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Preaching for the Contemporary Service is a guide to releasing the energy and creativity of the contemporary worship service within the sermon. Is the traditional sermon still relevant in contemporary worship settings or is it hopelessly out of place? Joseph Webb shows how improvisational preaching taps into the spontaneity of today's worship to engage audiences with the good...
Preaching for the Contemporary Service is a guide to releasing the energy and creativity of the contemporary worship service within the sermon. Is the traditional sermon still relevant in contemporary worship settings or is it hopelessly out of place? Joseph Webb shows how improvisational preaching taps into the spontaneity of today's worship to engage audiences with the good news of Jesus Christ.
To read a sample from the book click here
"Joe Webb grieves that much contemporary worship yawns at traditional preaching and pleads for a new kind of improvisational preaching that does justice to the biblical story and connects emotionally with today's listeners. Carefully explaining both strengths and dangers of improvisation, he draws on insights from theater and movie-making with much practical advice for planning improvisation. A lively and stimulating book to be taken seriously by any who would preach in contemporary services."
--Michael J. Quicke, Professor of Preaching, Northern Seminary, and author of 360-Degree Preaching
"Joseph Webb has devoted his lifetime to the craft and mission of preaching. He brings fresh and cutting-edge insight with the wisdom of a sage and the foresight of a prophet to a whole new emerging generation of communicators."
--Gene Appel, Lead Pastor, Willow Creek Community Church
"Bull's-eye! Joe Webb's theory of improvisational preaching hits the target for effective communication in the digital age. And here's why I love it: Lots of people will tell me what to do; Joe shows me how!"
--Tommy Kiedis, Teaching Pastor, Memorial Presbyterian Church, and Director of Leadership Development, Reformed Theological Seminary
“This book shows us how to improvise our preaching without compromising the Scripture, a welcome help to those of us working to revitalize the worship of the church.”
--Kenton C. Anderson, ACTS Seminaries of Trinity Western University
Joseph M. Webb is Dean of the School of Communication & Media and Professor of Global Media and Communications at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He has taught seminary courses in homiletics, and speech and communication classes at colleges and universities. He is the author of Preaching Without Notes, also published by Abingdon Press.
Contemporary Preaching as Improvisation
There is not a preacher anywhere, of whatever age, denomination, or theological inclination, who does not long to create a religious experience, an experience centered in God, every time he or she takes to the pulpit or platform. It is not unlike the baseball batter who, deep down, longs to hit a home run every time he or she steps to the plate, whether it is the bottom of the ninth or not. "May this sermon move people, lift them to new heights, empower them in an unforgettable way": that is the lofty, silent, prayerful longing, however inarticulated, of every preacher before every sermon—from the young, eager newcomer who simply plans to do that, to the experienced preacher who has long ago given up on the idea that it is even possible to preach with such an effect.
People come to church literally hungry for that experience, that sense of being profoundly moved, inspired. They hope for it not just from the music, from the surroundings, and from the lively sense of participation; they also hope for it from the one who speaks God's Word, the preacher. They express that intense need in a variety of ways. A recent study, funded by the Lilly Endowment and extending over several years, conducted interviews with dozens and dozens of church lay people about what they thought about the preachers and the preaching they listened to. One of the most important and consistent aspects of the interviews is the way almost everyone interviewed tried, without knowing how, to get preachers to take the creation of that experience in the sermon seriously.
Anthony, for example, explained what he wanted the experience of the sermon to be like:
It touches your heart.... It touches my heart when it touches my inner self, my inner feelings.... I consider myself a strong person, but also an emotional person to the degree of letting someone else say something that will touch me. You grow up. You're out there between streets and church and activity outside of church that you have to grow up in. I just don't let everybody touch my feelings. It's very important to me when the pastor has the ability to do that. It's almost like the words that he says, he just touched your hand and go right through you.
Or look at this brief part of an interview with Cassandra who was asked if there was ever a time she wanted to walk out of a church service. After saying "yes, there were some times that she wanted to," she told this story that captures the importance of that special experience of engagement in a different way:
A lady ... came to me and said, "I want you to know I'm leaving the church." I go, "Why?" She said, "I'm not getting anything out of the sermons." ... It can happen that the sermons don't engage you, and if you're not engaged, then you don't get anything out of it. Then you go, "I need to go somewhere else. I need to seek." I can only speak for myself; I do come seeking some sense of fulfillment, and I guess my expectation is I'm coming with my cup empty now and I need a little something in my cup.
There is no question that in today's contemporary worship service, it is absolutely necessary to have preaching that touches people, that profoundly inspires them, that makes something happen in their hearts and minds and beings. But what is inspiration, or experience? What does it mean? How does a preacher, any preacher, achieve that in preaching the Word? Can any preacher, young or old, learn to preach in a way that keeps people, particularly young people, wanting to come to church?
The answer this book gives to that question is an unqualified yes—preachers, no matter how old or how young, can preach in a way that creates an unforgettable inspirational experience of God. But that word, experience, as good and useful as it is, is very complicated. We realize that the minute we try to define it.
Experience is, in fact, a very sensory word. It involves our senses. In its most basic form, it refers to things that arise out of the hard-scrabble living of our lives. It encompasses things that we see, hear, and touch, and even, in extraordinary situations, taste, smell, and absorb. Our bodies and everything in us react to what we go through; nothing about us is unaffected. Our minds, our emotions, our instincts, our hearts and souls and spirits are all affected by what we go through every day that we live—the good, the bad, the hard, the painful, the joyful, the times when we pushed the bottom and lifted to the heights. This is experience. We need to speak, or shout, or sing, or cry, or laugh; or do any number of things in response to the experiences in which we find ourselves. It is true that in most preaching situations, we are usually fairly quiet, listening intently; it is also true that when the preacher does touch us, or call out things in us, or cause us to be caught up in something very special, something in us can cry out or react in some other unplanned manner—and this is not just in the call-and-response preaching of African American traditions. In deeply moving experiences, we can react physically and often vocally; we do, in fact, find any number of ways, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, to turn our stirred senses loose in response to a moving, dynamic sermon.
In short, to experience something, anything, is to become totally caught up in it, literally consumed by it for a time; it is to participate in it to the fullest and deepest of one's capacities—sensually, emotionally, and mentally. It is to shut out, even forget, everything else going on. It is to become lost in the experience itself—not in a drifting sort of way, or even necessarily in something trancelike; but in a completely engaged and concentrated way.
So how can a public speaker—the preacher—standing alone before a congregation, create that unforgettable experience of faith or experience of God for everyone in the congregation? It can be done, and anyone who desires it more than anything else and who is willing to learn the basics of contemporary public speech can do it. It requires, too, a willingness to put one's preaching in God's hands, seeking the Holy Spirit's permeation of the process as well. It requires, as we shall see, letting one's preaching arise from the pages of the Holy Bible, at the same time connecting with imagination and creativity to people in the present. But it can be done by anyone with an ambition to preach the gospel in a new way in a new world.
Experience and Improvisational Drama
What is that new way for a new world? As much as some veteran preachers do not want to acknowledge it, to stand in front of people to speak is to be part of one of the oldest art forms known to humans: the art of performance. For some in the church, to talk about preaching as performance is uncomfortable. Performance is artificial. Not so, however. As Viola Spolin, one of the masters of the modern theatre, has put it, "the techniques of the theatre are the techniques of communicating."
Theatre, like other forms of art, has always been about the creating of experience, with all of the breadth and depth that we can pack into that extraordinary word. The goal of those who stand on the stage or platform is to carry the audience away, out of themselves, to places they have been never been, to where they once were but would like to go again, up and beyond the restricted confines of their own lives. The goal is to imbue the audience with spirits from other places, from above, spirits that they wish to know but have difficulty conjuring up on their own. The goal is to bring the unseen depths that hide within every audience member to the surface where possibilities can be seen, examined, and reveled in. This requires great preparation, involvement, and energy from the one who stands on the stage or platform. This is a remarkable opportunity and responsibility—and it is always very hard work. It is not only the work of the actor; it is also the work of the preacher, the one who stands to speak the gospel of the Living God.
The stage, the platform, the pulpit, is a living, dynamic place. All of the senses of both the speaker and the audience, the congregation, are to be engaged. This is not just theatre. This is divine theatre. This is the place where Christian experience will be conjured up and made immediate, where something from beyond will take place. It will also be the place where those who share the experience will be remade, re-formed, moved to higher ground. It will also be the place from where minds, hearts, and spirits will experience and act in the world in a different way, a way motivated by a new sense of Christ living within us all.
It is not just the liturgy that creates a sense of the holy for the congregation. The speaking of the gospel must create it as well. Here there will be comedy, tragedy, pathos, suffering, and triumph. Here there will—in the speaking of the gospel—be absolute quiet, a divine stillness, as well as boisterous rejoicing, a breaking through of angelic noise. This is drama of the highest order. The experiences are not artificial; they are real. The inspiration that flows in and through these experiences is not fleeting; it energizes every person throughout the living of ordinary days.
This is the contemporary worship experience—and preaching the gospel, meaning vibrant, dynamic public address from the platform, is not just a part of the experience; in many ways, it is the center of the experience. As we consider how to do it, as we must, we start with its dramatic roots: there we shall learn our fundamental lessons of method. We keep in mind, too, what Spolin said about theatre: "The actuality of the communication is far more important than the method used. Methods alter to meet the needs of time and place." We are speaking now, though, of our time and place; and even as we keep method in perspective, without it, there can be no inspirational experience.
With that in mind, we turn to the dynamics of theatre itself as our guide. There are two basic categories of performance drama. The first is scripted drama; or, in our case, scripted public speech. This includes the learning and performance of plays or monologues. The words and often the stage directions are provided for the actors, who must infuse both with meaning and emotion. When this is done well, of course—and it is not easy to do, as anyone who has acted in a school play can attest—then the words, characters, and plots are brought vividly to life. Becoming a professional actor or actress requires an extraordinary amount of talent, training, and experience—as any good stage or screen performer learns.
The other kind of drama is improvised. Ironically, it was probably the original form of acting or public performance, with a general idea proposed or worked out, with the action and dialogue more or less improvised as the characters went along. Today, improvisa-tional theatre is much more than a respected theatrical art form; it is also the basis for virtually all of the new television "reality" shows, with (at least in theory) the scripts and the prepackaged plots rejected in favor of a "going where this takes us" type of show. This is to say nothing, of course, about the best known and most widespread kind of improv—the stand-up comedy performances of A&E's "An Evening at the Improv," or the countless comedy stand-ups of the Comedy Channel.
In this model of public speaking, the stand-up performer or player takes to the stage alone with nothing more than a pencil-thin microphone, and he or she speaks to an audience of paying customers for up to an hour. This speaking is done in such a way that they believe they have gotten their money's worth in whatever kind of laughter and whimsy the speaker conjures up with nothing more than a voice, a persona, and an occasional prop. It is a daunting task, to say the least—and yet that is what improv, including improvisational public speaking at its very highest is expected to achieve.
Different improv artists treat the process differently, of course; some tell jokes, which is itself not an art for amateurs, since the tendency of jokes is to fall flat. Jokes are seldom funny in themselves; how they are told makes them funny. Others tell stories, most often stories from real life, from the foibles of language and behavior that beset us all; and our laughter, interlaced sometimes with tears, is laughter at ourselves. Still others do not set out to be funny at all; they will come at us, in a sense, with the mirror of truth, and we will cringe and reflect and feel deeply; and be grateful that we have together shared deeply important things.
This stand-up improvisation, with both men and women as the speakers, and with crowds willing to purchase tickets to take part, tells us that improvisational public speaking—with its blend of comic entertainment, social commentary, and sheer wit—is the highest form of public address available to us. It is improvisational theatre, part acting, part conversation with the audience, part just talking, that points us toward the kind of public speaking that best interfaces with the gospel in today's contemporary worship.
So—what is improvisation? It is not just anything that happens, or anything that someone does, since it always involves rules and boundaries. By its very nature, though, improv is always unscripted. Yet it is not made up as one goes along, not off the cuff, since everything is always done within some framework of order, logic, and preparation. It is, on the other hand, the art of the unexpected, a free play of artistic expression. Improv is planned in the sense of being based on certain disciplines; but, in its fullest sense, it is unplanned in the sense of not progressing as a fully scripted undertaking. At its best, improv delights in surprise and risk. It is about people being themselves, doing what they would always do— or never do. There is, without question, something profoundly compelling about such live performance.
Every great human art form has its improvisational dimension; more accurately, its improvisational foundation. In painting, for example, the great German expressionist Wassily Kandinsky created countless influential canvases composed of lines, shapes and colors, most of which he called "improvisations." It is not an exaggeration to say that the freedom with which he painted the human inner world set the stage for much twentieth century art. Jazz is the music of improvisation in its myriad legendary expressions, including those that go back even to the classical musicians and composers. From the astonishing bands of Bourbon Street to the elegant and popular horn and piano jazz stylists to the scat singers who followed the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, virtually no musical form has been unaffected by jazz improvisation. In the theatre, improvisation has long been a staple, dating from the Greeks through the Shakespearean era to the modern media forms. From all quarters, the sense of improvisation is the same: it is the most dangerous as well as the most vulnerable kind of art—but it is also the most engaging, stirring the spirit and energizing the heart.
We Live Improvisationally
Whatever its expression, improvisation essentially reflects the art of living itself. In other words, we all know implicitly and intuitively what improv is: it is what we do every day without knowing it. In that sense, it is the art of the human soul. We make our decisions day in and day out improvisationally. We plan as carefully as we can, but in our actual living, in moving through any given day trying to follow through on our plans, everything— literally everything —turns into an improvisational situation. We try to control the situations in which we find ourselves, only to discover how seldom we can ever actually do that. So we take what comes, rolling with the punches, improvising all the way. A restaurant doesn't have wheat bread for a sandwich today—so what do we do? We comb the menu. We will improvise and end up with something we had not planned on. Someone is late for a meeting, so we improvise. The car breaks down at a most inconvenient time, so we improvise. Improvisation is not only who we are; it shapes who we are. That is one of the basic reasons why we like to see good improvisation from others: we not only identify with it, we learn from it.
Excerpted from Preaching for the Contemporary Service by Joseph M. Webb. Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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