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Preaching Is Real Performance Art

The way it's delivered is part of the message.
Preaching Is Real Performance Art

We’re counting down the Top 40 articles of Leadership Journal’s 36-year history, including this one from 2011.

“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to go to church no more."

Nearly any churchgoer could have said this, and in nearly any period of history. But in this case the listener was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist (1803-1882). He went on to explain that "the capital secret of [the preacher's] profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned … there was not a hint in all the discourse that he had ever lived at all."

We have all heard preachers with that problem. Their sermons employ an artificial set of communication skills divorced from ordinary human life. These preachers assume that the purpose of the exegesis they learned in seminary is to spring-load sermons with technical data that will impress and subdue listeners. Or they spend all their time working on what to say and no time at all on how to say it.

T.S. Elliot said the purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink. In preaching, we're called to turn ink back into blood. Yet so many preachers speak only abstractly, as if they were devoid of humanness. There's no flesh, no blood, no tension, no mystery, no life in their sermons. Only words drawn from commentaries or a thesaurus. These are the preachers that tempt us "to go to church no more."

But the opposite temptation also exists: to deliver the sermon in such an animated way that all attention is drawn to the preacher and away from the Word.

We could make a long list of such preachers: The wannabe comedian, the preacher obsessed with cultural awareness, the narrator that strings together poignant but pointless stories, the media maestro who spends hours mastering digital techniques and only minutes on the message, the preacher with an affected pulpit tone, the awkward speaker who has plenty to say but no confidence in delivery, the masterful presenter whose message is a string of banalities, the preacher who becomes convinced that personal experience and "life message" are more interesting than the gospel. The list goes on.

Such preachers also tempt us to give up on sermons altogether.

In the end, it does not matter which of the temptations is displayed in the pulpit. The result is the same: the people are kept from an encounter with God.

Groucho Marx once humorously complained to his comic foil, Margaret Dumont, "I can see it now: you bending over a hot stove. But, I can't see the stove." I can see it now, too, in our churches: preachers filling the pulpit with, take your pick—hubris, cliche, comedy, digital mastery, fumbling speech, pointlessness, flowery language, super-animation—but I cannot see Jesus.

Redeeming a dirty word

How can preachers present the gospel message to their listeners without getting in the way? How can they communicate the Word of God in such a way that it wins a hearing?

There are many answers to this question, and they relate to the multiple skills preachers learn in their theological education: understanding of ministry context, knowledge of Scripture, theological discernment, development of pastoral wisdom, and more. But there is one component that is often overlooked: preaching is performance. Preachers bring their messages to life in the hearing of God's people when they understand that preaching is a type of performance art.

Preaching is not merely the art of textual exegesis, contextual analysis, and creative writing—though it involves all of these. Performance lies at the heart of proclamation.

In literal terms, the word performance means to bring a message through (per) a form. It is a tool for expression, not a means of drawing attention to the performer. Our suspicions of performance are based on a caricature of the real thing, a performance pathology.

Ultimately, if the preacher's words are to become the Word of life, they must be presented in a way that creates a world for listeners to inhabit. This has to do with delivery, but there is more. To truly understand performance requires a theological understanding of human responsibility in the equation of incarnation.

It also means accepting that the call to preach demands submission and humility. Preaching is always about God, about truth, about reality. Preachers must keep it from being about anything else, especially about them.

But performance has become a dirty word in the church. In most settings, to call a sermon a "performance" is hardly a compliment. Let's begin by acknowledging some common misconceptions about performance that make people in the church nervous.

When people think of preachers and performance, they might envision a preacher with a "diva syndrome." The diva takes greatest pleasure putting his or her talents on display and constantly seeking the limelight. Such a preacher is arrogant and judgmental. We see this on stage all too often. The diva steps forward, the consummate perfectionist. He (as often as she) is impossible to please and is hard on the "supporting cast." The diva has an insatiable desire for appreciation and applause. Nothing can be allowed to mar the perfection of the diva's performance. It becomes clear that whatever is transpiring is entirely about that person, and not essentially about God or God's people gathered for worship. We are rightly fearful of the diva in preaching.

The second misconception is that performance is mere playacting. Theatrics is about manipulating people for mere entertainment, that is, entertainment for entertainment's sake. When this is done with preaching, the delivery is embellished and actually impedes the communication of the message. Bad performances in the pulpit are as obvious as bad acting on the stage or screen. The only time we usually notice actors acting is when their craft is poor. It's the same with preaching. When it's done masterfully, the preacher almost disappears, because the hearers are captivated by the message.

Good preaching comes alive and speaks to the heart precisely because it is well presented, usually (though not always) with proper gesture, vocal technique, and posture. People in the performing arts call this "stage presence." We might call it liturgical presence, or pulpit presence. All effective communicators realize that they must master numerous techniques in order to impact their audience.

In Performing the Word, Jana Childers calls preaching and drama "first cousins" and asserts that preachers need to know a good deal of acting technique if they are to communicate what she calls a "lively homiletic." We don't usually expect our preachers to act, but we do hope they grasp enough of what actors know about voice, body control, and presentation, that they communicate their messages with naturalness and meaning.

Of course employing acting techniques can be taken too far. As described above, when performance becomes merely showing off or pure entertainment, it reveals that the wrong people are performing and that they are doing it poorly. When it is done well, it is not to be noticed: like pixels in a digital picture, performance ought to create the desired impression while being so fundamental to it that it becomes invisible.

We are right to avoid diva preachers or those who merely entertain. However common those mistakes are, they do not represent the real meaning of performance.

Performance that does not point beyond itself does not achieve its goal.

The incarnational element

John writes, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Jesus as the Word was the first of his grand metaphors, except that it wasn't actually a metaphor.

A metaphor functions only when we say that X is Y, yet we know that X is not Y. A metaphor is actually a lie. That is why metaphors have power; they make our imagination work.

But, to say that Jesus is the Word is only metaphoric on the surface: X (a man) is not Y (an element of speech). But when Jesus spoke, as the incarnation of God, each of his words was Word. Everything he uttered was God's Word. Thus, X (God speaking with a man's voice) is Y (the message of God).

If their carefully wrought human words become God's Word, they are playing with dynamite.

The Word of God delivered through the voice and person of a woman or a man, also has an incarnational quality, similar to Jesus' incarnation. Karl Barth urges preachers to understand that their words become God's Word when God shows up to inspire them and bring them to life as Word.

Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when the preacher speaks, it is as if Jesus himself stepped down from the pulpit and walked among the people. The power that this implies is mindboggling.

If their carefully wrought human words become God's Word and the vehicle for the spiritual presence of Jesus, they are not merely playing with language. They are playing with dynamite. What may push us toward sheer terror is the final step in this equation. If the preacher's words become the Word, then he or she is the physical bearer of the Word, a partner in the incarnation of the Word.

This weighty realization ought to foster, in addition to seriousness and prayerfulness, a desire to convey the message well so that the Word has meaning and reception. That means more than using the mind and voice. It requires bringing the entire body—mental, physical, emotional—into service as a living, breathing, instrument of the Word.

If the preacher writes a meaningful word in the study, the next step is to turn that ink (or those computer pixels) into blood in the pulpit.

How do preachers accomplish this? How can we bring our entire person into service of this task? How can we present a message prepared during the week and make it come to life? By committing to the rigors of the craft—voice, breath, gesture, movement—while engaging in them with submission and humility.

Submission and humility

The first thing the preacher must submit to is Scripture. Proclaiming the Word requires a sure source. Typically that means allowing a Bible text to be the soil out of which the sermon grows.

The preacher also submits to the practice required to bring these words to life. It is often recommended that preachers internalize their sermons by reading them aloud 10 times. Don't do the math; it will only scare you. A 20-minute message requires a lot of time for practice. But reading aloud is necessary. That is where the preacher learns to turn written language into spoken language. We write for the eye, but the sermon is for the ear.

To be more accurate, one does not actually read the sermon. One rehearses it aloud and slowly moves it from ink to blood. The word internalize is the key here. We do not attempt to memorize the words we have written. We seek to so internalize them through rehearsal that they flow freely from us through our personalities.

Submission is a close cousin of humility. It was certainly so for Jesus, who "being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross" (Phil. 2:8).

Preaching as a performance art places the preacher in a tough spot. Performers often seek to be admired and appreciated. Effective preachers also find themselves recipients of admiration and gratitude. The temptation to pride can be strong.

Perhaps this image will help: A group of worshipers gather in the dark for an evening service around a small table that will bear a candle. The candle will represent the light of Christ. The assembly gathers in darkness and waits for the entrance of the candle.

At the appointed time, it is brought into the room by a person who moves slowly and gracefully to the table, lest she stir the air and extinguish the candle. All eyes are fixed on the entrance. But whom do they see? They see Christ, as represented by the light. He is the focus of their attention and the object of their worship. Is anyone else seen? Yes, the candle bearer. She does not appear to them as the object, but only as a necessary bearer of the object. She will be seen, but only in the afterglow of the light.

And what happens if she fails? Suppose she does not inspect the space in advance or plan out her route? She trips over a cord or a backpack. Whom then do the people see? They see the candle bearer, but they cannot see Jesus. The light has been snuffed out.

The humble preacher lets the light be seen. She submits to all things necessary to bear the Word to God's people. When she succeeds, the people are brought into an encounter with God. They see Jesus, as he walks among them. Yes, she too is visible. But, she is not the object of the people's attention, only the bearer of the Word, seen dimly in the afterglow of the light of Christ. For such preachers, we express our admiration and gratitude. Thanks be to God!

Yes, preaching is performance art. Do it humbly, but do it well.

Clayton Schmit is professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

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