Is Preaching Performance Art?

"America's first celebrity" and performance art preacher George Whitefield attracted crowds greater than the total population of major cities. Could the same principles apply today?

As I’ve noted in Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God, the leaders of America’s First Great Awakening recognized that societal transformation was every bit as much a media revolution as it was a spiritual movement.

No one represented this approach better than George Whitefield, the man who Yale historian Harry Stout identifies as ‘America’s first celebrity.”

The following excerpts from Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: The First Great Awakening and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture, give you some idea as to effectiveness of Whitefield’s preaching.

Whitefield’s sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.”[1] …Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way…

George Whitefield’s profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a national sensation… People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach… Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success… Incredibly, thirty-percent of all works published in America in 1740 are written or inspired by Whitefield.

By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Of a total city population of 17,000, Whitefield’s farewell sermon draws a crowd of well over 20,000. [2] Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face. [3]

By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.”[4]

Clearly preaching was a performance art to George Whitefield, but should it be today?

Clayton Schmit offers a modern-day exploration of preaching as performance art. I find it highly enlightening. Enjoy!


Preaching is Performance Art

The way it’s delivered is part of the message.

by Clayton Schmit | Leadership Journal

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to go to church no more.”

Nearly any churchgoer could have said this, and in nearly any period of history. But in this case the listener was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and lecturer (1803-1882). He went on to explain that “the capital secret of [the preacher’s] profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned … there was not a surmise, a hint in all the discourse that he had ever lived at all.”

We have all heard preachers with that problem. Their sermons employ an artificial set of communication skills divorced from ordinary human life. These preachers assume that the purpose of the exegesis they learned in seminary is to spring-load sermons with technical data that will impress and subdue listeners. Or they spend all their time working on what to say and no time at all on how to say it.

T.S. Elliot said the purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink. In preaching, we’re called to turn ink back into blood. Yet so many preachers speak only abstractly, as if they were devoid of humanness. There’s no flesh, no blood, no tension, no mystery, no life in their sermons. No dialogue, no communication, and no eye contact with those looking at them expectantly every Sunday morning. Only words drawn from commentaries or a thesaurus. These are the preachers that tempt us “to go to church no more.”

Continue Reading


See Also: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: The First Great Awakening and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture


[1] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 95.

[2] Boston newspapers estimated the crowd at 23,000, while Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000. Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.

[3] Stout, p. 128