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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; 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. Often this kind of 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 a sense of entitlement, 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. It’s easy to assume that 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.

Good preaching comes alive and speaks to the heart precisely because it is well presented, with proper gesture, vocal technique, and bodily presence. 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.