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Filling the pulpit or filling the pew?


There is much symbolism in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The two ordinances of the Baptist church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are beautifully symbolic. The cross that is displayed in so many churches is emblematic of the atoning death of our blessed Redeemer. The church spire originated in the 12th century as a symbol of heavenly aspiration.

For years the pulpit has been placed in the center of the platform of Baptist churches to symbolize the centrality and priority of preaching the gospel.

Years ago, during a pastor’s conference sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a well-known pastor proclaimed, “If the church is alive, it’s because the pulpit is alive – and if the church is dead, it’s because the pulpit is dead!”

Today many churches are flirting with death, because there is a greater focus on filling the pew than filling the pulpit.

Several things may contribute to this postmodern focus. First, there are those who suggest that preaching is an antiquated, outdated, outmoded method of communicating the gospel and that we should replace the sermon with dialogue, films, panel discussions, dramatic presentations, and concerts. While a church may use these methods of communicating truth they should be supplemental, and even incidental, to the preaching of the gospel.

Secondly, there is a prevailing mood today that is antithetical to the dogma of preaching – the rejection of absolute truth. In this “postmodern” age everything is relative or subjective and everybody has his or her own convictions. Furthermore, many consider their convictions to be just as good as the preacher’s. These people are of the opinion that it would be presumptuous for a preacher to lay down the law with an uncompromising conviction.

Another argument foisted by society against the “the foolishness of preaching” is that we live in a visual society and people are accustomed to looking at images, not listening to arguments. This is an indication that people have become intellectually lazy. They would rather be entertained than think.

It would be disastrous for the church to replace the sermon with some multi-media presentation. However, our preaching must not be dull, ponderous, and monotonous. This doesn’t mean that we should be anti-visual. The Bible is not anti-visual, but in God’s economy the Word predominates. The visual is an accessory to the Word, not the other way around.

Another factor that may militate against the focus on preaching is the church growth movement. It all started with good, old-fashioned American pragmatism: find a method or strategy that works well and use it to build up the church and fill the pews.

Unfortunately, after years of training seminarians to fill the pulpit many young pastors arrive on the field for their initial pastorates only to meet a host of people who want to make their church as appealing as the mega-churches. Immediately, their focus shifts to filling the pew, and their heroes become “successful” pastors who are known for what they are doing rather for their convictional life and message.

In a recent conversation on this subject with IMB Senior Vice President for Spiritual Nurture and Church Relations Tom Elliff, he asked, “Are pastors going to conferences today to hear what others are doing or to savor the impact of a life of faith and to discover what and how men are preaching?”

The church growth gurus have suggested that numerical increase is a sign of health.

“In order to fill the pews the church growth advocates have developed marketing strategies to attract the attention of the world, created programs packaged to appeal to consumer’s demands, designed strategies to accommodate “felt needs,” and crafted messages commensurate with the doctrine of tolerance.”

Phil Kenneson and James Street, in their book Selling Out the Church, suggest that we risk great harm when we pander to the tastes and desires of the world around us. The authors proclaim that clever marketing strategies create churches that reflect the culture rather than shape it. Then Kenneson and Street lay out arguments for why a marketing orientation inherently changes not just the style, but the message and mission of the church.

It is possible to artificially fill the pews without the Word and Spirit. I Cor. 3:15 indicates such ministries will someday “burn” because their builders preferred the wisdom of the world rather than the foolishness of Christ.

Someone has said, “The important things have not changed.” While outward forms and fashions have changed, God is still holy, mankind is still depraved, and Jesus is still the way, the truth, and the Life. The Bible still stands as God’s inspired word and is still profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and instruction in righteousness. Preaching is still the primary way to tell others of these truths.

John R. W. Stott, a noted evangelical Anglican, writes, “It is God’s speech that makes our speech necessary. We must speak what He has spoken. Hence the paramount obligation to preach.”

Jesus was anointed to preach, but many stopped following Jesus after his sermons (see John 6:66, John 8:30, and John 8:59). Although there were times when He failed miserably to “fill the pews,” He received the approval of His Father in heaven.

So, what do you think pleases God the most? Is it filling the pulpit or filling the pew?