The Lord Bishop of London reading from the pulpit in Westminster Abbey.
The Lord Bishop of London reading from the pulpit in Westminster Abbey.

One of the most significant and revered places within a church is the pulpit. The pulpit is a stand from which the leader of the church service reads passages from the Bible and delivers sermons and lessons. Speaking from the pulpit is akin to speaking on behalf of the church and on behalf of God. Therefore, very strict etiquette governs proper conduct at the pulpit.

Lay People and the Pulpit

The pulpit, being arguably the most significant place in the sanctuary, should be reserved for the spiritual message of the service as delivered by the service leader. For this reason, churches sometimes have a separate stand for lay speakers and general church announcements. This stand is called a “lectern.” In the absence of a lectern, announcers and lay speakers may simply speak from any position in front of the congregation, or they may stand up in the pew they’re seated in so they can be easily seen. In most cases, though, it is bad form for such speakers to use the pulpit.

The Right Tone

Those with the authority and license to speak from the pulpit must be careful to preserve a certain level of gravitas. That’s not to say you should be overly sullen or monotonous, however. Indeed, light humor to articulate a point in a sermon can be perfectly appropriate, but peppering a sermon with flippant off-the-cuff jokes is a quick way to turn a worship service into a carnival sideshow. It’s also good etiquette to avoid delivering a sermon laced with politics from the pulpit, which can alienate members of the congregation and create a tense atmosphere.

Avoiding Superlatives

When mentioning someone by name from the pulpit, it is not proper to offer any sort of praise or to refer to them in a flattering light. This has nothing to do with how accomplished or praiseworthy they may or may not be. The pulpit is meant only to be a place from which a higher power such as the God of Abraham is worshiped and praised. Giving praise to other people is not inherently wrong, but should be done under different circumstances.

Concision

Whoever has the pulpit has a willing and often eager congregation for an audience. However, members of the congregation have lives and responsibilities of their own, and nothing will turn off audience engagement quite like a sermon or prayer that goes well beyond a reasonable amount of time. The standard length for Sunday morning Christian service is around one hour, and that hour includes many aspects apart from the core sermon and gospel reading, such as hymns, offering, fellowship, and communion. Pulpit speakers are well advised to compose prayers that are concise, and sermons that fall within the restrictions of time and congregational attention spans.