Grady Nutt, the late great “Prime Minister of Humor,” was sometimes accosted by persons who failed to appreciate his humor-spiced messages. “Do you really think you should be doing that?” they would ask. “I mean, do you really think God has a sense of humor?” Grady was always tempted to say, “Have you looked in the mirror lately?!” Instead, Grady would take the higher road by turning the answer on himself: “Well, He made me, didn’t He?”
And God made us too! Humor is an inherent part of who we are. Sunday after Sunday, we strive to communicate “Truth through personality in the midst of personalities” (to borrow George Sweazy’s extension of the Phillips Brooks quote). Our personalities are humor-saturated; daily we say and do and experience funny things. And yet the light of the Gospel can shine through these cracks in our clay pots. We best use some of this humor to our advantage in the pulpit.
But how are we to use it? Below are some guideposts that can lead us to wisely employ humor in preaching.
Stick to the Point
Senator Sam Ervin told about the elderly lady who went to church and heard a young minister preach. When she got out, someone asked her what she thought of his preaching. She said, “He spoke in true apostolic style. He took a text and went everywhere preaching the gospel!”1
Some humor goes everywhere except the point of the sermon. The best pulpit humor is that which is relevant to the content of the sermon. As Catholic homiletician Walter Burghardt asserts, “Homiletic humor should be part and parcel of the homily, woven into its warp and woof.”2 If a preacher is going to relate something amusing, he should not include it as a “side-joke” but as a sermon illustration that happens to be funny. An after dinner speaker can drop in humor that has only a pretended connection with the subject of his talk — a preacher cannot. Thus, concludes George Sweazy “Humor in sermons has to stay within the main channel of the thought. If it makes no real contribution to clarifying or applying what the sermon is trying to convey, it has to be left out.”3
Halford Luccock provides a helpful image in stressing the importance of relevant humor. Luccock likens pulpit humor to sparks struck off a train while moving toward a destination: there is no stopping the train for the purpose of showing off some sparks. The sparks do not impede the movement of the train or substitute a little show of fireworks for motion forward. They are an accompaniment of the motion, a product of the friction of the wheels on the track. Humor in the pulpit which is the incidental and occasional product of the friction between the mind and ideas may be of great and genuine service, a veritable means of grace. But humor which delays the train of thought or forces the train to stop on a siding till the humorous display is over is an obstacle to legitimate business.4
The importance of relevant humor is echoed by specialists in speech communication. If a speaker uses a funny story, he should have one that is so apt, so related to the point of his speech, that it does not matter whether the audience laughs. Indeed, the relevance of the story is even more important than how much humor it generates.5 Bob Russell told me about Richard Allison, a professional actor who performs dramatic interpretations of Biblical stories. Bob invited him to perform at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Richard performed the same interpretation during two different morning services. During the first hour, Richard interpreted a statement of Jesus in a funny way that really broke up the congregation. The second worship hour, Richard did the very same line in the very same way — and no laughter. Later at lunch, Bob asked Richard if that bothered him — that one congregation laughed heartily and that the other did not.
“Oh no,” Richard replied. “Long ago my dramatic mentor taught me something that has always stuck with me. He used to say ‘Never listen to the laughter; always listen for the silence.'” Laughter is not the ultimate goal — getting the point is. Laughs are a part of the “sparks” that Luccock is talking about. Whether or not the sparks fly, the train is moving on to its intended destination.
Critical for the listeners is a sense of coherence between the preacher’s humorous story and the overall message they are hearing. Humorous speeches pulsate with emotional climaxes. Listeners have a tendency to give less and less thought to the structured points of a speech and more and more thought to anticipating these emotional “peaks.” The speaker must provide coherence between these peaks. This is achieved by picking up the threads of continuity after each humorous climax.
Listeners will not ask themselves where the speaker was in the speech when humor was inserted. Rather, they expect the speaker to know where he or she was and to redirect their attention to the speech theme. Speech experts call this redirection “coherent reorientation,” and they see it as critical for aiding the listeners in “staying on track.”6
A final critical point: relevant humor increases ethos; irrelevant humor does not. You are probably familiar with Aristotle’s rhetorical concept of ethos. Ethos is the perceived character of the speaker. Experiments in the field of communication reveal that the more relevant a humorous story is to the point of a speech or lecture, the more highly the speaker is perceived by the listeners. In fact, studies show that relevant humor increases listeners’ perception of the speaker in categories including dynamism, expertise, trustworthiness, competence, and intelligence. The key is that the humor be relevant to the point the speaker is making.7
How do preachers elicit this coherence when they use humor in their messages? One way is to clarify the meaning of the humorous story with a pointed statement. This statement can be declarative or interrogative, i.e., a strong pronouncement or a probing question. The statement should follow “right on the heels” of the funny story, and it should be every bit as well-timed as the story itself.
Another method the preacher can use is to employ “bookend” statements, just before and just after the joke or story. The statements are similar — perhaps even identical. Seasoned preachers know how vital those transitional sentences are between points. Transitionals before and after a humorous piece are even more important for weaving the humor into the sermon’s point.
Don’t Overdo It
Perhaps this caution is so obvious that it needs no mention. Then again, perhaps not. I remember attending worship at a state conference for high school and college students. After some inspirational music, drama, and prayer, a preacher in his late-thirties stepped up to deliver his “message.” What we heard was 25 minutes of attempted comedic monologue followed by a ten-minute “tacked-on” sermon. While I am in full support of using humor when preaching to a predominantly young congregation, this was a little much. The preacher’s performance seemed to follow that standard formula of sit-coms you see on T.V. — a bunch of funny interplay that leads to a little moral or truth at the close of the show.
At a luncheon following the service, I asked a college student what she had gotten out of the preacher’s message. Her answer has stuck with me: “I do not like him or his message, because they were one and the same. They were both saying ‘Please like me.'”
Most of us would never go to the extreme that the above preacher did in overkilling a Gospel message with humor. Nevertheless, there are plenty of us who have struggled with that “humorist” who lives inside of us. For most of us, this is a good struggle. Unfortunately, some of us do not struggle with it enough. We hear from laypersons about former pastors whom they appreciate because of their sense of humor in and out of the pulpit. On occasion, however, we hear them tell of one pastor who seemed to “overdo it a little.” This preacher would be a little too silly or be a bit too inappropriate in dispensing humor.
I once served as interim pastor for a church which has a sterling reputation. Church members there breathed a sigh of relief as their pastor of five years left for another parish. Their relationship to the pastor was amiable enough. However, they had grown weary of his inappropriate humor, both in and out of the pulpit. The pastor’s neurotic need for attention and affection became a situation that was barely tolerable. Sad thing was, he did not even seem to be aware of his credibility crisis.
One dear matriarch of the church explained the situation both lovingly and prophetically. “It was a real sad thing,” she said. “We all could tell that he wanted to be funny and win us over. But without even knowing it, all he wound up doing was pushing us further away. It wound up that we were not sure if he was here more for us or if we were here for him.” Humor can become too much of a good thing!
Phillips Brooks designated humor as one of the “elements of personal power” that will make a preacher successful. At the same time, Brooks expressed grave concern over preachers who use humor to excess. Such a preacher falls into the distasteful office of “clerical jester”:
He appears in and out of the pulpit. He lays his hands on the most sacred things, and leaves defilement on all he touches. He is full of Bible jokes. He talks about the Church’s sacred symbols in the language of stale jests that have come down from generations of feeble clerical jesters before him … There are passages in the Bible which are soiled forever by the touches which the hands of ministers who delight in cheap and easy jokes have left upon them.8
Brooks argues further that the preacher’s appropriation of jesting pulpit behavior results in unhealthy relationships with the flock. Walls are built up which thwart a parishioner’s desire to approach the “comic pastor” for spiritual help. As a result, the preacher’s roles as evangelist and counselor are severely undermined.
Psychologists have conducted profiles on persons whom they have identified as “clowning wits” or “compulsive humorists.” Compulsive humorists are “those who seem unable to stop cracking jokes, making humorous observations, and behaving like clowns.”9 While these persons can contribute a degree of fun and pleasure to a social atmosphere, others get tired of their incessant joking behavior.
The compulsive humorist has difficulty dealing with the more serious aspects of life. His constant joking becomes a way of avoiding confrontation with others. As a result, the compulsive humorist’s efforts to be liked and admired fall flat. This is confirmed in studies conducted in both large and small groups. While compulsive humorists score high in terms of funniness and likeability, they rate significantly low in terms of leadership, credibility, and influence.10
Along with damaging the preacher’s credibility, too much humor disrupts the flow of sermon content in the thought processes of the hearers. Stressing again the need for relevant humor, Luccock indicts the preacher whose excess joking short-circuits the listeners’ train of thought. In fact, he likens this compulsive joking to a drug habit, a preacher’s attempt to “escape the hard labor of really advancing the thought.”11
Preachers must resist using humor for its own sake. In most cases, such humor is actually for the preacher’s own sake. Humor of this kind backfires and defeats the intention of the insecure pastor who so much wants to be liked. A preacher can be funny, but he cannot be preoccupied with being funny. To fall into this temptation is to undermine the credibility of the preacher and — much worse — of the Gospel that God has called him to proclaim.
The preacher must be ever sensitive as to when good humor might cross the line into too much humor. Phillips Brooks draws this line when he distinguishes between “humor” and “frivolity.” The former is an element of homiletical power which can enhance the sermon effect; the latter is humor for its own sake and detracts from the message. Brooks underscores the difference between the two with the maxim that “The smile that is stirred by true humor and the smile that comes from the mere tickling of the fancy are as different from one another as the tears that sorrow forces from within the soul are from the tears that compel a man to shed by pinching him.”12
True pulpit humor is a servant of the sermon, not a rival in competition against it. Many of us who often speak publicly live with that humorist inside of us that is just dying to get out and woo an audience. Sometimes we might even rationalize that this comic can help us in reaching our listeners. If we can just let ourselves be preachers and humorists, we can “divide and conquer.” However, this dichotomy pits the preacher in us against the humorist in us. The listeners, always amenable to hearing something funny, will more often hear the humor over against the proclaimed message. How sad it is when the humorist wins the contest over the preacher. And how sad that this competition was created in the first place.
There is room for pastors who use humor effectively There is no place for pastors who try to be preachers and comics at the same time.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Foundationally, humor is a cognitive event; we cannot enjoy humor unless we understand it. Only after we comprehend the humor do we respond with mirthful feelings. Preachers must strive to make a humorous piece as clear and “understandable” as possible. Pulpit humor must be well-crafted and well-delivered.
Sometimes preachers stumble over the “set-up”; they mess up on the details of the story. Often it is the punch-line that fails to be presented clearly. Experiments from communication studies reveal the obvious — the clearer the resolution to a joke, the funnier it is to those who hear it.13 The entire piece lives or dies by how well this line is articulated. Again, words are to be chosen with precision.
All sermon illustrations should be painted with as clear a definition as possible. This is true even more for humorous ones. In a Yale chapel address, John Vannorsdall argues that humor “requires more, not less, of the preacher. The fine art of timing, spare-ness of language, and the use of incident to carry the general thrust of the sermon all require time for reworking.”14 Vannorsdall notes how pace, inflection, and volume are critical elements for good pulpit humor. He even encourages preachers to use tape recorders to test and to fine tune their execution of humorous pieces.
When you find or create a funny story, write it out completely. Play with the words for a while. Omit or change words to see how your story can best be understood by the listeners. Shorten the sentences to give the sentence more “spring.” See if you can rework sentences to remove excessive unnecessary articles like “the” or “a.” Excessive wording is dangerous for two reasons: First, the wordiness clouds the picture you are trying to paint for the listeners. Second, excessive phrases tend to move you off track and cause you to add even more words. Unnecessary detail makes you stumble in mid-joke; you flounder along, trying to get back into the joke’s movement. Congregants can read you when you are struggling with verbosity. When they sense this, the humor loses its punch.
As you get the wording polished, play with the delivery for a while. Vary the auditory dynamics of sermon delivery as you play with the message–rate, pitch, volume. Place more or less emphasis on particular words that build the expectation or add power to the punchline. You may find a tape recorder to be handy. Sometimes, simply repeating a certain delivery to myself does the job. Or, if I am lucky, my wife will allow me to inflict my choices of delivery upon her. (She deserves a gold medal for this. She would prefer gold earplugs.)
Combine the auditory dynamics with the visual ones — facial expression, gestures, and body movement. The latter can aid in the overall effect of the story. However, I would argue that the auditory effects are the key. Grady Nutt’s stories are hilarious even when you do not see his animated hand motions and inimitable facial expressions. Fred Craddock’s delivery of pulpit humor is masterful, and he uses little or no gestures while delivering it.
Preachers need to play with the words and the delivery. Play is the proper attitude for preachers as they plan out the humor. This makes the crafting of the humor more fun. Moreover, it creates the proper atmosphere that they hope to create when they deliver the message to the listeners.
Speaking of “practice,” how can you make yourself an overall funnier person? There is no A-B-C formula. However, experts agree on where to start: immerse yourself in the humor of others. Comedian Steve Allen tells would-be humorists that the best way to become more funny is to “brainwash yourself with as much humorous material as you can.”15 For preachers, I would qualify “humorous material” to mean humor that is positive and healthy. Buy tapes of Grady Nutt and Bill Cosby, and study their story telling genius. Read the witty books of Robert Fulghum and Erma Bombeck. Collect the best of Peanuts, the Far Side, Kudzu, Calvin and Hobbes, and other “hot” comic strips. Does studying these funny sources really help us become funnier? Yes indeed! In fact, studies reveal that after listening to humorous tapes, members of a group become more funny and more creative as they interact with one another.16
An even more helpful practice is to study the humor of other funny preachers. Be careful, however, about modeling yourself after preachers who have their own unique styles. During the 60’s and 70’s, many Southern Baptist preachers tried to emulate John Claypool’s confessional preaching so closely that they became less themselves and more “Claypool caricatures.” The same goes for preachers who try to imitate the humor of an E.V. Hill, a Fred Craddock, or a Calvin Miller. These preachers have their own funny wording and delivery that is difficult to copy. Try to find a preacher who, like yourself, has to work on his humor.
One of the best practitioners of pulpit humor today is Bob Russell, pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. (For more about Bob’s approach to pulpit humor, see the interview in the March-April 1995 Preaching.) Bob did not begin as a “natural” at pulpit humor, and he still has to work at it. But he has developed into one of the very best. Get some tapes of Bob’s sermons and note where and how he uses humor in his sermons. Studying a preacher “who has to work at it” allows you to learn from him without “becoming” him. Again: study all good pulpit humorists; model yourself after a preacher who — like you — has to earn his bread!
Watch Your Aim
A humorous message always has a target. Sometimes the target is just a word (cf. wordplay) or situation. Most often, the target is a person or group. Even if the persons in the story are fictitious, there are real people who identify with them. Sometimes the humor that is “fired” is harmless; at other times it can certainly be deadly.
Whenever preachers want to say something funny, they have to watch their aim. More than other persons, a pastor must ask two questions: “At whom is this humor aimed?” and “Is it O.K. to fire?” Preachers must have their target in sight. If the target is a person or group — whether real or fictitious — it must be determined whether “firing” at that target is appropriate. Hitting the wrong target results in a serious abuse of pulpit humor.
When humor is directed at a person or group, the preacher must determine whether the humor characterizes “laughing with” or “laughing at.” Dr. Joel Goodman, founder and director of the Humor Project, distinguishes between the two:17
Laughing With
1. Going for the jocular vein
2. Based on caring and empathy
3. Builds confidence.
4. Involves people in the fun.
5. A person makes a choice to be butt of joke and laughs at himself.
6. Amusing; invites people to laugh.
7. Supportive.
8. Brings people closer.
9. Leads to positive repartee.
10. Pokes fun at universal human foibles.
Laughing At
1. Going for the jugular vein.
2. Based on contempt & insensitivity.
3. Destroys confidence through put-downs.
4. Excludes some people.
5. A person has no choice in being made the butt of the joke.
6. Abusive; offends people.
7. Derogatory.
8. Divides people.
9. Leads to putting-down cycle.
10. Reinforces stereotypes by singling out a particular group as the butt.
Humor that is aggressive toward persons or groups is questionable at best. And if it is in the least sense questionable, the wise preacher will most often nix it. Experimental studies highlight the human tendency to like humor that is at others’ expense. In a series of investigations, Lawrence LaFave and his associates found that people enjoy humor more when it is directed outward, ridiculing perceived stereotypes and shortcomings of other groups. This “aggressive humor enjoyment” cuts across lines of gender, religion, nationality, political affiliation, and social status. (Among the groups analyzed by LaFave and others are men vs. women, Catholics vs. Protestants, Americans vs. non-Americans, Democrats vs. Republicans.)18 Preachers need not contribute to this tendency to enjoy humor at the expense of a person or group.
Studies in ethnic humor show convincingly that the tendency to use humor to align oneself with a group to claim superiority over other groups begins in children as early as age four.19 Preachers should work against this behavioral tendency. Further studies reveal that stereotypical humor occurs most frequently in pluralistic cultures.20 The fact that preachers are proclaiming in cultures that are fast becoming more heterogeneous magnifies the danger of over generalizing. To cultivate true koinonia among differing peoples, pastors must use humor that unites, not humor that divides.
Enjoy the Spontaneous and Move On
When something happens that sparks impromptu humor, the preacher can enjoy its appearance. At the same time, the preacher must be sensitized to the limits of such happenings. David Letterman makes a mint off of spontaneous humor. In fact, when something unexpected happens on his show, he refers to it again and again for the rest of the hour, finding new humor in it each time. (Comedians call this technique a “call-back.”)
Preachers should not expect the same opportunity with their sermons. A potential hazard is the preacher’s temptation to drag out the spontaneous humor to the point of overkill. Having tickled the listeners’ funny bone with an unplanned quip, the preacher tries to “tickle harder” by stretching the joke. Usually, the result is similar to what happens when somebody explains a joke after they tell it. Even if it is funny, it gets old right after the punchline. Are there any congregations that would enjoy a preacher trying to — as I heard a deacon-farmer say — “milk the cow to death”? Perhaps in rare occasions a preacher has the wit to keep a humorous instance floating beyond the first “punch.” But even in these cases, it must be known how far he can carry on this humor with a given congregation. In a word: enjoy it for the brief moment, then move on.
Too much spontaneous humor loosens the threads of continuity in the sermon. Again, the relevance of all elements of the sermon builds the preacher’s credibility; lack of relevance decreases it. Chances are the humor has nothing to do with the sermon at all. More importantly, it has little or nothing to do with what the congregants came to hear.
Recognize the Potential
Within most any worship context, there are moments that are ripe for a funny quip or story. The preacher needs to recognize those points when humor is waiting to burst onto the scene. Granted, worship services are more formal than most social contexts. The expectations and movements are more structured than other situations where we interact with other people. Even so, there are few services in which a preacher could not use some humor.
Some congregations are always ready to hear something funny. Churches that are less formal in atmosphere and liturgy tend to be especially open to humor. Other congregations are more challenging; the preacher has to coax the smiles and laughter out of the listeners. Preachers need to be aware of these varying degrees of formality as they consider how they might insert some humor into the sermon. The more formal settings might cause a preacher to refrain from attempting any humor at all. Nevertheless, psychologists remind us that humor is waiting to burst forth in more formal contexts just as often as in less formal ones.
In his book Laughter and Liberation, Harvey Mindess comments on the fact that both unusually restrictive situations like a classroom lecture or a church sermon and unusually disinhibiting situations like a state of inebriation or a joyful celebration are conducive to an increase in humor.21 When highly uninhibited, we are mentally and emotionally so “loose” that the weakest stimulus is enough to elicit mirth. When highly inhibited, we become so needful of release and relaxation that the weakest stimulus will trigger a response. One only needs to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos to see this effect in action. Note how many vignettes involve funny things that happen in more constrictive ceremonies — worship services, weddings, school plays. The preacher should be aware of the potential for humor in both formal and informal services. In either context, there are moments when congregants are “primed and ready” for something funny to happen.
Proverbs 17:22 reminds us that a joyful heart is a life-giving medicine. As we administer the restorative balm of the Gospel to broken souls, we can enhance its healing power by adding a prudent dose of humor. Indeed, there is a time to laugh. When the opportunities are there, may we celebrate their presence, and may we use them for the Gospel’s increase.
1Quoted in The Preacher Joke Book: Religious Anecdotes from the Oral Tradition, ed. Loyal Jones (Little Rock: August House, 1989), p. 25.
2Walter J. Burghardt, Preaching: The Art and the Craft (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 167.
3George E. Sweazy, Preaching the Good News (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 210.
4Halford E. Luccock, In the Minister’s Workshop (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1944), p. 191.
5William Norwood Brigance, Speech Communication (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955), p. 188.
6Edward Rogge and James C. Ching, Advanced Public Speaking (New York: Holt, Rinehaert, and Winston, 1966), p. 235. See also Jams L. Heflin, “An Evaluation of the Use of Humor in the Sermon,” Ph.D. Dissertation, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1974, pp. 142-143.
7See, for instance, Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Uses and Effects of Humor in Educational Ventures,” in Handbook of Humor Research; Applied Studies, Vol. 2, ed. Paul. E. McGhee and Jeffrey Goldstein (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1983).
8Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1984), pp. 55-56.
9Avner Ziv, Personality and Sense of Humor (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1984), p. 170.
10Ibid., pp. 169-170; See also Jacqueline D. Goodchilds, “Effects of Being Witty on Position in the Social Structure of a Small Group,” Sociometry, 22 (1959), 261-271.
11Luccock, p. 191.
12Brooks, p. 57.
13Jerry Suls, “Cognitive and Disparagement Theories of Humour: A Theoretical and Empirical Synthesis,” in It’s a Funny Thing, Humour, ed. Antony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot (London: Pergamon Press, 1977, pp. 41-46; Thomas R. Schultz and F. Horibe, “Development of the Appreciation of Verbal Jokes,” Developmental Psychology, 10 (1974), 13-20.
14John Vannorsdall, “Humor as Content and Device in Preaching,” Dialog, 22 (1983), 187-190.
15See Steve Allen, How to Be Funny: Discovering the Comic in You (Buffalo: Promethius Books, 1992).
16See, for instance, Avner Ziv, “The Effects of Humor on Creativity,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 3 (1976), 318-322.
17Joel Goodman, “How to Get More Smilage Out of Your Life,” in Handbook of Humor Research: Applied Studies, Vol. 2 (New York: Springer-Verlag: 1983), p. 11.
18See, for instance, Lawrence LaFave, K. MacCarthy, and N. Marshall, “Humor Judgments as a Function of Identification Classes,’ Sociology and Social Research, 58 (1974), 53-39; Lawrence LaFave, K. MacCarthy, and J. Haddad, “Humor Judgments as a Function of Identification Classes: Canadian vs. American,” Journal of Psychology, 85 (1973), 53-59; R. F. Priest, “Election Jokes: Effects of Reference Group Membership,” Psychological Reports, 18 (1966), 600-602.
19Antony J. Chapman, J. R. Smith, and Hugh C. Foot, “Language, Humor, and Intergroup Relations,” in Language, Ethnicity, and Intergroup Relations, ed. H. Giles, (London: Academic Press, 1977), 55-69.
20Christie Davies, “Ethnic Jokes, Moral Values, and Social Boundaries,” The British Journal of Sociology, 33 (1982), 383-403. See also Mahadev Apte, Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985).
21Harvey Mindess, Laughter and Liberation (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1971), p. 14.

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