A lot of contemporary churches spend a lot of time thinking about platform design – who stands where, how it will be lit, what artwork or patterns will be displayed on the wall behind them. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; church band platforms can be notorious for rat nests of cables, and an aesthetically pleasing design can help to point the worshiping community towards God. There are practical realities too; if you are fortunate enough to have a worship band, you need to work out where you will place everyone and their instruments.
This rearranging of the platform to accommodate a worship band carries with it though the potential of an unintended consequence. When you lose the pulpit and assign the preacher a music stand, your church loses a visual symbol of the centrality of the Word of God in worship.
Historically, church buildings have often had a raised focal point – a pulpit or an ambo – for the proclamation of the Word of God. This raised location served an important practical function: it allowed the preacher’s voice to carry without the use of amplification. It also served a symbolic purpose: to remind all those present that God’s Word was the central authority in that place. Everything said and done had to be accountable to the Bible.
The Reformers picked up that symbolism and made the pulpit the central fixture in the church sanctuary, in some traditions even juxtaposing the pulpit and the sacramental furniture such that the pulpit, as the symbol of the Word, was seen to be superior.
In the move to incorporate worship teams into church ministry, we have ever so gradually pushed the pulpit ‘off the stage’ and replaced it with a music stand. Looking back over my fifteen years of worship leading, I can recognize stages (at different churches) where early on, we would set up behind the pulpit, then later we lost the pulpit but would still give the preacher the front seven feet of the platform, now our monitors are right up to the edge and the pastor needs to clear music off the worship leader’s music stand to have a place to preach. And all that happened without me really thinking about it!
The point was brought to my attention by a former prof of mine – he pointed out not just the loss of symbolism but the very practical reality that often times now, preachers must contend with music stands that refuse to stay up, music stands that won’t balance a Bible and notes, music stands that dump your iPad on the floor as you are preaching. These are issues that worship leaders might easily miss. I confess that I have embraced the ‘rock band’ stage set up without really realizing the symbolic and practical implications.
I recognize that for many of you, this may seem like a trivial point: our pastor doesn’t hold a Bible or notes, he doesn’t use a music stand, a music stand works fine, everything is digitally projected on a screen so what does it matter? If that describes your situation and your pastor is happy with it, great, I’m glad that it’s working. The central point though still remains: how does your church symbolically or literally communicate the centrality of the Word in worship? The music is great, the drama is great, the artwork is great, but when all is said and done, what we all really need to hear is the truth from God, and that is recorded in the Bible. How do you help your people to recognize that?
Even without a pulpit there are things you can do – invite people to stand as the Word is read; make sure your readers do a good job of reading it, not stumbling from lack of practice; project Bible verses that frame songs; verbally remind people that all that you say as a worship leader is simply commentary and must be evaluated by Scripture; use a formula before or after the reading like: ‘This is God’s Word; Thanks be to God.’ I have adapted this tradition so that Scripture readings always begin with ‘God speaks as we read Scripture so let’s listen, today to (insert verse here)’ – it makes the authority point, and serves the practical purpose of telling people where to turn in their Bibles.
Maybe most importantly, ask your preaching pastor how he feels about this whole thing. It may be that he has quietly been enduring the ‘band creep’ and he longs for the time when the church has a visual symbol of the centrality of the Word. It’s a big job, standing up in front of people and endeavoring to faithfully bear witness to God in a culture that is at odds with many of God’s ways. Plus, the pastor is bearing the weight of the spiritual health of the church; the last thing he needs is for his notes or tablet to take a dive when the music stand decides to give out.
I recognize that every church will feel differently about this topic, but have the conversation. Ask yourself, how do we demonstrate, symbolically and practically, that everything here revolves around the Word of God?
Graham Gladstone is a worship leader and consultant currently serving Lincoln Road Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario. An M.Div. graduate, he is passionate about corporate worship shaped by careful biblical reflection and heartfelt Spirit-led prayer. Connect with Graham at jbdomusic.com or @gwgladstone.