Progressive Churching: 3 Ways to Diffuse the Pulpit Power

 (This post is part of my yearlong series called Progressive Churching, where I reflect on different aspects of planting a Progressive Christian Church in San Diego)


One of the things I love most about preaching regularly is having an outlet for creating and sharing my craft.

One of the things I love the least about preaching regularly is how it sends the message that I am in the smartest guy in the room and have all the answers.

I love that I get to dig in to the Scriptures and to topics that are important to a life in pursuit of Kingdom living, and I love that there are people who are genuinely interested in my take on these things. I love to take a difficult idea and work at finding a creative way to make it accessible.

But I don't love the dynamic that regular preaching creates in most faith communities. Like Marshall McLuhan says, "the medium is the message." So when you have one person functioning as the primary deliverer of content and teaching week in and week out, the message becomes, "this is the only person who has anything worthwhile to say, and the only one talented enough to do it." There becomes an unhealthy concentration of pulpit power.

Which is just plain dumb.

So when we started Sojourn Grace we knew we wanted to be mindful of this reality. It seems to be one of those things that you have to be intentional about because the default (in Protestant free churches, that is) is what I've described above. In other words, that's what churches will naturally look and feel like unless they make conscious decisions to, as I like to say, diffuse the pulpit power.

Here are three ways that we spread out the power and influence that can sometimes come from regular preaching on Sunday mornings.


1) Share the Pulpit

This is the most obvious, but I cannot (and should not) be the only one preaching on Sunday mornings! One of the easiest ways to diffuse the pulpit power is to rotate other people through the position of teaching.

At Sojourn I probably preach 3 out of every 4 weeks. Rotating through have been people like Kate, my wife and co-pastor, who prior to Sojourn had never preached before. And now she is blossoming like a rosebush who sees the sun for the first time. She speaks to people in areas and ways that I couldn't possibly.

We have also opened up the platform to other people from within our church. Whether it's to give the sermon or share a Faith Formation Story. Again, the goal is to have other voices and perspectives be heard and absorbed.

2) Cancel the Sermon

Another way we diffuse the pulpit power is to get rid of it altogether some Sundays! These are our Worship & Art Sundays, or our Experiential Sundays, and the entire service time is given to different expressions of worship.

We set up art stations throughout the room. We curate experiential opportunities for people to express their prayers and worship. We sing lots of music, read scripture, do meditations, say prayers, and sit in silence.

Not only does this give people a break from the regular routine of church, and not only does it provide a refreshing space for people to engage with the Divine, but by simply doing an entire service of worship and art (and not having a sermon) we are communicating that the sermon is not the most important thing!

If sharing the pulpit diffuses the pulpit power by elevating other voices and perspectives, then holding Worship & Art Sundays diffuses the pulpit power by elevating other expressions of christian education and spiritual formation.

3) Series Ending Discussion

Finally, the third way that we help to avoid creating a culture where I am the guy with all the answers is to curate what we call Series Ending Discussions. We started this back in our House Church days, and the premise is simple. Once we conclude a sermon series (anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks long) we will then take one Sunday and not have a sermon (simultaneously accomplishing number two, above) but instead circle up the chairs and have a church-wide discussion about the series we just finished.

The values of having these oh-so-important Sundays are crucial to creating the type of culture we are seeking here at Sojourn. Where there isn't a top-down flow of power and information. Where multiple voices and perspectives are heard. Where people are not just consumers but are contributors. Where we acknowledge that lecture-style-learning is the least effective way of learning.

The discussion time starts with some brief reminders of what we talked about during the previous few weeks. Then we establish some ground rules for the discussion:

-  Respect: Every perspective is welcome. We will hold space for everyone, especially those we disagree with. -  Honest: Don't say what you think people want to hear. Don't try to sound smart. Just be honest about what came up for you. - Timely: Be mindful of the fact that other people might want to share. Don't monopolize the time or give a mini-sermon. - Volume: It's a big room. You gotta speak up!

On our Series Ending Discussion Sundays we want to create space where people can ask the questions that came up for them during particular sermons. We invite people to share what they didn't like or didn't get or didn't agree with. Often times I'll craft some prompt questions to help get us going, questions that relate directly to the previous sermon series.

So it becomes a 30-40 minute group conversation where everyone is invited to participate and every perspective is held and heard.

Nothing diffuses the pulpit power more than when I stand up on these Sundays and say, "I am not the smartest person in this room... it's time to hear from all of you."

There's Power in the Diffusing

I think that one of the most damaging things to a local church is when it is driven by one personality. When one voice is elevated ridiculously above and beyond all the others.

Now I don't actually think that most churches desire this sort of culture, where one man or woman (but, let's be honest, isn't it usually a man?) holds so much of the power because they hold so much of the pulpit, but it will become the inevitable outcome if they are not intentional to constantly push back against the natural flow.

At Sojourn I think we have a pretty special thing going. People truly believe there is space for them and that their voice and presence matters. And I truly believe that, while I'm sure some people enjoy it when I preach, we definitely have not created a Colby-centric church. Thank God.

While we have had the luxury of intentionally creating this culture from our inception, and building these values into our DNA, I don't think it's ever too late to start diffusing the pulpit power.

So if you are in a context where the Senior/Lead Pastor is preaching almost every single Sunday then I would encourage you to consider what sort of messages this is giving your congregation. And then start thinking through what are some ways that you might be mindful to begin the process of undoing the negative effects this sort of setup has on a faith community.

A good starting point is sharing the pulpit, canceling the sermon from time to time, and then exploring ways to open up the conversation to the rest of the church body.

Because I think there is a great power (and by "power" I mean, upside-down-Kingdom-power) in diffusing the influence and the authority that comes from the preaching of God's Word on Sunday mornings.