Tom Long’s major book The Witness of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) has been released in a second edition, updated and expanded. In the last section of the book, Long addresses a variety of questions asked by pastors and preachers, and one of those deals with the value of using a pulpit while preaching:
“As a piece of furniture, a pulpit can get in the way of communication. If it is too big, too high or too remote, it can well hinder closeness and personal contact between the preacher and the hearers. Consequently, many preachers are leaving the pulpit behind and standing in the chancel or even moving around among the people as they preach.
“While this strategy can bring the preacher closer to the people and make communication more immediate, there are several issues the preacher should consider before deciding to step out from behind the pulpit, First, the pulpit is not just a stand for notes or a screen to hide the preacher’s legs (although there is practical worth there); it is a symbol of the presence of the Word. To stand at the pulpit conveys an unspoken message, namely, ‘I am the temporary occupant of a venerable office to which I am committed and obedient.’ Most pastors would not administer the Lord’s Supper away from the Table nor conduct baptism away from the pool or font, and we ought to consider the symbolic power of the pulpit.
“Second, preachers tend to overestimate the value of physical closeness to the people. As Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame once quipped, ‘A preacher is a person who engages in far more eye contact than people want.’ We sometimes forget the symbolic power we carry when we are preaching, and what seems like welcome vulnerability and intimacy to us may come across to hearers as a frightening intrusion, intimidation or a transgression of private space.”