Last week The Front Porch joined forces with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Kentucky Baptist Convention to host “Tell Your Story: Expositional Preaching in the African-American Context.” The event served as a pre-conference for the Expositor’s Summit, Southern’s annual conference on preaching. We had the honor of inviting Victor Sholar, senior pastor of Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington, KY; H.B. Charles II, senior pastor of Jacksonville, Florida’s Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church; and Curtis Woods, Executive Director for Convention Relations and Communications for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Our brother Kevin Smith, Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern, did a wonderful job hosting us and spurring us on in discussion.

You can find the audio from the pre-conference here. Each talk was rich in its own way and each man left a deposit of grace with the attendees. The attendees were attentive, encouraging, thoughtful, and joyful. I hope Southern makes this an annual event because these are the kinds of gatherings at which ministries are strengthened and friendships forged.

During the panel discussion an issue arose that’s had me thinking since that time. Someone asked a question related to the difference between preaching as performance and preaching out of one’s personality. The questioner seemed concerned about how to identify the line that shouldn’t be crossed. After hearing so much about authenticity, about the authority of scripture and the divine scrutiny that attends our preaching, the question was really for us all.

As I think about the question, several passages from the Apostle Paul’s letters come to mind. In these words we find both a prescription for personality and a prohibition against performance.

The Preacher’s Personality

Paul’s view of preaching with personality has a lot to do with integrity. We preachers ought in some genuine measure to be what we preach. Consider his words:

“You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor the God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ (Rom. 2:21-24).”

Our primary concern when it comes to personality is whether or not we personally embody the word we preach.

Only after we reflect the character becoming the office (Titus 1:5-9) should we consider individual personality in preaching. Character trumps personality.

Nevertheless, we are not to all sound alike, act alike, or try to fit our natural selves into some artificial and constricting range. David couldn’t fight in Saul’s armor, neither can the preacher preach in another man’s suit. We are to fully be ourselves. This is, in part, what Lloyd-Jones means when he defines preaching as theology coming through a man on fire, or through personality. Paul preached “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3), but Apollos “was an eloquent man,” “fervent in spirit,” who spoke “boldly” in the synagogue. Apparently their personalities and resulting styles were so different that people began to form cliques in loyalty to each man (1 Cor. 1:12).

So, first comes character, but then comes individual personality as an integral part of authentic preaching.

Performance Destroys True Preaching

However, preaching with the personality the Lord gave us ought not be confused with performance. Preaching is not a show. It ought not be faked or pantomimed. We are not street corner performers or thespians amusing crowds with make-believe. That preaching that consists largely of sophistry, exaggeration, and fabricated drama robs the cross of its power. Paul, again, speaks to this:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (Rom. 2:1-5).”

Preaching should not be a performance because preaching and the hearers’ response should “rest… in the power of God.” Flashy speech and clever theatrics may suggest power, but it’s not the power that comes form the Spirit of God.

In fact, preaching that lapses into performance proclaims the preacher not the Christ. This is why Paul is relentless about the plain statement of the scripture when he preaches:

“We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God …For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake (2 Cor. 4:1-2, 5).”

The “open statement of the truth” commends the preacher in the sight of God and man (v. 2). But that same open statement of the truth also hides the preacher behind the proclamation of “Jesus Christ as Lord” (v. 5). How is it possible to preach in such a way as to commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone and yet not proclaim ourselves? According to the Bible, we should preach Jesus Christ so plainly and openly without cunning and worldly eloquence that the people lose sight of us to see Jesus more clearly. Then we will avoid “preaching ourselves” with some performance, while earning the approval of God and men.

Plainness, clarity, openness about Jesus keeps us from emptying the cross of its power. For the Lord Jesus Christ sent us “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).

So What’s the Difference between Personality and Performance?

All will acknowledge that there is a difference between preaching with personality and putting on a show. I’ve yet to meet anyone that denies the fact. But there’s considerable discussion about where to place the line. It’s the kind of conversation every preacher should have with himself and the Lord as well as with other preachers.

But perhaps it’s helpful to suggest one principle for telling the difference: The preacher in the pulpit should be pretty much like the preacher outside the pulpit. We should be the same men wherever the people find us. If have that kind of integrity we will seldom risk slipping into performance.

I remember one of my early sermon review sessions as a pretty inexperienced preacher. Fifteen to twenty men filled the room to pray and reflect on the Lord’s Day. As they commented on my sermon a pattern began to emerge. They essentially said, “I don’t feel like the Thabiti we saw in the pulpit today was the same Thabiti we talk to in the halls.” More specifically they said, “When we talk to you in the halls there’s this great range in your conversation. You can laugh belly laughs and you can peer with intense seriousness. There’s a whole range to who you are that didn’t come through in your preaching. When you preached today you hit this high intense range and you never came down. You should preach with your entire personality.”

That conversation lives with me years later. Those were the blows of a friend and, more importantly, those were the loving blows of men who prized Christ in the gospel more than they prized my personality.

In my case, I’d pulled back my natural self too much. But some men make the opposite mistake. They affect these grand personalities and shows that you would never see outside the pulpit. They are larger-than-life when they preach and church mice in conversation. Both pulling back too much and putting on too much are exaggerations. Neither is authentic. Both are performances. Neither is truly who we are. Both draw attention to us; neither points as clearly to Christ as it ought.

And here is where we bump up against our very notion of preaching itself. Some men can’t conceive of preaching that isn’t in some way a performance. Their entire notion is that the preacher is the one who “moves the crowd,” and what they have in mind is not the truth moving the crowd but their “gift,” “style” or “personality” producing the effect. We preachers do want crowds moved—but not with us. We want them moved with the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. To have them moved that way, many will need to learn the art of plain speech and work against the learned habits of performance and empty eloquence. After all, only one thing is really required of us: faithfulness as stewards of the word of God (1 Cor. 4:1-2).

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16 Comments

  • Avatar Ronnie Ebanks says:

    So right, performance robs the lesson of content – the learning experience becomes about the teacher instead of the lesson, the showmanship over the understanding and progression. Everything that the teacher does needs to be carefully constructed to deepen the learner’s understanding otherwise what is the point?

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Amen. You got it!

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    The Front Porch is putting together a nice anthology on preaching, and this article is one of the more important ones. Thanks T for sharing your thoughts and discerning our need to continually think upon these things. Preaching shouldn’t be boring, but it shouldn’t be distracting either.

  • Avatar Haze says:

    I am not a preacher but am an occasional public speaker, and I think I come across quite differently in public speaking than in ordinary conversation (although, to be honest, that varies a lot too depending on whom I’m talking with). But I don’t think my public speaking persona is any more or less the real me than my private ones: I just do what comes naturally to me in that position. It’s not really a “performance”: if anything, it would be *more* of a performance to try and ape the ordinary conversational me in a public speaking context.

  • Avatar Rajun Cajun says:

    Hhhmmm…..not to generalize but would the premise of this article automatically place sermons containing whooping in the performance category? I’ve yet to have a one-on-one with any human where they whooped in their normal speech. Also, what about preaching so hard that the preacher is left sweating, out of breath, and weak (i.e. hunched over or reclining in the high-back chair sipping on a goblet of water) as if they just finished a marathon? Just looking for some tangible examples for a baseline.

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Good questions, bro. Yes, I would personally put most whooping in the performance category. It’s a learned style. No one speaks that way naturally.

    BUT, that’s not to say that preaching with intensity, emotion, or force is performance. I think the entire range of human emotion should come into the preaching and should be governed by the text. We shouldn’t be shouting and whooping on a text about hell and judgment, for example. And we shouldn’t be angry and berating when preaching John 3:16, for another example. The emotion should be governed by the text, should serve the text, and should help make the text clear.

    As for a preacher sweating, out of breath and weak… sounds like a James Brown concert :-). And, honestly, I’ve seen some performances that were pretty close to James Brown, with the robe draped over the hunch shoulders and all.

    Personally, I like preachers that go hard. But there’s gotta be a line that has “distracting” or “show” on one side and that has “natural” or “genuine” on the other. That line varies from person to person depending on how God has made them. So there’s no one-size-fits all. But I’m suggesting we all have to find that line.

    Thanks for joining us on The Porch, man. Holla again!
    T-

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Welcome to The Porch, Haze! Thanks for joining the conversation.

    You raise (or at least I infer from your comments) an important point: The audience has a lot to do with how you speak publicly. Some audiences are quieter or more reflective than others. Some might be louder and more encouraging than others. So, I do believe every preacher is affected by the audience and can feel something of the limits of the audience or the match/mismatch of a preferred style with the audience. It’s important to acknowledge that. And doing what comes naturally to you given the audience and subject makes total sense to me. Surely we all do that.

    But I also wonder to what extent the public speaking you do has more of a natural performance aspect to it than preaching should. I used to do a lot of campus lecturing and speaking at policy events. That’s an entirely different thing than declarative preaching and welcomed a bit more performance. So the kind of speaking is important to factor in. Here, I was only thinking of regular preaching in the Sunday service.

    Thanks for adding to the convo!
    T-

  • Avatar Kurt Gebhards says:

    Thabiti,

    Thanks for your perspective. You are a helpful teacher. Yes, we preachers deeply want to move (persuade; Acts 18:13, 28:23, 24) the people, but only by His means.

    I pray that Southern will continue to host events like “Tell Your Story.” May God raise up and army of leaders for the cities. BTW- Reach Records is doing their fair share of that work. Those brothers can bring it!

    Kurt

    P.S. Forgive the editorial note, but a small typo in the second paragraph under Performance Destroys True Preaching. The reference should read 1 Cor. 2:1-5.

  • Avatar Kent Barber says:

    Thanks Tony, definitely looking forward the anthology. I was one of those brothers T spoke about that had the distinct pleasure of attending the pre-conference at Southern. It was all he stated and more. It was especially encouraging to sit under T’s teaching and to meet other brothers who have a heart and passion for expository preaching that edifies and equips the body of Christ rather than merely moralizing or entertaining. If I may ask, when you Pauls put together your anthology for us Timothies to glean from, could you include some practical procedures as to how one would approach a text in preparation to preach? One might ask, how do I preach like a Thabiti? Not from a perspective of style or delivery but from the perspective of preparation (i.e. in addition to reading the text and prayer, what books/tools/techniques should be used in one’s approach a particular text, exegesis, background meaning from the original language, ensuring one has an understanding of original intent of the text as written to their contemporary recipients, historical background of the NT texts which point back to the OT, gathering information of OT events that one may have to reference other sources for more detail, etc.). Thank all of you brothers for your Pastor’s hearts and letting the Front Porch be an “Equipping Porch!”
    – Kent

  • Avatar george canady says:

    “…transformative moment”, “…could we be them?” equal “…the good news the good news produces.” Asking and giving prayers. Thanks.

  • Avatar Deryk Hayes says:

    Thabiti,

    I’ll be in your city for a conference in a couple of weeks and was wondering could I sit down with you and Mark Dever for a few minutes just to chop it up and perhaps take a look at the area in which you will be planting? Is there an email that I can reach you?

  • Avatar Pastor Bruce says:

    Bro Thabiti

    Just came across this post and it’s got me thinking. Is not preaching ‘heralding’ God’s word, ie a public proclamation?

    During Biblical times when there were no PA systems, the way in which one spoke in conversation would it not be in stark contrast to public speaking/preaching? When Jesus preached at the feast of Tabernacles (John 7:37) I suspect it was quite different to the way in which He spoke to the woman by the well in John 4.

    I’m on a journey with this topic brother and would value your feedback.

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Bro. Bruce! I pray you’re well, man. Thanks for joining us on the porch and interacting with this subject. I appreciate your doing that, man.

    I’d say that Jesus was most likely “natural” or himself in a way that was fitting for the occasion. I’m sure he spoke to the woman at the well in a way fitting for personal conversation, especially about sensitive matters. But, yes, I suspect the Lord has his “outside voice” on when preaching in the temple. That’s perfectly legitimate. If we’re having a personal conversation with a broken woman in our preaching voice, then something is wrong! 🙂 Likewise, if we are preaching in open spaces in a soft whisper as if we’re in a private conversation, then that’s wrong, too.

    I’m not trying to say there aren’t different ways of speaking that are appropriate to the different contexts. I’m suggesting that in whatever context, it should be “us” speaking and not a show of any sort. We shouldn’t be fake in the pulpit, which means however we speak in whatever modulation of voice and gesture it should be natural to us. Does that help?

    Grateful for you,
    T

  • Avatar Pastor Bruce says:

    Really appreciate you taking the time to reply Bro Thabiti. I agree entirely with what you said, particularly:

    ‘I’m suggesting that in whatever context, it should be “us” speaking and not a show of any sort.’

    And of course, it cuts both ways. I’m from a tradition which seemed at times to sneer at any preacher who was animated or ‘loud’ in the pulpit. I couldn’t help but notice, that some preachers in my tradition preached very softly but suffered from what I call a ‘proud’ overly academic, clinical style of preaching which is equally a show.

    Love the site, keep up the work bro!

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