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Live and near: preaching as performance A review article in three parts


Christopher Burkett

Christopher Burkett is Editor of The Preacher.

<strong>Live and near: preaching as performance</strong>
<strong>A review article in three parts</strong>

Part Two

Performance in preaching: a book to ponder

In seeking some, at least tentative, answers I’ve been drawn to reconsider performance as a vital part of preaching since streaming a sermon seems to me to freeze it (as it were) in time, and asks of me as a preacher a different way of speaking than the entirely ephemeral style of a Sunday-only event. Similarly, the dominance of a linear and technologically mediated electronic presentation style even when not streamed challenges me to think again about what I am attempting to do when I preach.

In particular I intend to look again at some of the points made in a collection of essays that has achieved rather more influence in the United States than here, namely, Performance in Preaching: Bringing the Sermon to Life, edited by Jana Childers and Clayton J, Schmit, and published by Baker Academic in 2008. The book is dedicated to Charles L Bartow, Carl and Helen Egner Professor of Speech Communication Emeritus, at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the influence of his book, Effective Speech Communication in Leading Worship (1988) and his teaching of some of the contributors is plain at many points. The concluding essay of the collection (Performance Study in Service to the Spoken Word in Worship) is by Bartow himself and makes a strong plea both for the utilisation of performance studies in the service of ministry and for the impossibility of doing so if the Holy Spirit isn’t recognised as alive and present (p. 292). He concludes, ‘… with the spoken word in worship there are real presences to be encountered, and, with those presences, Real Presence. In the human echo of the divine voice, veritably and not virtually, we may expect to hear, through the written word become a spoken word, the incarnate Word of God’ (p. 299). This insistence on ‘presence’ is the thread that connects all the essays, and it is the idea that most profoundly questions a too easy adoption of technology mediated methods in preaching.


The argument runs like this – our tendency is to treat Scripture as something directed to the eye. Familiarity with the printed word means we treat it as text to be read, internalised, and analysed. Reading, writing, studying and lone rumination on words, are simply assumed as working methods. It comes naturally to us to talk of ‘writing a sermon’. Essentially that means turning printed words into written words and only then into verbalised words, though if that is supported by presentational software even the verbalised words will at the least remain partly printed words on the screen. This ‘eye-dominance’ brings with it associations with distance (we can usually see much further than we can hear), individualism (we generally see things without anyone else’s intervention), and linearity (we focus on one thing after another). It is as if our brains have been trained by the printed page – and the straight lines of text become the rails on which argument, explanation, and engagement naturally run.

So dominant is this ‘read text’ pattern that we fail entirely to notice that for most of the Church’s existence it is the ear that has dominated. Indeed, in the rhetorical environment in which the Scriptures came to be, an oral-aural approach so dominated that written texts were often patterned accordingly. It is easy enough to see this in much of the New Testament where reading-aloud sections often suggest themselves. How could this be otherwise when most people could not read, and most Scripture was designed to be read aloud in a gathering? In that world, dictation was commonplace (amongst those who could afford it) for communicating messages across distance, and personal reading meant reading the words aloud? Words to be effective were assumed to need to be heard. Indeed, written words or learning from wholly written texts was frequently regarded with suspicion. Who would trust a doctor who had only read about medicine or an engineer who had read about buildings but had never built one? spoken words had a dynamism and power about them quite unlike words fixed on a scroll or page.

‘Ear-dominance’ – speaking and hearing – brings with it associations with nearness (physical proximity generally enhances audibility), physicality (speakers and hearers have to use their bodies, and meaning is conveyed by rhythm, gesture, tone, and volume etc. not just the words), and relationality (speakers and hearers must share the same space, and with that comes all the complexities of physical sharing).


Simply put, preaching patterned according to an oral-aural model is an event, a happening in time and space, and a thing done and talked about. Its rhetoric may use ‘straight lines’ – a linear structuring visually and verbally – in content, argument and style, but the vagaries of embodiment will often divert and bend them! Like the good actor, the preacher will find herself subtly shifting in tone, response, and emphasis as she responds to the audience. Here sermons are performative rather than solely informative; as Alyce Mckenzie puts it, ‘such sermons will embody and evoke rather than deliver and explain’ (p. 79). Jana Childers, one of the editors of this volume, asserts that ‘to be known, a text must be performed’ (p.137 my emphasis). This is a process that gets under or behind the text and uses emotions, bodily actions, relationships, intangible longings and things of the soul as well as the mind, as parts of its repertoire of response, engagement and advocacy. It is gutsy rather than solely cerebral.

This insistence on performance isn’t about any sham theatricality but rather a conviction that only preaching that employs speakers and hearers in an embodied wholeness of present engagement (as exemplified in the oral-aural model) has any chance of recovering how the texts we use were experienced by our first century Christan forebears. Strategies that are unvaryingly linear and logical and exalt information above imaginative participation are likely to fail. As is any tactic that speaks across a divide, actual or symbolic, that unquestioningly assumes authority in a speaker who must ‘land’ the message profitably amongst ‘them’ (a shaping so often unacknowledged in presentation software).

The performance advocated here emerges in the give-and-take of listening and speaking (p. 200). Far from being a vain exercise in the preacher’s personal virtuosity, it is an effort of intentionality that under the Holy Spirit’s direction seeks to give voice and embodiment to the gathered community’s deepest reflection on Scripture and life. In that sense it promotes public criticism that brings to life new understandings (p. 137). Such performance is an ‘incarnational process of the Word become flesh’ (p. 52); or, as Bartow so eloquently writes elsewhere, performance is ‘the time of turning ink into blood’ (p. 49).


Hopefully I have written enough to commend Performance in Preaching to you. This is a work full of useful and stirring ideas. Although its American context is obvious throughout, it is not difficult to transpose its content to a British environment and the approach it advocates is, by my judgement, one that needs to be heard on this side of the Atlantic. Too often performance in the pulpit is denigrated amongst us as if it is a less that worthy ambition to hold the attention of, and spur the motivation of, those who listen to us. Surely performing well is an ambition to which every preacher should aspire? Not least, of course, because as the argument of this book suggests, it offers us a way of drawing nearer to how the earliest Christians heard the Gospel.

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