry is unavoidable
Pulpits don’t generally have off switches or mute buttons, and that is a great blessing to preacher and hearer alike. Some of the most effective ministry that God has delivered to my heart through others has been intensely uncomfortable, and yet utterly vital. There are times when my heart has palpitated, when my palms have sweated, and when I would have escaped the sense of conviction being ministered from God’s word if I might. Preaching, however, won’t let me do that, it forces me to stay the course, it insists that I think through the indicative, and that I bear the weight of the imperative, it corners me and cajoles me, and ultimately blesses me by its unavoidable character.

How often as a preacher have I watched others in the same straits. A non-Christian enters our services, and they endure the early sermons they hear. There is resistance and resentment, but also a sense of compulsion that they must hear more. Then a Lord’s Day dawns where they catch my eye because their countenance and disposition has changed. They are not dropping their eyes to the floor, their watch has become less important to their gaze, there is eye contact and attention, and God is speaking. They have come through the pain barrier, they have kicked the goads, and now the risen Christ has surrounded them in the ineffable and irresistible light of his risen majesty, and they are under glad siege by the Spirit of God. We should rejoice at new evangelistic opportunities now available to us in a Covid 19 world, but there is a place to lament the loss of this kind of direct dealing.

The best online ministry cannot do this. It places the hearer in the role of arbiter and controller. If a preacher hits a flat spot, or if they touch a nerve, then they can be silenced. If a better option is available on the other YouTube channel or Facebook page they can migrate there. Itchy ears have a full supermarket aisle of scratchers available which attendance at a local church does not afford. The pulpit is the place where the whole counsel of God is sounded in a way which cannot be negotiated with, in a way which cannot be reduced or removed.

Pray for renewed pulpit ministry
Among all of the providential logic of our present day, perhaps God is prompting us to value afresh the intricate simplicity of stepping into a pulpit and declaring God’s name. Perhaps he has allowed us this famine of live preaching so that we might feast once again with a heightened appetite and taste for truth declared in the local church. Perhaps in all of our affluence and pragmatism, our cool ironic poise towards the plain speech of preaching we are now being brought to hunger for help from those who teach us. As preachers, perhaps we are being rebuked for complacency, for quiet derelictions of the privilege that has been ours, perhaps we we are being humbled by what Samuel Rutherford called ‘silent Sabbaths’. Could it be that we had become tired and routine in our approach to being in the pulpit, that we had come to print off another sermon with weariness and unspoken incredulity about the effectiveness of what we were doing?

Whatever God’s purpose, we need to pray for renewed pulpit ministry. Renewed in the sense of restored to working order again, but also renewed in the sense of our owning its vitality as hearers, and bearing more fully its privilege and responsibility as preachers. There is a place to weep in these days that the acoustics of our buildings are dulled into stony silence, that no voice is in our actual villages and towns tolling out the truth of Christ. Pray that soon our fortunes would be restored, that we might say ‘the Lord has done great things for us, and our hearts are filled with joy’, and that we might see a newly impassioned delivery and reception of sermons among God’s gathered people which would bring him great glory.

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