In the old days, when the pastor alone led worship, the furniture up front never moved, except maybe for the Christmas pageant or something unusual. But now, with great variety in worship styles. we have to think about the furniture again. Maybe there's a team of singers and readers, maybe there's rock band with drum kit, maybe there's still just the pastor. Maybe it changes each week. So, what do we do with the stuff up front? Where should the Pulpit go when the band sings and the pastor wanders up and down the steps? What about the Baptismal Font and Communion Table? Can we just put them away when they're not needed?
In the old days, when the pastor alone led worship, the furniture up front never moved, except maybe for the Christmas pageant or something unusual.
But now, with great variety in worship styles. we have to think about the furniture again.
Maybe there's a team of singers and readers, maybe there's rock band with drum kit, maybe there's still just the pastor. Maybe it changes each week. So, what do we do with the stuff up front? Where should the Pulpit go when the band sings and the pastor wanders up and down the steps? What about the Baptismal Font and Communion Table? Can we just put them away when they're not needed?
There’s no absolute, but there are thoughts behind different layouts. That old-fashioned furniture was put there for a reason, so it might be helpful to re-apply those reasons to a more varied context.
In Reformed churches, the tradition has been to put the Pulpit in the center because of the centrality of preaching and the Word as a means of grace. The Pulpit is not just a utility stand for the preacher to use to hold his notes, but a weighty visual anchor to point to the significance of the proclaimed Word itself (which is why some churches have favored massive pulpits). In fact, some churches have a big pulpit (with Bible) in the center that is used only for preaching, with a smaller lectern to the side used for other readings and worship leading.
In contemporary times, we’ve seen a reduction of pulpit size generally because of our culture’s increasing emphasis on the person doing the preaching. We don't want our preachers hiding behind a wall. We want to see them, and connect with them as people, not just with their spoken ideas. That emphasis has its pastor-as-rock-star dangers of course, but it’s also an expression of the incarnated Word. God comes to us not as an idea, but as a person who empties himself of greatness and loves and suffers and dies along side us and in our place. The preacher does the same in trying to bear witness with their whole being.
So I think the way we’ve reduced the pulpit is entirely appropriate, though I’d rather not see the pulpit disappear altogether. The Word is still central. And even more than the Pulpit, we should find a place for the Bible as a visual reminder.
Given the choice, I'd still keep the pulpit in the center, maybe mid-to-rear platform. Even a pastor who wanders still needs a place to set his Bible, and better on a simple, central pulpit than on the floor. Some congregations have placed the Big Bible on the Lords’ Supper table. That practice tends to mix metaphors a bit, but it’s better than no Bible visible. I’ve seen some congregations put the big pulpit Bible on a stand in front of the pulpit, which is a fine idea, but again moves towards a big heavy display that many congregations are trying to avoid.
Given the centrality of Scripture then, the Communion table (and that's a table for gathering, not an altar for sacrificing, by the way) usually gets pushed to the side in Reformed circles, usually opposite the font. In other traditions, the table might be in the center to highlight the Eucharist, with the pulpit on the side. That represents an honest theological difference about what’s more important, but it is not just a stick-it-wherever-it-doesn’t-matter choice.
So I’d say having it against the back wall stage right or left is a fine idea. It's certainly better than putting it in a closet because it's "in the way" of more important worship. The sacrament, instituted by Christ himself, is a key element of who we are as a people called and nourished by God.
In some churches, the Baptismal font is located near the door (rather than up-front) to remind people of their own baptism as an entry point into God’s family. Sometimes churches will even build a small gurgling fountain near the door so you can hear the water. Congregations with an up-front font might consider moving it to the door sometime to highlight the ideas of baptism. It could be a good teaching moment. But for the most part, if your tradition is an up-front font, having it visible near the back wall is a fine placement.
And of course, there is always a cross. The (empty) cross is the central symbol of Christian worship and the Christian faith. The other liturgical furniture, just as the very sacraments they represent and are used for, all point to the cross. The other furniture have meaning only because of the cross. And the cross is the single-most important distinguishing feature of Christian worship space, setting it apart from other spaces--classrooms, arenas, auditoriums, stages, etc.
(And ironically, some congregations are more willing to worship under the American flag, but not a cross. It’s not at all a good depiction of who we are as the church of all times and place, not to mention in whom we place our trust).
So I would emphatically advocate for a permanent cross in a Christian worship space. If you don’t want to hang one on the back wall, use a free-standing one in the midst of the other elements. It could be used differently at different times, but normally could stand next to the font. But the key point here is that we are missing the visual center of worship to which the other furniture all point.
And for those who say it all doesn’t matter, it’s just furniture, I would ask, why then do you care about the building at all? Why do you keep it clean, or spend money to build or remodel? Why don’t we just meet in a barn somewhere?
The truth is we all have a sense of visual significance, that the environment in which we worship says important things about who we are and whom we worship. We could leave the room dark and shabby and give the money to missions or a food bank. But we know the look of the place matters, and not just in a utilitarian way. It matters because it symbolizes something important about our God not being dark, dismal, and out-of-date. And just as the carpet colors and brightness of the lighting express something about the kind of people we want to be, so too does the furniture, especially the liturgical furniture, focused on the cross (and with centuries of thought behind it).