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David Wells and Starbuck Pulpits

June 28, 2007

Here is an interview with David Wells entitled Sartanism, Starbucks, and Other Gospel Challenges where he is asked about how today’s church compromises the Gospel.  Here is an excerpt from the compelling question and answer:

9M: Many churches and ministries today boast of using new methods, while proclaiming the same message. Is this the right way to go about it, or not? Isn’t there at least some truth in the phrase “the medium is the message”?
DW: I think there is a lot of truth in that phrase [“the medium is the message”]. This argument that the message is preserved while the means of delivery is changed is a misleading proposition, because the message being delivered almost invariably is stripped of its theological content. That is the whole point about it. In many of these churches, they disguise their identity. You see it visually because they don’t want to be thought of as a church. So religious symbols go. Pews go. The pulpit is replaced by a Plexiglas stand. And then the Plexiglas stand disappears and you have people on barstools.
Now you could say that perhaps nothing has changed—and I certainly wouldn’t die on a hill for a pulpit. But subtle messages are being sent by all of this. In an earlier generation, the pulpit was at the center of the church. It was visually central. You saw it. Oftentimes it was elevated. And this was a way of saying to the congregation, “The Word of God that we are about to hear is above normal human discussions. We’ve got to pay attention to it, because it is authoritative.”
Now we have replaced the pulpit not even by a barstool, but by a cup of Starbucks coffee, which speaks of “human connecting.” And human connecting has become more important to us than our hearing from God. Now when we make these kinds of changes to our method, we are really making changes in the message that is delivered.

My question is (1) do these religious symbols (pews and puplits)  have the same significance today as they once did? and (2) does their disappearence have those kind of implications if they do not have the same significance?  I tend to probably agree with Wells in his assessment, but his assessment does bring up some further questions for me. 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    June 29, 2007 2:53 am

    interesting thoughts. Although I think maybe the author is placing too much emphasis on the physical things that are changing in the church and not enough on the fact that the churches that are focusing more on the “human connection” are sacrificing the truth of the gospel to do it. For example, Joey Butler doesn’t use a pulpit and people sit in folding chairs and bleachers but you can bet that the truth is preached. I think the bigger problem is not that the church is trying to appeal to a broader spectrum of people but in the way that the Truth is being watered down and pushed aside to do it. i think i have reached a good place where i can finally stated that I truly dislike mega churches (which is where we see a lot of this taking place).

  2. jbstarke permalink*
    June 29, 2007 12:24 pm

    Sam, well I don’t think Wells is necessarily putting too much emphasis on the physical if you read the whole interview. Just giving an excerpt might have been misleading. He is using Historical Theology to help him interpret trends and movements. He is fearful of not putting enough emphasis on the importance of the sermon and preaching in the life of the church, which I tend to agree with. One thing that I do want to think further on is that these figures, like a pulpit did have significance because it elevated the proclamation of the Word of God, and I’m wondering if the disappearance of these things shows that our emphasis is moving away from the importance of the that proclamation. Anyway, if you have never read any of Wells, you should. His stuff is very thoughtful.

  3. John permalink
    June 30, 2007 1:34 pm

    I love Wells, but I think he is pushing a tad far here, especially regarding the pews. There is nothing that pews have inherent in their symbolism that is absent from chairs except perhaps a certain communal dimension (although, I would argue this was somewhat accidental to why pews came into vogue — which was their economy, not theological meaning). If Wells were to make the argument on those grounds: that is, that the removal of pews is problematic because it symbolizes a shift from the community to the individual he may have something there (although, I fear he might well be reading a bit much into that most of us would affirm is a pretty nice and natural improvement in furnishings and nothing much more).

    His comment on the pulpit I think merits some warrant. The lack of pulpits in modern sanctuaries tends to indicate an elevation of the person of the preacher and heighten the performance aspect of the sermon (the preacher is freer to move, his gesticulations are clearer, etc). Furthermore, the loss of the pulpit is also part and parcel of the death of manuscript preaching. I think there are benefits to outline and manuscript preaching, but manuscript preaching certainly does tend toward a greater care for words, phrasing, and thus theological precision. So, in part, the loss of the pulpit symbolizes a shift in the typical preaching style. And that is a fair enough critique. As Wells himself says: this is nothing to die on any hill for, but something to certainly be aware of.

  4. coastalpastor permalink
    January 25, 2008 10:54 am

    Is it possible that the symbol (pulpit) ends up being treated as though it is the reality that is being symbolised (authority of the word)? How far away is that from idolatry?

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