The Theatrics of Preaching

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Your delivery may be perceived as an asset or an obstacle to heralding the message of our Lord. What may help your delivery is a touch of theatrics.

My teenaged daughter recently described a sermon delivery she heard as “proclaimed with all the charisma of Mitch McConnell reading a CBO report.” Ouch. She explained there were no theatrics to animate the preaching, nothing which evoked either urgency or jubilation. It fell stillborn from the pastor’s lips. It was so utterly lifeless, she explained, not a single word was given emphasis over another. Such a delivery was taxing because she spent the time laboring to discern what constituted the Gospel in the sermon and when it was orated. Other words I have heard my kids use to describe the act of preaching, as opposed to the content of the preacher, have been “dull,” “lifeless, “bald,” and “somniferous.” Yes, somniferous, meaning sleep inducing. Here is the point: Sermon delivery matters, not ultimately, but it matters, nonetheless. Your delivery may be perceived as an asset or an obstacle to heralding the message of our Lord. What may help your delivery is a touch of theatrics.

To be clear, theatrics is not a matter of sermon length, although wearying auditors with interminable verboseness may, as Saint Paul saw with Eutychus, not only put them to sleep but risk life and limb (see Acts 20:9)! And neither do theatrics in this regard relate to the kind of fakery associated with excessive emotion and staged behavior, à la Jimmy Swaggart. Rather, theatrics in preaching facilitates a correspondence between the proclaimed drama of redemption and its earnest expression. Think less in terms of a performance and more to what Richard Baxter aimed at when he said, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”[1] In the same vein, Marva Dawn is reputed to have said, “Instead of pillows, ushers should distribute crash-helmets before the sermon begins.” Indeed, delivery matters.

What Baxter and Dawn are getting at is a sensible pathos, a quality of expression that conveys both earnestness and self-commitment to the proclamation itself by the proclaimer himself. To be sure, the Gospel does not need theatrics, since: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit” (Hebrews 4:12). It is the Holy Spirit who uses the Word of God proclaimed as a hammer or healer, to slay or birth. As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). So, theatrics factor not into the will of the Lord in that regard, adding nothing to efficacy, but they may elicit an auditor’s attentiveness as well as present an affect to sermonic content, lest it be orated with abject sterility.

Marva Dawn is reputed to have said, “Instead of pillows, ushers should distribute crash-helmets before the sermon begins.”

The theatrics to which Baxter and Dawn refer also steers clear from the danger bound up with Charles Finney’s brand of revivalism in which sensationalistic “preaching” purposes to elicit an emotional response, namely a decision to follow Jesus or some other voluntaristic action. That is tilting the theatrics table too far to the other side, namely, to being histrionic or given to the psychology of marketing. It was along these lines that Billy Sunday believed he could use the craft of salesmanship to, “...gain a convert at $2 a head.”[2] Sunday’s fundamental flaw, of course, was his subscription to an elevated view of human ability to participate in their own salvation, contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture, aptly summated by Luther’s Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[3]

True theatrics in preaching, as a point of clarity, takes into account there is an etiquette to being an ambassador and allowing that training in presence and delivery to adorn (not establish or authenticate) the credibility of Christ’s decree. Consequently, theatrics in preaching does not elevate the auditor’s feelings over the discernible import of pure Gospel preaching. Instead, theatrics simply enhance sermon delivery by engendering polish, minimizing deficiencies (which otherwise distract), and maximizing communicative abilities in service to the Gospel, not to the art of persuasion. Preachers preach the Gospel to sinners, not market product to consumers.

As an example, consider a military promotion and how the move from Colonel to Brigadier General necessitates extensive training in courtesy, a form of statesmanship.[4] New flag officers learn decorum commensurate with their elevated rank, ranging from dining habits to speaking protocols. In short, they take on the role of General, serving in a more officious way as an ambassador of the Commander in Chief. This role contains a world of expectations as they approximate the Commander they serve and sometimes represent. Similar expectations carry over into the craft of preaching.

Preachers preach the Gospel to sinners, not market product to consumers.

The preacher’s body, face, and deportment communicate, punctuating auricular emphasis, seriousness, and even humor. Theatrics in preaching aid pastors in assuming postures and positions iconically associated with the care of souls. Liturgically speaking, the postures of the Divine Service and pulpit formalities do not come naturally but must be rehearsed. This way the signing of the cross does not look like erasing a chalk board and pulpit habits do not evoke notions of radical informality or reified statuary.

To be sure, each preacher is a unique instrument of the Lord. But all true preachers of the Gospel will share certain traits when preaching, such as an affect of derived authority, earnestness, confidence, and clarity, traits also applicable to well-trained thespians. But as a theologian, he is not acting. Rather, his confidence and earnestness emerge from one given to the Gospel of Christ and his training allows him to articulate it as one called by Christ to do so. Consequently, he gives calculated expression to the Gospel as a man who has emerged from conference with the King, in which the urgency and jubilation of the Gospel have gripped him, and he is compelled to preach it, “Like a dying man to dying men.” Thus, no amount of theatrical training can turn a man into a theologian of the cross or an ambassador of Christ Jesus. Being possessed by the Gospel is a prerequisite to authentic Gospel preaching.

Two preachers come to mind: Reverend Cory Rajek (Lutheran Missionary to Latvia) and Reverend Kevin Robson (Executive Officer of Missions for the LCMS). Both men are characterized by humility, serene seriousness, and dispassionate disposition... until they enter the pulpit. There they take on a persona in which meekness gives way to boldness. Moving from the domain of conversation to proclamation, they exude an authority evocative of Jesus, as He Himself challenged the auditors of his day. They preach like theologians of the cross, like theologians affected by the cross. This is the point: The distinguishing habits of the pastor give way, to some degree, to a more ambassadorial demeanor manifest through tempered theatrics

Richard Baxter, Poetical Fragments (1st ed.; London, 1681), 40.

[2] James B. Twitchell, Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 245.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 17.

[4] Courtesy has its etymological roots in the word’s “court” and “etiquette.”