The 4th Wall: have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t until this past May when the clergywomen of the West Michigan Conference spent the day together in Grand Rapids. As part of our gathering, we had the privilege of witnessing the premier of a one-woman play about Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard and the Living Light was performed by Linn Maxwell Keller, a professional singer/actress from First UMC, Grand Rapids, and directed by Erv Raible, Executive Director of Cabaret and Concert Artists International.
Known as the “Sybil of theRhine,” Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a preacher, prophet, healer, composer, and founder of 2 monasteries, all of which was quite unique for a woman of her day. The performance was fabulous, but equally as intriguing was the talk-back time with Linn and Erv afterward. The clergywomen wondered how and why Linn chose to write and perform a play about Hildegard, one of our foremothers in the faith.
The conversation eventually turned to the art of acting and its relationship to preaching. We asked lots of questions. Do preachers and actors/actresses engage with their audience in the same way? How do you memorize? How important is the non-verbal aspect of preaching? Should we pay attention to “stage presence?”
Linn and Erv opened our eyes to aspects of preaching which we often ignore. Their premise is that preaching is embodied in a particular person, and the more effectively we learn how to communicate the message of the gospel, the more lives will be touched and transformed. They recommended that preachers have vocal and drama coaches, just as actors do, and were shocked when we acknowledged that most seminaries do not prepare pastors to be in the public spotlight. They also emphasized that the content of a sermon is only one aspect of the mystery of preaching. If we spend as much time and care with the delivery of the sermon as we do with the preparation of the content, our preaching will be much more compelling.
I believe that the non-verbal aspect of preaching can best by summarized by 3 words: poise, presence and passion. Poise is one of the pastoral graces I admire most in clergy. Poise describes what people see in us before they ever hear from us. Poise, also known as stage presence, describes the confidence, energy, graciousness, humility, dignity, self-assurance and authenticity that we radiate to the congregation. Even if we are not feeling calm on the inside, we learn how to project a non-anxious presence to the audience.
Pastoral leaders who are poised stand out from others because they are self-integrated and point beyond themselves to God. They are intuitively aware of all that is going on around them, yet they do not seek to be the center of attention and react to all situations with calmness.
Presence refers to the way in which we communicate when preaching. Preaching is not simply teaching a lesson to a class. Preaching involves transformation of hearts and minds and invites a response every Sunday. That transformation and response comes from engagement with the text and the theme as well as the physical presence of the preacher. Every week we should prepare our sermon by deciding how we will be present to the congregation.
- What will our posture be? Will we literally lead with our heart?
- How will we make eye contact with the congregation?
- Where will we stand? How and where should we move during the sermon?
- How will our voice inflection and facial expressions change at critical places in the sermon?
- How will we dress this Sunday? Will we wear a robe? If not, do we take seriously the fact that people will form impressions of us by how we are dressed?
- How will we make the best use of gesture to convey the message?
Just as people in the pews pick up on our poise and presence, they can also detect our passion in preaching. Every week I visit a different church and hear a different preacher, and what I look for most in a sermon is passion. It’s the “So what?” factor. When I leave a worship service, I want to be moved, touched, challenged, and inspired to be God’s instrument of grace, hope, and healing in the coming week. The attitude, enthusiasm and passion of the preacher is a key factor in that inspiration.
It’s the “4th wall.” The 4th wall refers to the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage in a theater. It’s through this wall that the audience sees the action in the fictional world of the play. There is a 4th wall in most plays, musicals, and operas because actors do not typically interact with the audience. However, in oratorios and sacred music, there is no 4th wall because the singers are directly communicating the gospel to the audience in order to elicit a response.
As you might expect, there is never a 4th wall in preaching. In fact, the primary purpose of preaching is to invite us into the world of the Bible and encourage a response of faith and commitment from the congregation.
If we rethink the art of preaching to include poise, presence, and passion, how might that change our preparation? Here are some questions to ask:
- Is my sermon delivery congruent with who I am?
- Do I need to experiment with different styles of preaching in order to better communicate poise, presence and passion?
- Do I need a coach or trusted colleague who can help me become more effective in my preaching?
- Am I willing to video my sermons so that I can understand how others experience me?
- Dare I experiment with movement and facial expressions?
- Should I rethink my “pre-preaching” routines in order to best prepare myself? That might involve solitude, breathing practices, set prayers, and becoming more aware of our energy.
- In order to convey poise and presence, can I practice smiling from my center of strength?
- What are the 4th walls in my preaching that inhibit effective engagement with the congregation?
Preachers are not actors or actresses. Unlike acting, establishing a rapport with the congregation is critical if engagement and transformation is to take place. Yet we have much to learn from the world of drama. If two preachers deliver the exact same sermon, the one with the most poise, presence, and passion will most likely connect more deeply with the congregation.
This is the first of 4 upcoming essays on preaching over the next several months, “The Preacher’s Poise,” “The Preacher’s Life,” “The Preacher’s Audience,” and “The Preacher’s Craft.” I trust that they will be of interest to those delivering as well as listening to sermons. Feel free to respond on the blog or individually as, together, we reflect on the art of preaching.