Preaching that generatively disrupts

March 7th, 2022

“I practice it because I think it’s an art, but I ain’t doing it.” —Rev. Barb

These are the words that Roxanne Mountford ascribes as coming from Rev. Barb in her work The Gendered Pulpit. Reverend Barb is a black woman who preaches in a predominately black context and in a church that openly struggled with her position and hiring as pastor to the point that a small contingent of members threatened to leave at her appointment. While recalling hearing black preaching and particularly black men preaching on the tv and radio, she names the limits of her engagement with those tropes of the tradition, specifically whooping. Yet, Mountford offers a descriptive of Rev. Barb preaching during a Sunday morning worship service. Mountford names, appropriately or not, this preacher’s work as an engendering of the black jeremiad.[1] The performance is similar to the ghostly image of the black preacher we have encountered already.

Mountford describes how the sermon built from a quiet voice to a near crescendo after Rev. Barb lead the congregation in song:

The sermon was built on a series of stories designed to illustrate her point. She preached the first part in her quiet, alto voice, talking in a matter-of-fact tone, behind the pulpit.... But as she preached, she became more animated, her voice speeding up and slowing down to emphasize points.... Fifteen minutes into the sermon she abandoned the manuscript and began to walk—first out from behind the pulpit, then in front of the pulpit, then slowly down the center aisle.... She ended the sermon at the high emotional pitch right in the center of the congregation, and then asked “The doors of the church are wide open. Who will join the church today? Is there one?”[2]

The description of Rev. Barb’s preaching contains hallmarks of the generally accepted narrative of black preaching practices. She powerfully shifts from a quieter voice to build up to a more direct speech. There is the presence of rhythm, cadence, and intonation for emphasis. Her voice demonstrates a “high emotional pitch,” while her body joining the con- gregation in its center is indication of her using a form of celebration to close and end the sermon. Her celebration culminates as she extends an invitation to discipleship. In a follow-up interview with Mountford, Rev. Barb expressed an understanding of the expectation and pressure for her to be “the black preacher” while at the same time saying, “Yeah, I listen to them [black preaching men] on the radio and they just be doing it [hoot/ whoop], and I practice it because I think it’s an art, but I ain’t doing it.”[3] Here, Rev. Barb acknowledges the tradition and, to some degree, embodies and practices it while also acknowledging her boundaries and the extent to which she will engage it.

Reverend Barb is keenly aware of black preaching traditions as they are performed within and alongside a particular performance of masculinity. And in the excerpt above, she utilizes aspects of its practice in her own preaching. However, she states that there are limitations on the degree to which she incorporates the understood traditional practice in her preaching, specifically in terms of the “hoot/whoop.” She is able to speak the language and perform the art in a way that is understood and accepted by those listening. At the same time, her decision to style on the tradition makes use of the power it wields within the community in very different ways (creative tactics) than those she listens to on the radio. Most plausibly, the preacher’s ability to use her creative wit and know-how in and for preaching is part and parcel to establishing herself as a preacher and pastor within a context that is resistant to her presence. Her use of preaching creates room for her body and voice. The preacher uses the traditional practice and expectation of black preaching for her own purposes.

Available from MinistryMatters

Imitating, Mimicking, and Preaching

To an extent all preaching—and every beginning preacher—has its genesis in imitation. By the word imitation, I mean the act of a preacher mimicking the process they seek to perform and carry out, as they have experienced it. We only know what preaching is because of our exposure to preaching in community or from a distance, including both its best and worst practices alongside its myths and stereotypes. Because preaching is a communally defined and accountable process, those who preach render their rhetoric and performance out of the ways by which specific traditions or communities conceive valid preaching.

In addition to preaching being a practice that is learned through imitation and mimicking, individual preachers often imitate and mimic those with whom they find resonance in preaching. Preachers find their way into their preaching voice as they imitate preachers either who are admired in their tradition or whom they personally favor. This process of finding voice through others is a natural process of the journey of the preacher. However, there are limits to imitation and mimicking. This is particularly true for those who are minoritized in the preaching space, such as women, people who identify as LGBTQIA+, those with disabilities, and others who may perform outside of a community’s preacher prototype. Creating one’s preaching voice and moving toward authenticity are difficult when models that may have affinity with your evolving voice are not present.[4]

However, when the standard within a community’s expectation of preaching stops at the replication of a particular style of performance, as opposed to living into preaching’s exponential iterations, mimicking and imitation become mechanisms that contribute to closing preaching off from its purposes; and in turn, mimicking and imitation close a community off from the possibilities and hopes of preaching in its midst. There is an inherent difference between mimicking and imitating preaching styles to their ultimate ends and creatively riffing off and making use of an existent tradition and style as one finds their own voice. 

Communal Choreography and Sacred Vibrations

Every preacher riffs on preaching expectations for the hope of naming something significantly meaningful for their community. Those who are particularly minoritized may use preaching expectations more intention- ally and with more mindfulness, as they engage in a distinct creativity for the sake of what preaching demands of them in their contexts. When a preacher creatively makes use of tradition, they engage such tactics for the purpose of gaining a listening while overcoming obstacles in the reception of their message. Obstacles may range from “You don’t look or sound like a preacher” to resistance to the proposal of an alternative faith narrative that potentially shifts communal outlooks on faith and the world.

Preaching is a creative process that exists within the playing fields of traditions. And ingenuity makes use of those playing fields, not just for the sake of preaching, but also for what preaching makes possible. Christian preaching traditions await and anticipate sacred vibrations breaking into our midst. This sacred-in-breaking is what draws us back to spaces of worship with a disposition of listening intently. These holy echoes move in and out of proximity to our awareness. Sometimes we recognize them and their call on our attention immediately. At other times we connect random dots over time among different conversations, thoughts, and moments of reflection. These are the characteristics of proclamation—fleeting, not always fully describable—but we know when it has encountered us and when we have encountered it. At such meeting places, we offer a resounding or more hushed affirmation of its presence in our midst—Amen.

However, a complex dance occurs between the hopes of offering up an Amen—a tradition we perceive to have made that Amen possible—and the bodies that are not allowed to move in and out of pulpit spaces. The parties of the dance are often reduced to the mechanics of rigid choreography, as opposed to allowing the music that sets the rhythm of the choreography to inspire the dance. The result is choreography (preaching) out of sync with the music of its inspiration (proclamation). Inspiration is traded for one’s confidence in rigid movement (unimaginative practice) that does not fit every body attempting its sequence (the outsider). As a result, bodies are hurled in and out of the spiral of rigidity. We ignore, to the demise of many, the possibility of trusted choreography joining inspiration for the sake of a more creative dance that makes space for every body. In spite of the threats of rigidity, there are moments when unexpected things happen. People make use of choreography with a play on its past while pushing its present, and somehow inspiration breaks through. In this appearance, we are reminded of the authentic hopes of the dance once again.

Our hope in preaching is not replicating fixed patterns. Instead, our hope is to exchange fixed patterns for that which makes space for the vibrant possibilities of sacred-in-breaking in our midst, as it echoes backward and forward to what we have known. As we make room for these reverberations, we make room for preaching to align with its greatest hopes—namely, the hope that we move closer in proximity to that which is most holy and most true. This holy-truth is only clarified as it is named and recognized as such by the entire community, while every body contributes to arranging a choreography that responds to inspiration.


[1] Roxanne Mountford, The Gendered Pulpit (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), 171.

[2] Ibid., 103–4.

[3] Ibid., 108 (emphasis added).

[4] Teresa Fry Brown notes that African American women are less likely to be “groomed” from a young age into preaching ministries when compared to African American men who have more immediately accessible mentors (see Teresa L. Fry Brown, Weary Throats and New Songs: Black Women Proclaiming God’s Word [Nashville: Abingdon, 2003], 72).


comments powered by Disqus