Chapter 8

The Role of Celebration in Preaching

The gospel is good news, our delivery should reflect that.

There is no shortage of elements to consider in seeking to improve oneself as a preacher. To consistently develop, we must be aware of our strengths and weaknesses as proclaimers. At times, our growth is stymied by a simple lack of mindfulness of significant but, perhaps, overlooked essentials in the presentation of the gospel. One such often underappreciated and underdeveloped aspect of telling God’s truth is the role of celebration in preaching.

The gospel is, literally, good news. The story of God’s glory being revealed through God’s gracious satisfaction of his righteous wrath through the sacrificial death of the sinless Jesus Christ, Christ’s glorious resurrection that justifies those who believe, and his soon return is the only hope for fallen humanity to be made right with the holy God. God’s loving provision of a path for reconciliation should not be communicated dryly or without pathos. The preacher’s emotions in the sermonic moment should reflect God’s heart: anger and pain because of sin, passionate love for the lost, and joyous celebration with those who are rescued by grace. Celebration, therefore, is an indispensable part of the presentation and reception of the gospel message.

The cultivation of celebration

Cultivating celebration is vital. Without it, the preacher misrepresents a critical segment of the divine message. Celebration is not anti-intellectual or mere emotionalism. In fact, true gospel celebration is the concert of intellectual understanding, healthy emotions, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God is glorified, the church is strengthened, and unbelievers are shown a clear picture of the spiritual fellowship between a loving God and the redeemed community when these elements come together around the proclaiming and hearing of the gospel. Without celebration we are simply telling news rather than good news.

A celebrating preacher is concerned with presenting the gospel clearly and faithfully so as to invite people to believe.

Celebration should be an emphasis for every preacher regardless of the culture or ethnicity of the preacher and the audience. Gospel proclaimers can be greatly strengthened in this area by carefully studying the history and practice of celebration in the African American preaching experience. African American preachers have a unique legacy and understanding of the intrinsic nature of celebration within preaching.

Celebratory crescendo

The most clearly recognizable characteristic of African American preaching celebration is colloquially called “whooping.” Whooping is the intonation of spoken words during the sermon. It is not singing, but it is musical. Its origin in the African American ecclesiastical experience is in slavery. Those who survived the horrors of the middle passage bound in chains, made to work without pay, bought and traded as property, and experienced hundreds of years of the most vile expression of oppression found hope in the liberating truth of the gospel. Having trusted Christ, some experienced the burning call to be gospel proclaimers. However, because their “Christian” slave masters disregarded their humanity, they were expressly forbidden to preach. But the burden to preach is undeniable. So the courageous slave preachers honor God’s divine call to preach by speaking with musical melody and rhythm. Preaching in this way allowed the slave preacher to proclaim the gospel under the guise of merely leading a slave chant.

Often, this began with slow, methodical intonation as the preacher opened up the truth of the biblical story narratively. Then, as the preacher sought to communicate the living hope of the gospel, the proclaimers voice would rise to a celebratory crescendo. The listening community of fellow slaves would support and celebrate the sermon by verbally responding with a chorus of intonation that mirrored the preacher’s intonation. This antiphonal style of worship is a part of African tradition that came with the slaves across the Atlantic. This form of sermonic celebration was a necessary act of Spirit-led defiance. The culminating climax of praise reflected salvific and eschatological hope that transcended and overcame the evil and inhumane conditions these slave believers endured.

All preachers should appreciate this historical and artful style of celebration. It remains a viable means of sermonic celebration in the African American community and beyond. Obviously, all preachers cannot authentically celebrate the gospel with intonation. However, all creatures can learn a great deal from this art form. The Bible is full of examples of God using artistic expression to reveal God’s nature and will. The literary genres of Scripture include song and poetry. Static prose alone does fully display God’s arsenal of inspiration. Artfully presented preaching reflects the communicative genius of God, especially during appropriate moments of celebration during the sermon.

Celebration of the gospel

The celebration of the gospel is very clear in Scripture. Christ clearly pictures God as the chief celebrant of the salvation of the lost in Luke 15. When the lost sheep, coin, and son are found, Jesus is careful to describe God’s response as much more than muted relief. Rather, Jesus explains, God actively rejoices and invites others to join in his enthusiastic expression of joy. In Acts 8:4-8; we are given another example of a celebratory response to the gospel. The ministry of Philip in Samaria results in “much joy.” Again, Acts 16:34 says of the Philippian jailor who trusted the gospel as he heard it from Paul and Silas, that he “rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”

Ultimately, the preacher must be mindful to authentically embody gospel celebration while proclaiming God’s good news. The preacher is not simply to induce or persuade others to celebrate. The preacher must actively, personally celebrate. As proclaimers, we must remain intimately in touch with our own need for the gospel and God’s rich grace to us. I have never known a great preacher who was not also a great sinner. The truth is, we are not doctors of grace who dispense prescriptions to needy sinners. To the contrary, we are merely fellow patients who know where the medicine is. Each time the gospel is heard and considered spiritually, our fresh need for grace is illuminated. Thankfully, our fresh need for God’s grace is met by his overflowing abundance of it. A celebrating preacher is concerned with presenting the gospel clearly and faithfully so as to invite people to believe. The invitation to trust the sufficiency of Christ and his cross to rescue the sinner should be delivered with genuine joy, thanksgiving, and deep reverential awe of the indescribable holiness and kindness of God.