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Performance Turns in Homiletics

by Richard F. Ward

At the time this was written, Richard F. Ward, Ph. D., was Clement-Muehl Associate Professor of Communication Arts, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT 06511. This article first appeared in Reformed Liturgy and Music 30:2 (1996)

He always called it a performance, teasing the word with that mocking voice of his--

'Where do I perform tonight?' Do you expect a performance in a place like this?'--as if it were a game he might take part in only if he felt like it, maybe because that was the only way he could talk about it.

"Grace" in Faith Healer by Brian Friel


It would seem at first glance that homileticians and practitioners of performance studies are developing a common language and method. The vocabulary of performance is punctuating recent books in the field of preaching. For example, Charles Rice believes that the event of preaching becomes an "embodiment" of Word and Presence, a seminal concept in performance studies. Don Wardlaw, another teacher of preaching invites students to strive for "embodied delivery" when they preach (160). In many cases homiletical texts recommend a method of reading scriptures aloud to gain an experiential perspective on biblical texts and also to understand their bases in orality.

Similarly the preaching of sermons in radically diverse contexts of Christian worship are attracting a growing number of practitioners of performance studies as rich resources for ethnographic analysis. For example, Elaine Lawless has studied the contrasting stylistic devices in the performances of women evangelists and preachers in Handmaidens of the Lord: Pentacostal Woman Preachers and Traditional Religion. She follows the lead of Bruce Rosenberg's study of American folk preaching. In each of these cases, theorists define preaching as a genre of "cultural performance" whereby the deeply held values of particular communities of faith are reconstituted through ritual enactment. Sermons are cultural artifacts wherein structures of authority and symbol are revealed, subverted, lampooned, or refurbished. Worship becomes an occasion in which "sacred" texts are both revered and scrutinized through the playful processes of oral performance and homiletical interpretation. Performance phenomena appear as reflective surfaces which reveal deeply internalized communal "truths".

The Christian preacher is, of course, committed to a specific sets of beliefs about the Christian Gospel. As spokespersons for the community of faith arising from God's revelation in Jesus Christ, the Christian preacher aims to speak the "truth": the truth of his or her understanding of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ, the content of his or her own witness to the activity of God in the realm of human affairs, and offers personal and shared experiences as the context for the audience's participation in the message. Traditionally, though, "performance" phenomena have rarely been understood as "truthful" among preachers.

In spite of the best efforts of rhetoricians, communication scholars, anthropologists and folklorists, "performance" is conventionally but narrowly associated with theatrical imagery. Some even demean or belittle pulpit behavior by using the term "playacting" or "grandstanding." During an animated discussion with a colleague about a course listed in our catalogue entitled, "The Oral Performance of Scripture and Sermon," he turned to me and said: "You don't think of preaching as a performance, do you?" I could tell by the tone of his voice and by the furrows in his brow that he certainly did not think so! The opinion that preaching and oral performance are two disassociated forms of human communication still dominates contemporary homiletics research. "Performance" is suspect as rhetoric because it is it an artful, but fictive means of communicating "truth." In my colleague's way of thinking, talk about "authentic" preaching is tainted by the introduction of performance categories.

Homileticians support associations of preaching with "art", even the performing arts because film, visual arts, and even the theatre have the potential to open and deepen the impact of a sermon. Charles Rice's stimulating text, The Embodied Word: Preaching as Art and Liturgy, offers the preacher both an incentive and a method for reflecting upon the arts as resources for preaching. Yet even here, "performance" is problematic.

Early in his book, Rice defines "disembodied" preaching as that which is "motivated unduly by ego" and thus a "performance" for an "audience." The practice of "spotlighting the preacher and rendering the congregation passive . . . reflect the understanding of preaching that pervades our churches: The congregation is an audience and the preacher a performer" (42-43). Yet later he writes: "No performance can succeed without preparation, on the stage, in the concert hall, or in the pulpit. The question is not whether preaching is a performance--it obviously is--but how the preacher can perform in a way that forwards the liturgical work of the people" (134).

Rice's work demonstrates the need for clarifying how the term "performance" might best be used in talk about preaching.

As a practitioner of performance studies who teaches communication arts at a theological seminary, my aim is to challenge the casual way that others use "performance" is used to demean and devalue preaching and the other arts of ministry. My goal is to legitimize it as a key term in homiletics and to hold up the term "performance" for renewed scrutiny in the discipline of homiletics. "Performance" has the potential to be both a liberated and liberating term in homiletics' field of discourse; as both metaphor and method, performance-centered inquiry has proven its efficacy in such diverse disciplines as sociology, rhetoric,communication theory,and anthropology.

Accordingly,constructs derived from the "new" discipline of performance studies can 1) refine and deepen some conceptual impulses already present within the "new" homiletic, and 2) open space within the discipline of homiletics where its conversations with other disciplines of human communication are enlivened.

Language about preaching which trivializes performance restricts the insight and transformation that a performance perspective can yield. This essay certainly cannot exhaust the possibilities for dialogue between performance studies and homiletics. It will, however, put down some generative probes about its relationship to traditional homiletical theory.

The Value of Performance Constructs in Homiletics

Dwight Conquergood uncovers a potent meaning embedded in the etymology of "performance" to displace the usual connotations of performance as "sham" or "pretense." (1983, 27). Performance is derived from the Old French par + fournir which means "to furnish" or "to carry through to completion".

Alla Bozarth-Campbell's "incarnational aesthetic" uses a similar definition of performance. "Per/form"ing literally means "form coming through." Campbell's work at interweaving metaphors of Incarnation and performance emphasize the performance consciousness that lives at the very heart of Christian revelation. Yet the Church has treated performance as "dangerous" and "dirty," and therefore has traditionally pushed it out of the center of its purview. This is surprising when one considers how closely a metaphor of performance relates to the Church's own institutional self-understanding:

One reason why the Christian church in particular has always found theatre a troublesome cultural manifestation is that its own theology, as expressed in the first verses of St. John's Gospel, makes a similar claim for Jesus, as 'the word made flesh'(Hinton, 4).

In Bozarth-Campbell's view, the form of a "poem" (which she defines as any chirographic act of the human imagination) achieves "completion" when it is "enfleshed" by means of the voice and body of the poem's speaker (2). Homileticians' interest in the ways that the literary forms, designs, and shapes of scripture "come through" in the design of the sermon can be complemented by understanding how a literary-rhetorical form, such as a sermon, comes through the body and voice of the preacher. For Campbell, the culmination or completion of this process is, in fact, the embodiment of the poem (7-8).

An appropriate image of this process can be drawn from theatre. Performance theorist Richard Schechner states that "an unproduced play is not a homunculus but a shard of an as yet unassembled whole" (120). Preaching is a context/specific act in which the "shard" of thought that is a sermon achieves its entelechy in the body and voice of the preacher. It is also an event when the personal, individual consciousness of the preacher is enfleshed, authorized, and legitimated in the community of which he or she is a part.

A performance perspective resists the narrow applications of theatrical imagery because it characterizes "all members of a speech community as potential artists, all utterances as potentially aesthetic, all events as potentially theatrical" (Pelias and Van Oosting, 224). Since the language of a sermon has a constitutive or "dramatic" function, preaching can be understood as an example of "aesthetic communication." A communicator is a performer in that he or she uses language artistically, not because he or she is an exhibitionist who displays verbal prowess and agility (Campbell, 9). These constitutive and constructional connotations of "performance" are gradually displacing the frivolous ones that have dominated in traditional scholarship.

The late anthropologist Victor Turner provided a conceptual starting point for performance centered research in the humanities. For Turner, humankind are "homo performans", that is, "essentially performing creatures who constitute and sustain their identities and collectively enact their worlds through roles and rituals" (Conquergood 1983, 27). Folklorists, rhetoricians, and theatre directors have followed Turner's leads to study the variety of ways that humankind "performs."

The Politics of Performance Research Within Homiletics

Currently the discipline of homiletics is undergoing a radical transformation. Richard L. Eslinger in A New Hearing notes that the "topical/conceptual" approach to preaching is "critically, if not terminally ill." Eslinger first defines this situation as a "crisis" for both preachers and homileticians and clears the way toward news ways of thinking about preaching by suggesting that "the way out, toward new effectiveness in preaching, is not yet clear" (11). This statement is an invitation to re-examine the relationship between communication studies and homiletics. "Public speaking" and "preaching" have always been amiable (but certainly at times contentious) bedfellows. But the constructs and models that once facilitated collaboration between the two are no longer enjoying currency. Preaching and communication textbooks once shared common assumptions about shaping public discourse. Eugene L. Lowry explains:

During preparation you move toward the articulation of one propositional sentence that states unequivocally the theme you are going to address. In the speech itself, you begin with an introduction that identifies for listeners the exact subject to be covered. The theme is divided into three Roman-numeraled parts and is restated in a conclusion (67).

Most communication scholars have declared this "conveyor belt" approach to be "dead." It has been replaced by a variety of frameworks, among them a "vital movement in the social sciences which construes and explicates human reality in terms of the theatre and dramaturgy."(Conquergood 1983, 26).

Consequently, the task of teaching "speech" to student ministers has become more problematic. What dominates in homiletics is (1) an interest in rhetorical forms, literary shapes, and theological intentions of Biblical texts as organizing principles for sermons, (2) the quality of the preacher's critical and imaginative resources for meeting the text, (3) a concern for the liturgical context for the performance of the sermon.

The conventional speech textbook has offers little in this move away from mimesis and towards praxis and process in homiletics. One ensemble of homileticans recently has observed:

While we have textbooks available about what makes public speaking effective, most of our students greet this kind of material with a yawn. Granted the academic value of such texts, why are so many students bored with them? Many of us believe students already know much of this speech communication information implicitly (Wardlaw, Baumer, Chatfield, Delaplane, Edwards, Forbes, Hunter, Troeger, 87).

Making standards for "good speech" explicit to the beginning student of preaching has forced both speech teachers and homileticians to scrutinize their disciplinary boundaries, discourse, and practice. The discipline of speech communication resists being cast in the role of a "service" discipline to homiletics; homiletics holds to the theological integrity of its aim to "preach Christ" (1 Cor.1:23). "Communication-as-performance" offers constructs which will help students integrate their theological perspectives with the praxis of sermon preparation.

Performance and the Poetics of Preaching

A performance-centered approach contributes to the poetics of preaching by placing emphasis on the ways that the selfhood of both preachers and listeners are reconstituted during the preaching event. Performances are not simply imitative but reflexive phenomenena, that is, in performance a human being reveals self to self. Turner states that "one set of human beings may come to know themselves better through observing and/or participating in performances generated and presented by another set of human beings (187). Preaching a sermon in the context of Christian worship is not only a genre of "cultural performance" but also a type of a "social" performance in which the sermon becomes reflexive. It is a means of remaking the world through the exercise of the human imagination. Not only does the sermon hold out the possibility for refashioning the world, but in the process of creating the sermon, the preacher invents and re-invents a persona that is congruent with other parts of the Self. Performance studies reveals how "self is presented through the performance of roles, through performances that breaks roles, and through declaring to a given public that one has undergone a transformation of state and status, been saved or damned, elevated or released" (Turner 187).

Not only does the sermon-in-performance make a "self" and a "world," it also unmakes them. The sermon is a "site" for performance where the preacher may enter a free space created for serious play and unmask established orders and structures. Conquergood explains:

As soon as the world has been made, lines drawn, categories defined, hierarchies erected, then the trickster, the archtypal performer, moves in to breach norms, violate taboos, turn everything upside down. By playing with the social order, unsettling certainties, the trickster intensifies awareness of the vulnerability of our institutions. The trickster's playful impulse promotes a radical self-questioning critique that yields a deeper self-knowledge, the first step towards transformation (Conquergood 1989, 83).

This conceptualization of the "preacher as trickster" intensifies the political and ethical dimensions of the preacher's role as social performer and contributes to the prophetic function of preaching. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Bruggemann speaks of the ways that the preacher-as-prophet makes and unmakes the world of the listener in "dismantling" then "energizing" the people (109). The preacher creates a potent space where the personal experiences of the socially and politically disenfranchised are given a voice. "Because it is public, performance is a site of struggle where competing interests intersect, and different viewpoints and voices get articulated" (Conquergood 1989, 84). What "comes through" the body and voice of the preacher is neither an object called "a sermon" nor the singular, incongruous ruminations of an individual self. What might be heard are the echoes of the culturally silenced and marginalized. The preacher has the power to grant to those who would otherwise be "absent" a presence in and through the performed sermon but only if the preacher him or herself is "present" as performer.

In performance, the sermon permits preachers to explore and give voice to the "dark side" or "shadow side" of themselves. Kenneth Gibble in The Preacher as Jacob: A New Paradigm for Preaching emphasizes the value of tapping the "daimonic", that is, those repressed or neglected parts of ourselves in creating the sermon. He observes that "it is, I discover, the source of great power, this daimonic. When, instead of turning from it in fear, I turn towards it in loving, yet respectful admiration, I find it enabling me to draw on the creative gifts I have." (3)

This is a basis for addressing the issue of narcissism in preaching. As students struggle to find their own voices, styles, and witness in preaching, incongruities will become wedged between self and sermon. In learning preaching, beginning students regularly display "artifice" as "persona"; they may even construct a "preaching personality" that is essentially imitative. The goal of the teacher of preaching is to help students learn that

effectiveness is dependent on invention of useful material. Sources of material are the individual's own mind available as both a storehouse and generator, and the minds of others that contribute through direct and indirect contact. The audience is a signficiant influence on invention. . . Rhetorical success requires dialogue, engagement of others to know the stuff of their minds (Barrett, 258).

Accordingly, a performance perspective empowers and thus transforms the role of the listener, liberating them from being cast in passive, receptive roles. Listeners become as actively engaged in "making" sense of the sermon. They share in the task of invention by seeing new relationships between themselves and the world and by accepting or rejecting their perceived roles in relation to it. For both preacher and listener, the sermon-in-performance becomes the reflexive surface whereby "the persuasive telling of a story about the stories one has witnessed and lived" (Conquergood 1989, 83) is accomplished.

Performance as Process

Equipped with constructs drawn from performance perspectives, communication scholars offer insights into the processes of preparing and preaching sermons. A performance studies approach can complement the effort in homiletics to reappropriate Aristotilean categories by making the sermon preparation process more explicit.

Basically there are five steps in sermon preparation and performance. We decide what we are going to say (invention), then, we arrive at a sequence (arrangement), and how to phrase our thoughts (style). Next, we get ready for speaking the sermon (memory) and finally preach it (delivery).

This distillation of the process becomes neatly linear in the classroom and initially satisfies an impulse toward ordering the chaos and disconnectedness of sermon preparation into some significant process. However, there is much in the process that resists such ordering and calls for a balance between cognition and affect (Turner, 185-86). The elegant lines drawn from classical rhetoric belie the more elliptical shapes and movements the creative process actually takes. Aristotilean categories can become a heuristic device for understanding the process of sermon performance. But they can also be read as containment of the more kinesthetic character of preparation.

A performance perspective within a "new" homiletic will treat the preacher's voice and body as tools for exploring and analyzing texts. Formerly, homiletics assigned the preacher's voice and body a walk-on part in the process of preaching. Once the sermon arrived at the end of Lowry's "conveyor belt," the use of voice and body helped the preacher convey the sermon to the listener. Once speech teachers were primarily charged with "delivery", that is, the task of equipping the preacher with enough vocal and physical techniques to release the sermon and Biblical texts from their moorings in print. Now, the goal of speech instruction at the seminary level should be to facilitate "control (of) vocal and physical gesture in order to involve others in a dialogue with texts and their various voices" (Bartow, 284-5).

In other words, the voice and body of the preacher is a primary actor in the drama of invention. Homileticians are coming to understand the value of allowing the voice and body to dance between the rhetorical categories in patterns not easily described by five sequential steps.

For example, Thomas Troeger teaches that one way of finding the "logosomatic" language of the sermon (i.e., "style") is to physicalize the images and movements present in the text (84). Clyde Fant's concept of the "oral manuscript" employs the act of speaking, not only as a way of finding the "arrangement" (dispositio) of the sermon but also to increase the preacher's capacity to remember it (memoria). Don Wardlaw's term "embodied delivery" (160) best captures the way that voice and body have become instruments of inventing the sermon and not simply vehicles for transporting it across the chasm between preacher and listener.

These impulses to "vocalize" and "embody" texts as well as the metaphor of "voice" are providing an intersection between homiletics and performance studies. Performance studies has long articulated the value of experiential understandings of texts, that is, that in the process of vocalizing and embodying literary texts, we come to a fuller appreciation of their artistry and meaning.

Up to this point, the discipline of homiletics has been primarily concerned with the nagging problem of the poor oral presentation of Scripture from the pulpit. In 1903, S.S. Curry introduced the theme which would guide most scholarship on this subject in this century:

In the training of clergymen, how little attention is devoted to the adequate presentation of the spirit of the Bible in the reading! The clergyman devotes the whole week to the preparation of the sermon, but probably only a few moments to the preparation or selection of the Scripture lesson. Sometimes, indeed, the lesson is not chosen till the minister arrives at church (22).

At mid-century, oral interpreters of the Bible followed the overall trend in the discipline and turned their attention away from the minister's problems with "delivery" to focus on the study of Biblical texts themselves:

Learning how to hold a book, how to enunciate clearly, how to project, how to modulate tones, how to place characters, how to control stage fright -- all these now become of importance in relation to the life of the literary text. The student's eye is not on development of an instrument, or of a personality, only, but on life as literature conveys it (Bacon 1960, 152).

Thomas Boomershine's Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling reflects the influence of this oral, traditional approach. Boomershine emphasizes the importance of reciting texts in order to arrive at questions of meaning. A first step toward identification and an enriched experience of the biblical story's "uniquely revelatory power" is to "internalize" the stories as they are encoded in print.

What guides the recent interest in "biblical storytelling" is the conviction that since Biblical literature existed as oral traditions which were then put into script, it was intended to be spoken in the faith communities. Consequently, the act of "telling" biblical stories becomes a form of "restored behavior" (Schechner, 35-116) that is richly laden with contemporary meanings. Speaking and embodying the texts is assumed by the biblical storyteller to be transformative. Similarly, oral interpretation has defined itself by an interest in enhancing or enlivening the experience of literature in performance and in doing so, restores a sense of the "original" engagement between author and audience.

Under the rubrics "oral interpretation," "expression," and "elocution," this performance studies has had much to say on how a preacher might improve his or her skill in the oral presentation of Biblical texts in Christian worship.

By refining its focus on "performance" as both cultural and aesthetic phenomena, the discipline formerly named "oral interpretation" has employed dramatistic and theatrical metaphors to broaden definitions of "texts," "speakers," "audiences," and "events" (or sites) in the study of performance activity. The reconfiguration of this discipline of inquiry has implications for homiletics. No longer is the preacher simply cast in the role of originator of discourse. Texts are treated as living, breathing polyphonic utterances, not as silent receptacles for theological ideas, lessons, or propositions. Neither are "audiences" mere receptacles for sermonic soliloquys, they too become "speakers" and co-creators of messages through the performance of liturgy. In order to become a "speaker" at the site designated for the performance of the sermon, the preacher must first stand at many other sites where "voices" are heard and "presences" are embodied and there learn how to listen attentively.


The aim of a performance-perspective in preaching is not to aggravate the preacher by aiming a spotlight at his or her vocal or physical agility, but it is for deepening our understanding of why we preach at all. Wallace Bacon has reflected on the value of performance-centered research in and for the study of human communication. In "A Sense of Being: Interpretation and the Humanities" Bacon states:

You cannot know yourself by yourself. You are you because you are not the other, but you can find yourself only by going out from yourself . . . If interpretation does not help to make us sympathetic, sensitive, and aware; if it does not make us, because we are responsive, more responsible human beings, I am tempted to think that it fails (139-40).

A performance-centered approach to preaching emphasizes that the aim of the preacher is to develop this "sense of the other" in the process and practice of preaching. Preachers invent and sustain "self" in preaching by enacting this "going out" from the constraints of imposed roles and into the "otherness" of not just "texts", but of God, Creation, and Christ. They are also given the opportunity to give voice and embodied presence to the Other as they experience it, giving it shape and spoken form in the sermon-in-performance.

A performance perspective stresses that as human beings we have an irresistable need to enter other worlds, other selves, other experiences. This point of view counters the narrow applications of theatrical imagery by emphasizing the constitutive and transformative impact of Word and resists the casual association between "performance" and narcissism by stressing that self is social and is constituted by "speaking", "acting" and "joining together" in communion. Sermons-in-performance are potentially potent sites where the marginalized can be given a "presence" through the preacher's voice and body. Similarly, a performance perspective treats canonical "texts" as polyphonic, that is, as richly diverse ensembles of voices available to the preacher as sound, gesture and image. Preachers are invited to encounter and dialogue with the Other, expressed as "text", "world", "God", or "Spirit" and embody and enact that Word in the community of listeners.


This article is written to honor Professor Fred B. Craddock on the occasion of his retirement from the Bandy Chair of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University.


Works Cited

Bacon, Wallace. "A Sense of Being: Interpretation and the Humanities." Southern Speech Communication Journal 41 (1976): 135-41.

___. "The Dangerous Shores: From Elocution to Interpretation." Quarterly Journal of Speech 46 (1960): 148-52.

Barrett, Harold. "Narcissism and Rhetorical Maturity." Western Journal of Speech Communication 50 (Summer, 1986): 254-68.

Bartow, Charles. "In Service to the Servants of the Word." Princeton Theological Seminary Bulletin 13:3 (1992): 274-86. Boomershine, Thomas E. Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling. Nashville: Abingdon, 1988.

Bozarth-Campbell, Alla. The Word's Body:An Incarnational Aesthetic of Communication. U of Alabama P, 1979.

Bruggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress P, 1978.

Campbell, Paul. "Communication Aesthetics." Today's Speech. (Summer 1971):6-18.

Conquergood, Dwight. "Communication as Performance: Dramaturgical Dimensions of Everyday Life.: The Jensen Lectures: Contemporary Studies. Ed. John I. Sisco. Tampa: U of South Florida P, 1983:24-43.

__. "Poetics, Play, Process and Power: The Performative Turn in Anthropology." Text and Performance Quarterly 9.1 (1989):82- 95.

Curry, S.S. Vocal and Literary Interpretations of the Bible. New York: Macmillan, 1903.

Eslinger, Richard L. A New Hearing: Living Options in Homiletic Method. Nashville: Abingdon, 1987.

Fant, Clyde. Preaching for Today. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

Gibble, Kenneth. The Preacher as Jacob: A New Paradigm for Preaching. Minneapolis: Seabury, 1985.

Hinton, Julian. Performance. London: MacMillan, 1987.

Lawless, Elaine. Handmaidens of the Lord: Pentacostal Woman Preachers and Traditional Religion. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1988.

Lowry, Eugene L. "The Narrative Quality of Experience as a Bridge to Preaching." Journeys Toward Narrative Preaching. Ed. Wayne Bradley Robinson. New York: Pilgrim, 1990. 67-77.

Pelias, Ronald J. and James Van Oosting. "A Paradigm for Performance Studies." Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 219-231.

Rice, Charles L. The Embodied Word: Preaching as Art and Liturgy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

Rosenberg, Bruce. The Art of the American Folk Preacher. New York: Oxford U P, 1970.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985.

Troeger, Thomas. Imagining a Sermon. Nashville: Abingdon, 1990.

Turner, Victor. On the Edge of the Bush. Anthropology of Experience. Ed. Edith Turner. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1985.

Wardlaw, Donald M., with Fred Baumer, Donald F. Chatfield, Joan Delaplane, O.P., O.C. Edwards, Jr. James A Forbes, Jr. Edwina Hunter, Thomas H. Troeger. Learning Preaching: Understanding and Participating in the Process. Lincoln, IL: The Lincoln College and Seminary P, 1989.




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