Preaching as a Communicative Act:  the Birth of a Performance

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)


As a Communication Act: The Birth of a Performance, by Richard F. Ward

Performance is a resource for homiletics because it addresses this problem of integrating language, sound and movement in an oral, interpretive act in human communication. The author illustrates.


I am a practitioner of performance studies who, by choice and circumstance, keeps professional company with those who teach and practice preaching. My colleague David Bartlett has written that anyone's approach to preaching and the teaching of preaching must be subjectival; one must make one's biases explicit. This article tells how one set of biases grew up and became convictions about preaching as communication and art.

Bartlett's statement is indicative of the conceptual openness that the study of preaching currently enjoys. Homiletics these days allows itself to be approached from many different angles, biblical, theological and occasionally historical but only if one assumes the posture of humility that Bartlett suggests. Performance studies also reflects interdisciplinary and expansionist tendencies. It is based on the conception of humanity as homo performans, that is, creatures who define themselves to themselves and others through verbal and gestural, individual and communal, ritual and aesthetic acts. It resists those tendencies in the humanities to narrowly and perjoratively construe "performance" as mere fakery, sham or pretense. The question is: what kind of relationship can we forge between performance studies and homiletics and what do we gain from such a dialogue?

I think about preaching as communication, which means I focus on the field of relationships that finally affect the transaction between preachers and their listeners. I am growing more restless with the term "delivery" to describe the act of speaking a sermon. It reflects a view of the transaction of preaching as an opportunity to "deliver" theological goods by an effective use of the voice and body. "Performance" is a richer, more integrative schema for putting the elements of language, action, and form, together with speech, gesture, and embodiment in the event of preaching. When we are emphasizing preaching as "art", we point to the way that a preacher leads listeners into an experience of the Word through her use of language and imagery, designing the sermon into a coherent and organic whole. "Communication" usually describes the ways that the voice and body are used in preaching.

"Art" and "communication" are two terms that describe what we aim for but I think we would all agree with Elizabeth Achetemeier:

I think it is true to say that preaching at the present time is rarely artistic, because many preachers, while good journeymen, have not become true masters of the English language. Involved in the artistic use of English are timing and rhythm and sound, and many preachers have no knowledge of the importance of these characteristics of speech for riveting attention and carrying along a congregation and touching their hearts as well as their minds.

Performance studies' legacy of creating, evaluating, and doing performances is a resource for homiletics because it addresses this problem of integrating language, sound and movement in an oral, interpretive act in human communication. Like preaching, its concern is with the interrelationships between different forms of human utterance, framed variously as literary texts, human speech, or rituals, and embodiment. Like theology, performance studies takes an interest in the ways that human beings address each other and God. One of its core metaphors is "logos", or, the image of Word becoming enfleshed and acknowledged as the presence of the "Word's Body". By depicting human communication as "dramatic", it shows forms of human speaking as an "anguished striving for authenticity" and emphasizes as central the role of speech and gesture in the creation of shared meanings, mutuality, and dialogic engagement.

 A Bias Emerges Between the Cracks of Church and Theatre

There is a hymn that often plays itself over in my memory:

Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of life

Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of life

Words of life and beauty, Teach me faith and duty,

Beautiful words, wonderful words, Wonderful words of life

Beautifuls word, wonderful word, wonderful words of life.


I first heard this paean to language as a boy growing up in the Southern Baptist churches my parents served as pastor and spouse. The words, of course, were of God's offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. Philip Bliss' hymn tune and lyric were laden with "sweetness" and sentiment (as the name "Bliss" might imply!), but it would be a very long time before I understood its inadequacies as poetry and theology. Not only did hymns like these teach me "faith and duty", they pointed my attention in a direction that came to consume my life: to the role that aesthetic speech plays in the communication between God and humankind. My childhood fascination with the beauty and wonder of words, and the power unleashed when language, action, and form become transformed as speech and gesture, became a passion of my mind and heart.

Much later, as a graduate student at Northwestern University's School of Speech, I began to develop some tools for investigating intersections between language and action, angling toward such forms of aesthetic expression as oral reading, acting and directing in the theatre, and storytelling. Performance studies was developing, at that time, into a discipline of inquiry within communication studies that acknowledged many ancestors in its family tree including rhetorical theory, dramaturgy, and literary criticism. Its immediate forebear was "oral interpretation" which had come by the 1950s to focus on the art of returning literary texts (conceived of by Walter Ong as "arrested utterances" and by Wallace Bacon as "poems") into modes of speech. Aesthetic texts, so went the claim, present an experience which is shared between an author and a reader in the communicative act of reading. Debates about the field's fundamental nature waged between those who described the oral performance of literature as "art" or "communication", as "acting" or "interpretation". In any case, the focus was clearly upon literature after the 1950s. The oral performance of literary texts gave an experiential dimension to textual study for both oral interpreters and their audiences.

My attraction to literary aspect of the discipline arose out of my interest in both church and theatre. In the first place, I looked to the discipline to provide clues to why oral reading of biblical texts in my church seemed flat and dull when so many other forms of expression (such as preaching and singing) were so lively! I wanted to learn and to teach a method of publically reading scripture, for example, that respected the intrinsic value of studying biblical texts while enhancing their communicative value in worship.

Secondly, I was looking for ways to relate "art" to "church" (in my case to Protestantism) and uncover the reasons why they were so uneasy with one another. Even though it was on the wane by the time I was entering graduate school, the religious drama movement that had once flourished at New York's Union Theological Seminary articulated my concerns about the relationship between "drama" and "church". Theologians such as Tom Driver resisted efforts to reduce drama to "tools" which were available for "use" in speading a message or "selling" Christian doctrine. Rather, religious dramatists in this movement respected the integrity of the dramatic form as the kind of union between action and word that Protestants claimed in their theologies of Word and worship. Driver and company also interpreted worship in dramatic terms, noting that Christian worship arises out of an impulse to act together, "to do something which either changes the relationship to the Divine or express it" Finally, there was a need, again arising out of the religious drama movement, for material that was appropriate for production in church. "Christian drama" was an elusive category and few good playwrights attempted it. However, I believed that Northwestern's methods of staging non-dramatic literary works for both individual and solo performance had great promise for opening up this vein of "ministry". As a drama professor at a conservative midwestern school, I knew what it was like to work with a restricted canon. Imagine adding short stories, poetry and even biblical material to one's performance season at a "Christian" university or church!

What happened during my time at Northwestern was no less than a revolution in the discipline. The emphasis shifted from the oral study of literary texts to the performative dimensions of human communication in culture. "Performance studies" displaced "oral interpretation of literature" as the rubric to describe this expansionist impulse. By the time I had graduated, the field had become "one that maintains its interest in literary texts but explores all forms of aesthetic speech and that views performance as an art and recognizes its communicative potential and function" There were three challenges to those of us graduating with doctoral degrees in this discipline: 1) to locate which performances within art and/or culture we would focus our attention on as scholars and performers; 2) to interpret the core concepts generating from the cultural turn in our discipline to other studies of culture and human communication and 3) to develop "performance-centered" methods of research and instruction in whatever parts of the university we found ourselves. I did not fully realize how difficult this challenge could be until I was well into my first assignment: teaching "speech communication" at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. Eventually I came to regard this work as a professional failure. It is worth revisiting this site, however, for what we can learn about the status of "communication" and "art" in the study of preaching and how performance studies promises conceptual replenishment in these areas.

 Praxis: A Bias Breaks and Opens

"Speech communication" is usually defined in the seminary culture as a set of skills for improving "effectiveness" in the performance of Word and Sacrament. Those who teach speech communication in the seminary do the work of preparing ministers for the oral, interpretive work of preaching, the public reading of Scripture and the performance of liturgical texts. To make these practices communicative in and through specific cultural contexts, those of us who teach ministers to become "servants of the Word" have encouraged them to become aware of aesthetic conventions and put them into practice in public communication. Our intention for instruction is to lead student ministers to "understand and love God more truly". Each theological school has its own point of view on the direction such instruction should take. Kelsey calls the picture of Christian life that a particular theological school paints its "Christian thing". A "Christian thing" is revealed through the administrative structures and instructional practices of those schools. Candler is an example of a theological school which construes the Christian thing as "an offer, as news about the possibility of new and fulfilled or blessed life that one may appropriate for oneself". "Sanctification" is a potent theological concept in this learning environment. A cluster of terms are associated with it, "set apart", "moral fitness", "purification and perfection", and "cleansing". Sanctification describes a "process of development into which conversion is the entrance" and its end is "conformity to Christ". In contemporary practice, it usually refers to the manner in which one chooses to lead a life of commitment to Christ. The essential task of theological education at Candler is to intensify a student's reflection on the nature of that commitment to Christian life and to the practice of Christian ministry. Candler's "Christian thing" helps us understand how and why the speech program there was conceived of as it was.


Praxis: Assessing 'Assessment' at Candler School of Theology

Candler's program was built upon a diagnostic exercise called "speech assessment" and a cluster of courses in voice, sermon delivery, and diction. Speech assessment took place, surprisingly not within the introductory homiletics course, but during the orientation period for matriculating students. Incoming students were required to prepare a five to seven minute speech on a topic of choice and deliver it to a group of peers for evaluation. The exercise was designed to evaluate the oral communication skills of incoming students, assess whether each student was competent enough in this area to enroll in the introductory preaching course, or, if not, require the student to enroll in a remedial course in public speaking. The speeches were evaluated by an assessor, a professional in ministry who was particularly adept at oral communication.

As assistant professor of speech communication, my primary responsibility was the design and implementation of this exercise. I prepared an instrument for the assessors to use, supervised the work of four or five professional ministers who helped me perform the assessment, and recommended to the faculty and administration what course or courses each student would be required to take in speech communication in order to become 'competent' pulpit performers. I would then offer the courses in remediation to those students to enable them to enroll in introductory preaching or at least hold students to homogeneous standards of effectiveness, perceived to be floating about in the school's culture.

Candler's assessment and remedial speech program revealed both its Christian thing and the image of "communication" that persisted in the school's memory. In a theological school where 'affection' is a dominant means of understanding God, and 'sanctification' of the individual is a potent concept, one is purified or 'perfected' in one's faith and ministry by acquiring 'practical' knowledge through the performance of actions. The theological student 'acts' in worship and preaching, by loving one's neighbor, or by denying oneself in order to better contemplate an unchanging God. One develops one's skill in order to love and serve God more completely. "Taken together, these actions make up the way of Christian perfection and are in the service of and subordinate to contemplation". The speech assessment exercise became one more action in the service of "contemplation"; it pointed to an individual's need for 'perfection' or 'purification' by getting minimal instruction in 'effectiveness' before studying the more complex, theological act of preaching.

A gap soon opened between theological vision and institutional practice. Learnings generated in the speech program did not often lead to theological reflections of any sort, on either the "perfection" of the preacher, his or her role in proclamation, or the meaning of communication. Instead, they were quickly stigmatized in the school's culture as 'remedial'. Speech instruction was therefore marginalized and instilled a sense of shame, not empowerment, in those students who were required to take it. In 1993, the programs in both assessment and remedial instruction were discontinued.

I would like to offer two reasons why the speech experiment failed to take root at Candler: 1) my inability to identify, claim and integrate my emerging performance perspective on preaching with the dominant image of communication in the theological school. (I knew I was in trouble when I was greeted by one of the aging churchmen in residence: "Welcome, welcome to our elocutionist!") and 2) a lack of structured, theological reflection on "communication" in the curriculum. The "performance-as-communication" persepctive I represented was rooted in two complementary analogues in the study of human communication, aesthetic and cultural; the program at Candler was grounded in a "broadcast transmissions" or "mechanical" model.


The Growth of Perspective Through Expansion and Contraction

An aesthetic analogue of communication takes in the whole range of art as valid for communication study. It resists any casual association of "communication" with discursive, linear, or logical categories in human discourse. "The aesthetic image allows for a more existential aspect of communication and raises questions of self-understanding and identity through expression". A "cultural" analogue for communication insists that communicative activity cannot be abstracted from patterns of meaning-making in culture. It evolved out of concern for the impact that telecommunications was having upon society and human culture and treats how human consciousness is shaped by media. Instead of looking exclusively at the trajectory of speaker, message, to listener, scholars view communication from this perspective "as a process through which a shared culture is created, modified, and transformed".

These two images opened up the field of communication studies, allowing it to overcome its isolation in the social sciences and investigate the relationship between expressive forms and the social order. For preaching this means that communication is not solely interested in the way a preacher affects persuasion, attitude change, behavior modification, socialization through the transmission of information, influence, or conditioning. Communication is a much richer term than that. Guided by these two analogues, the homiletician is freer to examine the relationships between preaching and other expressive forms--literature, storytelling, drama and art, for example--and also focus on those sites for ceremony and ritual in our culture where persons are drawn together in fellowship and community. These "aesthetic" and "cultural" polarities define the basic terrain of a performance-centered perspective on human communication. It treats all modes of human speaking as potentially aesthetic while holding to a concern with the historical, societal, and political forces that shape the preaching event.

Candler's speech program was organized around a "linear-transmissions" model which arises from information theory, which can be stated as follows: "The essential feature of all messages is information, and people use the information in messages to reduce uncertainty and thereby adapt to the environment". Its pattern is the familiar sender-message-receiver configuration and it is not conversational but unidirectional--messages move from a single source (a preacher, e.g.) to many simultaeous receivers (listeners in a congregation). The purpose of communication according to this view is the transmission of messages at a distance for the purpose of control.

The implication often is that by substituting a short word for a long one, or a colloquial term for one dated, or a topical allusion or illustration for one drawn from an older context, we "get across" our meaning or appeal".

Candler's approach typified the way "communication" was imagined in other theological curriculums. Jurgen Hilke in his 1985 survey of 198 theological schools which offered communication courses bears this out. He concluded that since the overwhelming emphasis of these courses were upon skills acquisition and refinement, rather than any serious consideration of theories or theologies of communication, "the discipline is not considered important enough to warrant exclusive attention" in theological education.An overly pragmatic concept of speech instruction illustrates what Amos Wilder once warned against while developing his Theopoetic:

All such recipes and programmed strategies fall short of accounting for the full mystery of language where deep calls to deep. The textbooks of rhetoric provide only an outside equipment. Any fresh renewal of language or rebirth of images arises from within and from beyond our control. Nevertheless we can help prepare the event, both by moral and spiritual discipline and by attention the the modes and vehicles of the Word.

My experience at Candler taught me that the models and images of "communication" that reside in homiletical consciousness need reexamination from a number of perspectives if they are to account for "deep calling to deep" in the transactions between pulpit and pew, between preacher and biblical texts, and between preacher and congregants. The images that usually form our approach to preaching as communication blind us to the many permutations that the study of human communication has recently taken.


Preaching as Performance: Enacting the Perspective

My hope is to fashion from the polarities of art and culture in performance theory approaches to the preaching event which locate "speakers", "texts", and "audiences". One such approach imagines the process of preparing and performing a sermon as a "speaker's drama" in which the preacher is an "actor". This approach addresses the varying roles that a preacher plays in the process of bringing a sermon forward as utterance and embodiment. The second describes the preacher as a "ritual" performer in the "cultural performance" we Christians know as worship.

The term "speaker's drama" arises out of the oral study of literature for interpretive performance. It is built upon the Burkian assumption that "the human situation created in literature is essentially dramatic" and devised as an analytical tool for students who would become "speakers" of an author's aesthetic text. A preacher is both speaker and author of a sermon. She or he is also, in the first place, an audience to those authors, narrators, characters, and Holy Spirit who "speak" to him or her through the medium of a sacred text.

"Staging the speaker's drama" can become an image for preaching because it takes these several roles into account as a preacher prayerfully and critically reads, formulates, then embodies the sermonic text. Too often the process is broken in two: first the creation of the content and only then its "delivery". The speaker's drama in preaching is both a search for a language of lived experience and for a way of speaking sermonic texts that are "believable" at a time when coherent, theological frameworks have collapsed. It is a drama that unfolds in several contexts at once: within the historical context of a "great cloud of witnesses", that is, in relationship to all of those who speak (and have spoken) as "Christian preachers"; within the context of the speaker's own human existence in relation to other statements of faith collected as "Christian theology" within the time and space set aside for the performance of Christian liturgy.

"Congruence" is a god-term in post-liberal homiletics. It refers to a qualitative relationship between what the preacher says is true and how the preacher says it. Theology is voiced and bodied forth in the speaker's drama as lived experience. It is both a "doing" and a "showing", an en-fleshing "enactment" that makes a preacher radically present in the worshipping community. An equation for congruity is borrowed from Shakespeare; action is suited to the word and the word to the action (Hamlet, III, ii).

At the place in the speaker's drama called "preaching", the preacher looks in the direction of "theatre", that is, any site where words and images, arranged as aesthetic texts, are transformed into speech and gesture and are put on display. Preachers in post-liberal, post-literate culture will not be able to escape their traditional identification with canonical texts nor their role as authoritative readers and oral interpreters of such texts. Therefore they do well to return texts to human speech in order to better hear themselves being addressed by God's Spirit.

As primary actors in the speaker's drama they stage in pulpits, chancels, or at Table, preachers first play roles in the speaker's dramas present in the canon as biblical texts. To find the language and structure of their own sermonic texts, they will re-oralize biblical ones. To find their own participatory presence in the drama they will form relationships with those "speakers" who are both hidden and revealed in the thick surfaces and structures of the text by entering into the human sensorium disclosed by a text. Preachers as actors in a text's drama "strive to see what the text sees and feels and how the text feels about what it sees and feels.

To display the preacher's own persona for the preaching event, he or she will fashion a sermonic text from the standpoint of one addressed in the biblical speaker's drama. Preachers who imagine themselves as actors in their own speaker's dramas will work toward congruity by working toward embodiment, the realization of theological truth through voice, body, and display in the moment of utterance. As actors, they are "doers of the Word, and not hearers only" (Letter of James, 1:22).


Making and Breaking the Word: The Preacher as "Holy" Performer

Preachers will not be able to escape their connection to texts nor their roles as ritual performers. From this vantage point, the preacher realizes that the speaker's drama that he or she is staging is not an end in itself. "A sermon belongs to ritual and shares in its ambiguities". What makes a sermon "dramatic" is not whether a preacher decides to portray a biblical character. What is "dramatic" about Christian liturgical performance is the pull of this (an order of worship) against that (the structures of everyday life) in a way that open up "holes in the fabric of things, through which life-giving power flows into the world". As a "doer of the Word" the preacher "acts" with an eye toward "fullness", that is, the "completion" of the performed, embodied sermon. Performance is first an act which makes the sermon. Performing it as a liturgical act, however, is an act which breaks it. Preaching is the creation of a finite form (sermon) that is brought to the assembly in order to be broken by a holy God who is radically other than festival, ceremony, or even ritual performance.

The preacher as an actor in a holy ritual, seeks the emptiness of "holes" that liturgical performance opens up. The pull toward this (the embodiment of the speaker's drama) against that (the creation of empty space in liturgical structures) is a necessary dynamic in the new poetics of preaching. Without the theatricality of the performed speaker's drama we have liturgy performed poorly. Without an awareness of its location in ritual performance, we veer dangerously toward "entertainment with too little efficacy".

The central paradox of Christian liturgy is that it uses ordinary things (bread, wine, books, cloth, fire, and water) to speak of the Holy. The preacher becomes radically present in the assembly as a "holy" actor when he or she stages the speaker's drama of the sermon as an "ordinary" thing. That is, as an aesthetic object which finds completeness in performance but which is brought into the liturgical frame in order to be broken by a different, but related "language of actions, a language of sounds". It is in this breaking that a Divine Presence acts and is therefore known in the "holy theatre" of liturgical performance.


Conclusion: Performance Studies Breaks and Enters Homiletics

Performance studies is an emergent discipline that can break open the words "art" and "communication" in fresh ways for homiletics and help it to tread on new conceptual ground. First, since it is based in art, performance studies' rich tradition of creating, evaluating, and doing performances offers insights and strategies for intermingling verbal and literary aspects of the preaching event. Secondly, by linking "art" with "communication", performance studies helps homiletics resist those impulses in the church and/or seminary cultures to devalue the human imagination in favor of "practicalities" and overemphasis on affect and affectation. It offers support to any effort in homiletics to locate "aesthetics" as a starting point for understanding human expression. What it invites is critique from theology; its claims about human nature and its status in relation to divinity call for elaboration.

The primary bias that I have disclosed here is that I sense a particular urgency in the teaching of preaching to sustain and develop an emphasis on the role imagination and creative expression plays in the proclamation of faith. Performance studies uses some of the raw materials of incarnational theology to imagine human speaking; preaching approaches the disciplinary terrain of performance theory by emphasizing relationships between orality and writing, between reading and speaking, and the evocative power of ritual speech and gesture. My aim in my teaching is to push these reluctant partners onto new conceptual ground together so that the dance can begin!

Richard F. Ward

Yale Divinity School