It is hard to preach in an era when everybody already knows everything and when everyone demands to be entertained. Everybody already knows everything because all knowledge is now just a good Google search away. Whereas learned men once possessed "inside" knowledge that it took years to acquire, now anyone can acquire piecemeal information on their smartphone. Everyone demands to be entertained because an affluent society that is used to distraction and breeds a mentality of "if it isn't fun, it's not worth doing," being entertained is the crucible by which public discourse is assigned value.
These are two serious challenges to the art of preaching in our time, and they explain a lot of the preaching we see in our pulpits, or on our stages. It helps to explain why fewer and fewer people consumed by the Entertainment and Information Ages are sitting through traditional preaching and it explains why pastors are changing their style of preaching…and fast. Pastors believe that traditional preaching that includes occasional doctrinal teaching and careful exegesis of scripture simply can't compete. So they script sermon "series" that find their origin not in scripture, but in a theme. These series are more palatable to an audience that prefers to think in story and can't be bothered with substantive points. They also allow the pastor to offer relevant life tips as a life coach might. (In truth, most pastors have watered down the office of preaching to a mass life coaching session.)
But without going down the road to critiquing megachurch preaching (go here and here for that), I want to speak to something more fundamental. When did this regression of sound preaching begin? It didn't start with the megachurches. It started when pastors who should have known better started wandering away from the pulpit. Probably to prove to the congregation that pastors were just one of the folks, they began to drift from the pulpit, free of a manuscript and free to be more emphatic, dramatic and climactic. They walked around like they owned the place, not wanting to be relegated to a distant wooden box any longer, but wanting to be near to his dear flock.
The pastor wanted to become an entertainer, too, not content to merely remain a valuable teacher or authority figure. He was tired of the shackles of leadership and for once, he wanted to blend in. Now that the congregation had conferred authority to this pastor, he traded in his authority for a few cool points. If, in their preaching, they wandered among the congregation and their preaching became more accessible, the pastor could become a bit more like his parishioners. He could symbolically leave his office while he preached and become more like a friend or a companion or a colleague than a pastor. Amazingly, congregations obliged.
Why? Because they understood what the pastor was doing. He was forsaking some authority (albeit symbolically at first) and they agreed to embrace him as a friend. Really, they were happy to do this because they were tired of "boring" sermons and they didn't really want anyone telling them what to do or think anyway. The parishioners should have been demanding the pastor stay in the pulpit; that is his proper place to address them. But they compromised because, in truth, they don't want a pastor as much as a life coach whose advice they can either reject or ignore. Pastors who speak with Godly authority can be neither rejected nor ignored.
It's a deal that all in the congregation make, so all are guilty. The pastor agrees to be less of an authority and the congregation agrees to be his friend. Can I really tell all this just from a guy who leaves the pulpit? Well, of course, to a degree I am exaggerating. I've known great and faithful preachers who did not preach from the pulpit.
But the pulpit is more than just a piece of liturgical furniture. It represents historically, liturgically and architecturally the entire office(s) of pastor and preacher. It represents the stability of the office from person to person. No matter the warm body that occupies that pulpit for 15 minutes a week, that pulpit will be with that congregation for generations, maybe centuries. Preaching is not about the pastor, much less his personality. It is about God's Word and the need for the people to hear that Word week in and week out.
Ultimately, that is what the pulpit represents more than anything: the Word of God. That is what happens there. The Word is proclaimed in that place. Pulpits represent that which is unchanging, reliable and solid. If the pastor can arbitrarily leave the pulpit, he is forsaking that permanence, that solidity. And for what? A few jokes? A more conversational style? A "relevant" sermon series?
More often than not, a pastor willing to forsake the pulpit is a pastor who may be on a glidepath to rebellion. If they aren't willing to commit to the permanence of the pulpit - even the symbolism of it! - then good theology may be next to go. Once preaching becomes person-centered and driven by the "felt needs" of the "audience", there is no way that the costs of discipleship, the cross, shed blood or matters of doctrine can be tolerated. Once the permanence of the pulpit is symbolically dislodged, it is that much easier to really dislodge it from the art of proclamation.
I can offer no proof. Only anecdotes. Virtually no megachurch pastor uses a pulpit. Mainline Protestants (whose track record is getting poorer by the day) abandon the pulpit more than use it. Charismatics have probably never seen a pulpit. Meanwhile, those tried and true, i.e. "traditional", more often than not will have a pastor willing to see himself as an office holder who uses the ancient symbols of that office. Orthodox preaching is simply more likely to come from such a man.
I'm not promising that every problem will be solved by staying in the pulpit. Bad sermons, of course, will still be given from there. But it would be a great start if men called to proclaim the Word would do so from the place intended for that purpose.