From Performative to Participatory Preaching

ChurchNext is the website and ministry of Chris Yaw, who spent the first part of his professional life as an interviewer and broadcaster in radio and television. Now an Episcopal priest, Chris uses those same skills to interview leaders, change agents, and skilled practitioners and harvest what they know to make it available to all leaders in the church, lay and ordained. A few weeks ago Chris interviewed me – I’m not sure which of those above categories I fit into 🙂 – and he’s just posted the fruits of the conversation we had via Skype on his site.

My topic: moving from performative preaching toward more participatory preaching and worship. What’s the difference? In a performative model, the preacher is the only one who talks, the only one who interprets the Bible, and the only one who makes the connections between the biblical story and everyday life. While this may have worked pretty well in a world and culture that was at least nominally Christian, I’m not convinced it works nearly as well today.

Why? Because we suffer from a distinct level of biblical amnesia today – that is, we don’t know the biblical stories well enough to find them useful in making sense of and sharing our lives. While that may have been okay when everyone went to church – it was something of a cultural expectation in many parts of North American until relatively recently – it’s no longer okay today.

Today people have demands on their time – including Sunday morning – and options for how to spend their time – including Sunday morning! – that were relatively unheard of even a generation ago. So the question becomes: in an age when people don’t just go to church because their parents did, why would you keep coming to a place that tells these stories from the Bible over and over again if you never think about those stories the rest of your week.

In this environment, we need to cultivate in our people skills that we formerly expected only the minister to possess. That is, church needs to become the place not so much where the minister offers a biblical and theological performance – interpreting the biblical passage for us – but instead is the practice room or rehearsal hall where the minister helps us learn and practice and use these skills ourselves so that we can interpret the passage, connect it to our lives, and share what we discover with others both in and out of the church.

Hence, participatory preaching – preaching, that is, that involves us in these tasks, giving us guidance, instruction, and concrete examples of what this looks like, while also providing us with the opportunity to practice the skills essential to living a Christian life in the world.

The interview runs about 47 minutes. You’re welcome to watch some or all of it as you have time and interest. A number of folks, after hearing me talk about this at various pastors’ retreats and preaching events have asked if I have a video tape of my presentation so that they could share it with their church council or vestry or presbytery. This is about as close as I can come to that, so I hope it’s helpful. You can watch it here or at Chris’ site, where you can also download it as an mp3 file if that’s an easier way to listen to and share it. Either way, I hope you spend some time at ChurchNext and take advantage of the banquet Chris has spread for us there.

Note: If you are receiving this by email, you may need to click here to view the video.

PS: I’ve worked out a lot of these ideas via the weekly column I write at called “Dear Working Preacher” and from the comments folks share there. Feel free to take a look around there for more ideas of what “participatory preaching” looks like.