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Preaching is Performance Art

The way it’s delivered is part of the message.
Clayton Schmit | posted 5/23/2011

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 and lecturer (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 surmise, 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. No dialogue, no communication, and no eye contact with those looking at them expectantly every Sunday morning. 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, clich, comedy, digital mastery, fumbling speech, pointlessness, flowery language, super-animationbut I cannot see Jesus.

Redeeming a Dirty Word

The Incarnational Element

Submission and Humility