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Todd Farley on Embodied Preaching

Todd Farley shows preachers how to use body communication to preach lively sermons. His embodied preaching ideas spring from a theology of restoring arts to ministry. A feature story exploring body communication in preaching.

“Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” This saying, commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, brings a chuckle. We know its truth in our bones.

Most preachers can recall biblical events when God’s word was seen or acted out. Rainbow. Burning bush. Bronze serpent. Jeremiah smashing a pot. Dry bones rising up. Baby Jesus. Mud on blind eyes. Descending dove. Tongues of fire.

Even kids can read body language, whether a cocked head for hearing or fingers pinching uplifted nostrils for odors. Hands speak volumes. Consider the difference among a fist raised high, an extended arm and cupped hand, waggling fingers, or thumbs up.

Todd Farley inspires preachers to use their whole bodies to deliver God’s word. Trained in mime by Marcel Marceau, Farley is an ordained preacher and teaches communication arts at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Farley says that embodied preaching depends on recognizing all the ways God speaks, overcoming discomfort, and restoring arts as ministry in the church.

Preach an incarnate word

“We’re very familiar with the spoken word of God. People also talk about visions, or the revealed voice of God, through nature or in their ‘prayer closets.’ The third voice of God is dramatically seen, parables acted out,” Farley explained at a preaching conference (scroll to October 11, 2007) at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Preaching on Hosea 12:10, he described how the Hebrew word damah, used for this third voice, is variously translated as parables acted out, similitude, acts of God, or physical manifestation.

“Here the text is saying that we, as those prophets ministering God’s word, become that damah to the world. It’s the concept of Christ becoming incarnate, of us having Christ within us, and that incarnate word becoming embodied in what we do.

“That gesture, that parable acted, that which is done—not only that which is said—becomes a word of God to the people,” Farley said.

Preachers and congregations sometimes behave as if God’s entire word was delivered in manuscript form. Farley reminded his audience that the reason we read God’s word now is that there weren’t video cameras or ways to record the drama or music of the original delivery.

“So we read life that has been poured into ink on a page. And we ministers take that ink, that we and the congregation read, and we try to extract it and put the blood into it that that ink may come back to life,” he said.

Create significant space

Because every minister who speaks before a congregation has a body, worshipers see as well as hear them. That’s why, when Farley talks about “a well-ministered physical voice,” he doesn’t mean only vocal cords.

The ways a preacher moves his or her head, face, arms, hands, chest, pelvis, legs, and feet all say something. So do a voice’s volume, rhythm, and speed.

Some gestures—repeated head scratching, hem tugging, chin or collar fingering, lip pursing—telegraph discomfort. Discomfort gestures detract from God’s word, because congregations start wondering why the preacher is nervous.

Other gestures, such as lunging forward when speaking of God as a gentle shepherd, make congregations wonder whether preachers believe what they’re saying.

“We think directionally and place concepts in space,” Farley said in his morning lecture at the preaching conference. He advises thinking of the platform as space on which to create significance and make ideas concrete.

If your sermon has three points, then visually divide the platform in three areas, and gesture to or move to the designated area so your congregation gets a visual outline that supports the audible sermon. If you’re focusing on a relationship between two people, make sure to always refer to one side for the first person and the other side for the second.

You can move forward and raise a cupped hand as if offering God’s promise or an idea to worshippers. You might step back, casually cross your arms, or angle your body so as to give the congregation time and space to ponder what you’ve just said.

Perhaps you’re preaching at a podium with a fixed microphone. Without a wireless mike, you can’t roam. Even then you can communicate ideas and create significant space through your head, face, arms, hands, chest, and body angle.

Live it, breathe it

When Farley urges ministers to use gesture, movement, or drama to give lively sermons, inevitably someone asks whether this change will come across as contrived. He admits that moving from talking head to embodied preacher may feel liberating to some, awkward to others.

He advises preachers to feel deeply. If you believe what you’re preaching, and worshipers feel your sincerity, then they’ll believe it. That means bringing the text alive by reading a psalm with the passion of David. It means letting ruach, the Hebrew word for breath of the Holy Spirit, move through your entire being to transform a message from scripture into new life for your congregation.

“Make sure gestures are living from the inside—and from the chest and stomach. A gesture’s full meaning comes with breath. That’s why you need to use the chest. In French mime, the chest is the exterior expression of your emotion,” Farley said.

He demonstrated the difference by speaking of the sorrow of sin and coming to a place of repentance. The first time he stood ramrod still except for extending a hand with fingers curled and then bringing it toward his body. The second time, he hunched his body to show sorrow and breathed deeply, moving his chest along with his arm and hand as he described repentance.

“The first way looks like doing bicep curls. People may receive the idea, but there’s no heart, no emotion, no power. With the other way, the idea comes to life.

“That body inclusion creates a support of the word that says what the words do not. Using your body takes the intellectual idea and makes it manifest and visual,” Farley said.

Todd Farley on Restoring the Arts to Ministry

Not every preacher immediately responds to Todd Farley’s ideas about “a well ministered physical voice.” By that he means preachers need to use their entire bodies to deliver lively sermons.

It’s easy for Todd Farley to say, because he trained as a mime with Marcel Marceau, founded Mimeistry School of Ministering Arts, is an ordained preacher, and teaches communication arts at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Some preachers without that wealth of experience simply feel awkward about using more gestures, movement, or drama.

But there’s another reason that preachers sometimes hold back. They see using emotion, gestures, movement—in fact, using most arts other than perhaps music—as entertainment.

“Throughout religious history, the church has embraced the arts in one decade or another, only to throw them out. It’s time to restore to the body of Christ the voice of God which is physical, the voice of God which is artistic,” Farley said in an afternoon lecture at a Calvin Theological Seminary preaching conference (scroll down to October 11, 2007).

Three aspects of arts as ministry

A healthy model of arts in ministry needs biblical and theological grounding. Farley offered an arts model based on the three-fold dynamic of Christian life: God to us, us to God, and us to each other.

“The first artist is God. There are 40 places in the Old Testament where prophecy was not just spoken but acted. From witty proverbs to Jesus’ parables to symbolism in Revelation, scripture is replete with God’s creativity. So many times God’s word is not spoken but done.

“So the first place of art should be as God’s voice to us,” Farley said. In the Bible, God used art to bring about authentic change, rather than mere intellectual assent. Preachers today use mime, drama, storytelling, or a film clip to tell the text…introduce an idea that the sermon finishes…illustrate a sermon point…summarize the sermon…or call the congregation to act on the text.

“The second place of art comes as we hear God’s voice. Any ability to paint, sing, play piano, act, or create is God’s gift of common grace. It’s only when we hear God that we are able to respond, often in praise,” Farley said.

Examples of God calling people into creativity include Adam naming the animals, Miriam choreographing a dance about crossing the Red Sea, and David spontaneously dancing before the Ark of the Covenant.

Responding to God in worship means bringing our whole selves so also includes questions, lament, and confession. Singing, clapping, lifting hands, kneeling, and lying flat are all biblical responses to God.

Farley described the third place or movement of art in ministry as “human to human, with art as a celebration of Christian life. Leave out any of these three and you are not living a full Christian life. We need all three movements of art inside the church—all redeemed, embraced, and sustained by Christ.”

Practice discernment

Worship committees sometimes lump discussion of all arts together. Farley, however, advises assessing art in worship according to which place or movement it is fulfilling.

“If you say this art form is ministering as the word of God and is God speaking to us, then it either is or isn’t. If it’s not, it doesn’t belong in worship,” he said.

Sometimes members ask to present an art form as praise to God. In those cases, consider whether the art form is appropriate and representative of the congregation. It’s okay for one person to sing or dance on the congregation’s behalf or for a worship band to play up front.

“Check the focus. We’re never there to be cheerleaders. Is God dominant? How often do we say ‘Jesus’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘me’?” he asked.

Regarding the human-to-human movement in arts ministry, Farley said, “Learn to enjoy the creativity of each other in church as we simply enjoy God’s good earth.”

Start with God, not culture

Even though God created the world with this three-fold dynamic of art and relationship, sin distorted the model.

One distortion springs from forgetting that the first ministry of art is from God to us. Farley explained how, in their eagerness to evangelize, churches forget it’s their job to proclaim but the Holy Spirit’s job to do the work.

“We subtly switch to being salesmen and saleswomen. We unchristianize our language to be seeker friendly,” Farley said. Churches start measuring presentations by the number of attendees or converts. As God is removed from evangelism, worship becomes entertainment.

Another distortion comes when Christians mistake ancient Greco-Roman ideas about art for biblical ones.

Farley explained that in The Republic (books III and X), Plato presented a dualism that assigns value only to the spiritual. Plato believed that humans can’t reach God. The gods copied God. Humans copied the gods. He saw art as an empty imitation of culture and society, a way to bring distraction and pleasure to the masses.

“The problem is that we in the church buy the art-as-entertainment model. We try to borrow and redeem art from culture. But as God is taken out of art’s essential identity, it becomes the communication of a culture. And as the culture becomes more evil, we justify its evil as art. So we don’t mind the sex and violence, because we see art as reflecting society,” Farley said.

He urged senior pastors to preach about, demonstrate, and restore a healthy model of the arts as ministry. This includes preaching with all God has given them, including their bodies. It also means making art a congregational effort, with each participating as God has gifted, whether through talent, money, or appreciation.

“The kingdom is filled not with just words but actions. Let us not hide away our artistic gifts. May we not restrict God’s voice any longer. If we are indeed those who believe in reformation, then let us reform,” Farley said.

From Talking Head to Embodied Preacher

When Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga attended Calvin Theological Seminary nearly 40 years ago, professors didn’t talk about gestures, movement, or dramatization. “The only real education we received in these areas was a few sessions in interpretive reading,” says Plantinga, now seminary president.

By the time Scott Hoezee went through 20 years later, “the preparation for preaching was almost exclusively exegetical, with some attention to the shape of the sermon. This was all on paper.”

Hoezee, now director of the seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching, recalls that student sermons were delivered in class and captured on video. “A college speech professor might diagnose with you afterwards, looking for tics, poufing lips, or head scratching,” he says.

Though some seminaries now offer more instruction in embodied preaching, many do not. So it’s no wonder that the prospect of preaching more lively sermons sounds exciting…and a bit scary.

Be yourself

“The sermon Todd Farley did at the fall preaching conference (scroll to October 11, 2007) was very dramatic and acted out. He himself recognizes that most people aren’t comfortable with or even capable of that,” Hoezee says.

Yet he and Plantinga agree that when preachers feel free to authentically be themselves, everyone benefits.

Doing the best with what you’ve got, Hoezee explains, means using your whole person. “When we humans are excited about something, our eyes sparkle, our shoulders move, our fingers dance, and we do little jigs in the bleachers.

“If you as a preacher are really enthused about your message, why not embody that fully? It’s downright bizarre not to be full of emotion,” he says.

To ministers who worry that becoming more lively will throw worshipers, Plantinga says, “Congregations feel secure and engaged in the presence of a well-embodied sermon. There’s something mighty satisfying to being appealed to through the eye as well as the ear.

“Preachers cannot hope to be used by the Holy Spirit to move the hearts of listeners if they haven’t first been moved themselves by the message of the text. Excitement, tenderness, sorrow, enthusiasm—all these movements of the heart will have natural bodily expression…or trained bodily expression.”

Plantinga says he’s seen the results of unnaturally embodied sermons: “random grinning, white-knuckled pulpit gripping, leaning backwards while telling people to move forward with the Lord.”

And Hoezee says that although he has occasionally experienced a mesmerizing sermon from someone who rarely moves even a hand, it’s better to put your whole self into the sermon. “We don’t live as talking heads in the rest of our week, so no one is served when preachers behave as if they and worshipers are simply talking heads or souls or containers of ideas.”

Small changes, big rewards

Hoezee notes several takeaways that any preacher can glean from Farley’s morning lecture.

  • “When you’re giving a blessing, if you’re holding your hand up like a traffic cop, it conveys power or aggression. But if you slightly tilt your hand, and cup it, as if on someone’s head, it’s much different.”
  • “Even preachers who’d rather stay behind the pulpit can do interesting things to create space and enhance their presentation. If I’m preaching about two people, Jerry is always on my right, Mary on my left. It’s very simple to practice ahead of time.”
  • “I tell students all the time and experience this as a frequent guest preacher. People form an opinion in your first 10 seconds in the pulpit. Touch the pulpit lightly. Keep eye contact on the congregation, take a little breath, smile at them, then begin. If you get up, grab on, and jump into the passage without eye contact, you look nervous. And then they get nervous.”

Hoezee says the last tip, especially, is “pure gold for anyone who tries it. It’s relatively easy to do and it’s commonsense—once someone tells you.”

Watching a video of your sermon along with someone else is a good way to become more aware of your body language. Farley suggested paying attention to your body orientation, posture, gestures, foot position, and so on.

“Watch with the sound off. What can you read from your body? Where’s the energy and emotion? Now turn the sound on to check whether the way your read your gesture is consistent with what you were saying,” he advised.

Better body awareness will help you figure out your natural starting point, which Farley says will be somewhere on a scale between 0 (dead) and 10 (constant motion, loud speech). The “preacher’s zero” is somewhere in between, an “empty physical canvas” that lets him or her venture into other gestures.

Push through to comfort

Farley encouraged preachers to start putting simple gestures in sermons, maybe an open hand as you offer an idea, a closed hand as you draw an idea to yourself. Practice gestures along with words.

He said many preachers give up gestures instead of working through the awkwardness. “If you push through, it will become natural. As you learn, you’ll feel like you are expressing a truth you love,” he promised.

“We won’t all be mimes or dramatists. But movement is for everyone who breathes and smiles. It belongs in your pulpit.

“We stand in front of congregations that have learned to recognize intellectual ideas. Let us move our words as well as say them—and perhaps move our congregations,” Farley said.

Learn More

Watch and listen to online video of Todd Farley preaching and lecturing at Calvin Theological Seminary (scroll down to October 11, 2007). Order instructional videos and books from Mimeistry School of Ministering Arts, which Farley founded.

Read Todd Farley’s articles on nativity dramas and dance in Reformed Worship. Read his tribute to Marcel Marceau, the famous mime who trained Todd and Marilyn Farley. Also see Don E. Saliers’ article Body language: eight basic gestures every worship leader should know.

Register for the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship, where you can experience mime and movement at late afternoon vespers services and attend a Thursday seminar, Seminar 8: We Speak Because We Have Been Spoken: A “Grammar” of the Preaching Life, led by Michael Pasquarello II and hosted by Scott Hoezee. You’ll also find seminars, panels, and workshops on liturgical dance, visual arts, interactive and other ministering arts.

Help yourself to a bonanza of online preaching resources at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, including audio sermons, sermon starter ideas, and advice from fellow pastors. Mark your calendar for upcoming conferences for preachers.

Browse related stories about caring for your voice, digital storytellinghow to welcome guest preachers, and visual arts in worship.

Start a Discussion

Talk about embodied preaching and how arts minister in worship.

  • What do you think of Farley’s emphasis on the voice of God which is physical or artistic?
  • What opportunities do your preachers and other worship leaders have to get feedback on their body communication? What first steps might you offer to help each other feel more comfortable in authentically expressing yourselves?
  • What would your worship gain or lose if you saw God’s word, worship, and faith as much about action and physical manifestation as about intellectual ideas?
  • What’s most or least helpful about the way your congregation uses the arts in worship? Which changes do you dream of?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to encourage embodied preaching or minister through the arts?

  • Did you invite a mime, dramatist, well-embodied preacher, or other artist to show you what’s possible and set a standard?
  • If you developed a process or checklist for better discernment about the three movements of art in ministry, will you share it with us? We’d also like to know about changes that resulted after you switched from arts as entertainment to arts as ministry.