The Preacher’s Paradox

There is a deep connection between worship and art. This is apparent to anyone who observes worship in nearly any Christian denomination, and in nearly every religion. For Christians, the only clear exception is the Quaker meeting, where the Friends gather in a plain building, sit on plain furniture, and wait in silence. There is no art, unless someone is led by the Spirit to speak, and they happen to speak artfully.

Art serves worship because art engages the heart. There are elements of life that are, as Paul says in Romans 8:26, “too deep for words.” We may try to speak of such things, but fail in communicating the depth and complexity of our experiences. How can you describe what goes on in the heart: feelings of guilt, the breadth of grief, the joy of childbirth, the depth of love? “Why do you love me?” a husband may ask his wife. There is no fitting answer to such a question. There may be a halting attempt, a partial response, a searching reply. But to answer with honesty and completeness is beyond the capacity of common language. Words are fine for simple, sensory feelings: On a scale of 1 to 10, tell me how much it hurts, or how loud is the music? But words fail when it comes to feelings that reside at the soul-deep level of human experience. We might find greater resonance through the moans of a grieving widow than if she tried to tell us what her sorrow is like. Paul understood this: “When in our weakness, we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Groanings, sighs, moanings: these communicate some things better than discourse.

The reason we are drawn to artistic expression is that it can do what ordinary words cannot. We perceive a work of art and, if we relate to it, we instinctively resonate with it. Perhaps this image will make the point: In my living room, I have two large musical instruments. In one corner stands a bass violin. My wife thought I should have it—because I play the guitar. It came one Christmas and stands largely unused, as a piece of furniture in my home. In the other corner is a baby grand piano. I thought my wife should have it. If one were to hit the low “E” key on the piano, something happens on the other side of the room. Without any physical manipulation of it, the bass violin will sound. Its low “E” string will vibrate. The violin recognizes the pitch from the piano and sounds with it through a process called sympathetic resonance. Play the piano and something inside the bass violin comes to life.

So it is with art. We perceive a work of art and find something resonating within. That resonance is hard to describe; it is inarticulate, ineffable. But, we know it. Deep calls to deep, as the psalmist said, and we understand. An awareness is awakened; a connection is made.

This is why we use art in worship. When we gather in God’s presence, it is to explore the substance of such deeply held things. Faith resides at that soul-deep level, and the art of worship gives us means by which to express something of those deeply held, ineffable things.

Gibbs illustration by D.KlitsieGibbs on the Creative Mix of Art Forms
Edmund (Eddie) Gibbs is a semi-retired senior professor in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller where he occupied the Donald A. McGavran Chair of Church Growth. An expert in trends among younger church leaders, Gibbs contends that a characteristic of emerging churches is to “mine the rich heritage of Christianity by combining contemporary art forms with ancient liturgies, poetry, chants, and icons to produce a highly creative mix” of worship and gospel stories.

The Paradox

Here is the preacher’s problem. How often is she called upon to address those things that are at the deep level of the heart? Every time she preaches. And what are her chief tools for addressing this sentient depth? Words. Here is the paradox: The preacher’s task is to use words to express things that are too deep for words. How can that be done?

There is only one answer: the preacher must see her work as an art. She must learn to be a poet, one who knows not only the denotation of language, but also its plastic possibilities. We first learn language as discourse. We string our ideas out in small packages of meaning, and as the words proceed, they add to the meaning of a developing sentence, or bring nuance or clarity to the utterance. Discourse is an excellent medium for propositional communication, for concrete description and explanation: The dog is brown. The hypotenuse is the side opposite of the right angle in a triangle. The Trinity consists of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: three in One. Along the way, our English teachers have tried to teach us that language can function nonliterally. We learn that a metaphor does more than give concrete description. In fact, it tells a lie: Benedict Arnold was a snake. But the imagination contends with that lie and derives from it a truth. Or, perhaps, we perceive multiple truths born of one metaphoric lie. Language becomes plastic in poetry. It does things that defy the laws of discursive language use (you should not tell a lie; you should follow the precise rules of grammar; you should speak and write in complete sentences; you should not use a verb as a noun; and so forth). In so breaking the rules, language becomes presentational. It presents to the imagination the building blocks of meaning in surprising, sometimes contradictory modes, and it allows for the meaning to emerge more lyrically than literally. A metaphor is like a hand grenade tossed into discourse. It explodes with meaning.

The beauty of poetic language is that it doesn’t have singular meaning. “Red is the color of a stop sign,” can only mean one thing in discourse. In poetry, its meaning expands. My heart cannot stop grieving; yet, red is the color of a stop sign. In my sorrow, I choose to wear red, rather than black. This is both a benefit and a concern for preachers. Those whose preaching is highly propositional will find poetic language to work against their purpose. If you want to be dead clear and leave no room for interpretation, strict discourse serves you well. But then sermons become lectures, filled with concrete data about the meaning of Greek terms, historical information about a text, explication of theological constructions, and so forth. Poetic language allows room for the individual’s imagination to interpret the preacher’s words and allows for many possible meanings to stand together. It also makes room for the Spirit to work those meanings into the heart of the listener. “Peter was a fisherman” gives the mind a concrete image and there is little the Spirit can do to add meaning to the words. “Jesus called Peter a fisher of men” gives the mind a gymnastic tumble that makes it curious while creating interest for the soul.

Toward the Production of Interesting Sermons

We are told today that the period of the institutional spokesperson is past. In 2000, Eddie Gibbs wrote, “Our age has more regard for the artist than the orator.”1 This is bad news for preachers—or, at least, for uninteresting preachers. It argues for preachers who understand that to gain a hearing in a word- and image-saturated culture means that they need to accept the aesthetic responsibility of preaching. They need to learn to turn their words into images that play on the screen of a listener’s imagination. They need to learn to use imagistic speech, sensory language, words that “create worlds real enough for the listener to enter.”2

I confess that I am a terrible sermon listener. By this I mean that I have a vivid imagination. If the sermon I am hearing does not capture my attention, I have no trouble filling it with more interesting thoughts. As I listen on Sunday mornings, I may find my mind wandering to the afternoon’s ballgame, some project I am working on, the color of the church windows, or what to pick up at the store for lunch. If the sermon is not more interesting than my Sunday afternoon shopping list, the Word is in great danger.

At the same time, I teach homiletics at Fuller Seminary. In order to attend to student sermons, I find myself approaching the task as a chore. Not in the sense that it is a tedious thing that must be done, rather a chore in the sense of “doing your chores.” It is a job that requires attention, patience, discernment, and commitment. I do this chore, this work, in order to help students learn to communicate the gospel effectively. It is a chore I do with joy. But, on Sunday morning, I do not want to do my chores. I want to sit in the pew with my fellow churchgoers and allow the preacher to take my imagination to significant places. If he fails, I am on to my shopping list. Or, I force myself to do the chore and wind up grading the sermon. If listening to sermons in the church is a chore for me, the grade is never a good one. I’ve never had the courage to hand the preacher a grade at the end of worship, but many times I have been tempted to.

If the institutional spokesperson of the church—let’s call that person the preacher—is less well regarded today than the artist, preachers must ask themselves how they can reclaim a hearing. They must ask how they can become artists in their work. The answer is an old one. The prophets were poets, as were the psalmists. The writers of biblical narrative were storytellers who possessed an eye toward character development and plot. Jesus was a natural storyteller. Even Paul, who comes closest in the New Testament to a propositional writer, employed simile, metaphor, and other rhetorical strategies to communicate his ideas to his churches. Of the Gospel writers, John is the most poetic. His “I am the bread of life,” places on Jesus’s lips a bald-faced lie. No human person is wheat and yeast. But, the spiritual truth of that statement speaks to the heart what the mind cannot grasp. One cannot grade a statement like that, nor take up the chore of calculating its meaning. One can only receive it and let it have its way in the imagination of the heart.

Reflections on a Music Worship Leader Embodiment Project

Alexis Abernethyby Alexis D. Abernethy

My interest in worship has emerged from our studies of the relationship between church attendance and health-related outcomes. One of the major questions that informed our earlier studies of worship included the following: “What changes occur in parishioners on a spiritual, emotional, cognitive, and physiological level in response to worship?” Another major question was, “What is it about the rhythm, the lyrics, the melody, the presentation, the singers, the listeners, and their relationship to God that ushers in God’s presence through song?”

A new question has emerged for me, my students, and colleagues. During praise and worship in corporate services, there are moments that parishioners experience as powerful, anointed, and convicting. Does the worship leader’s spiritual, emotional, cognitive, and bodily engagement influence parishioners’ spiritual experience in these moments?
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Let’s be honest: in too many places, preaching is boring. I don’t fault young people for having a lack of attention, or for finding preaching dull and tedious. We might even give them credit for saying that the Emperor has no clothes (or at least that the king’s speech is underdressed). It is not the fault of the listener if attention is not paid to the sermon. It is the responsibility of the preacher to say something worthwhile and to hold people’s attention as she attempts to say it. Like me, young people have vivid imaginations. Preachers can either capture them or speak to a brick wall. The former is more effective. The latter is, too often, the choice preachers make. It is not only the young people who need the preacher to care about creating interest. All churchgoers have the same desire. Let the sermon be interesting enough to make the Scripture come alive in our hearing.

I often put the issue in this way: Whenever I speak about creating interest in the sermon, some preacher will raise the uncomfortable issue of entertainment. I know what they mean; we don’t want to speak merely so as to entertain the listener. There must be much more. “But,” I say in response, “I teach beginning preaching. I listen to people’s first sermons for a living. I am dying for a little entertainment!” So, how do we create interest? By seeing preaching as an art.

The Art of Preaching

That is an easy claim to make, in the same sense that we say cooking is an art, or farming, or teaching. But there is something great at stake in seeing preaching as an art. What is at stake is the church’s hearing of the gospel. “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear,” is dependent upon “those who have words to speak, let them speak.” Preachers are given the Word as the basis for the selection of their own words. The raw materials are provided. But the work of the artistic preacher is to work with words, to be a wordsmith. There are many kinds of skill that fund effective preaching: biblical exegesis, cultural engagement, contextual understanding, theological competence, and pastoral wisdom. To this list, let us add the craft of writing well. We seek in preaching not just what to say, but how to say it in the very best way. I was instructed in this by attending the graduation ceremony of the University of Southern California Film School. Before calling the graduates forward to receive their diplomas, the head of the screenwriting department gave a brief description of how screenwriting fits into the process of film development. He said that before there is a roll of film or a screen to project it upon, before there are a director and actors, before there are cameras and lights, before there are sets or costumes, there is this: one person sitting alone in a room with a pen, writing words on a page. There is no good film without good writing. It all begins with word-craft. From there spring all other elements of a successful movie. This is a strong reminder for preachers. Before there is an effective sermon, there is a preacher sitting with his or her thoughts and research material looking for words with which to bring Word to life.

Then, once the words are produced, the goal is to learn to perform them in the most faithful way. Here again, the goal is not mere performance in order to entertain. The goal is to learn to use one’s full person in service of the Word. There are techniques for good delivery that involve much more than the voice. A wise preacher might consult a drama coach to learn how to move; gesture; create tension and resolution; adjust volume, tone, and mood; and improve use of pulpit materials. Preachers may balk at this extra work, considering it beside the point of preaching. They are mistaken. To bring the Word alive through the preacher’s own voice and person is precisely the work of incarnation. It is what Paul means when he humbly claims that we bring the treasure of God’s Word forth in earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7). By way of conclusion, let me share the prayer with which I always begin my homiletics class at Fuller:

Gracious and Loving God, for some reason you have called us to speak your Word. But we are like Moses, stuttering and uncertain of our own speech. How can we dare speak your Word? We are like David, impure of heart and guilty of great sins. How can we lift ourselves up before others to ascend your pulpits and speak your Word? We are like Martha, preoccupied with many things. How can we find time to do justice to the proclamation of your Word? We are like Mary, speechless at the indescribable surprise of the power of your Word to bring life and raise people from the dead. How can we find words to utter what we barely comprehend? How, O God, can we preach? How can we proclaim? How can we open our humble, unholy mouths to speak your Word of truth?

Still, in your wisdom, you have called us to this task. For the strength, insight, confidence, and power to do so, we turn to you. Without you, our words are nothing. Without your Spirit, we are but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. But, by your power, and through it alone, we dare to stand and speak of you. Teach us, O God. Fill us with your Spirit. And above all, help us to seek you constantly. Let every sermon be born of prayer. Let all praise be rendered back to you. Let every word we preach reflect your glory. And guide us to be faithful to this task to which we have been called. We pray in the name of him whom we proclaim, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Is it too late for all of this? Some argue that the institutional church has lost so much speed that it has stalled and is in freefall. The only sane response is to bail out. Another response might be to ask what it would take to allow the Spirit’s airflow to lift the church and set it back on course. Preachers have something to say and do about this. If people start to hear the Word again, the Church of Christ cannot plummet. For this, Preacher, may you strive and pray.


1. Eddie Gibbs, Church Next: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 26.
2. Charles L. Bartow, The Preaching Moment (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 14.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2012, “Groanings Too Deep for Words: Engaging the Senses in Worship, Theology, and the Arts.”