Under the pastoral leadership of Bob Russell, Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church has become of the nation’s larger congregations, with nearly 10,000 persons attending worship in one of five weekend services. The church is now preparing to construct a new campus, complete with a 9200-seat sanctuary. Much of that growth relates to Russell’s compelling preaching style: conversational, practical, and frequently humorous. In this interview, Jim Barnette talks with Bob Russell about using humor effectively in preaching.
Preaching: You began your preaching ministry at Southeast Christian in 1966. Do you sense among listeners today a greater appreciation for humor in your preaching than in the past?
Russell: I would say definitely yes, and I can think of three reasons for that. One is that they’ve come to expect it from me. The second reason is that people have a harder time paying attention. They have to really work to pay attention, and humor helps them to do so. They appreciate that.
Another reason is that people like to laugh in church. Pulpit humor counters the myth that the Christian life is boring. Humor corrects this stereotype that is presented by the world. The Christian life is serious and demanding; but humor provides an opportunity for people to be reminded that there is a spirit of joy in the church.
Preaching: What are some positive effects of humor that you have sensed, whether in your preaching or that of someone else?
Russell: I think there are several benefits. One is that it breaks the tension. Especially if a person is new or if the subject is heavy. If you can get people to laugh, they are a little more relaxed and receptive. Pulpit humor creates interest and gives opportunity for instruction. And I think it breaks down the barriers between the speaker and the audience or even between segments of people in the audience. Laughing together bonds them together.
Also, I think humor gives the audience a chance to participate. We don’t have as much audience participation in our more sophisticated churches. People don’t say “Amen” or affirm very much, and they sit there quietly. Laughter in some of our circles is the only opportunity for people to affirm the minister, as to say “Hey, I’m with you. I agree with this.”
I have a friend — Kevin Cosby — who preaches here in Louisville at St. Stephen Baptist Church. Saint Stephen is an African-American church with lively services. Kevin asked me to come preach for him. I said, “Well, Kevin, I don’t know if I’d go over in your church. You speak in a different rhythm than I do, and your people say “Amen.” The last time I heard an “Amen” in our church I lost my place.”
Kevin said, “Don’t worry about it. I don’t want to hurt your feelings or anything, but our people say you preach a lot like me — you just don’t have the gravy. So if you’ll come give us the meat, we’ll give you the gravy!” Humor can be the “gravy” that seasons a worship service, that makes it more participative.
Preaching: You do a masterful job with humorous stories. Do you prefer them to other types of pulpit humor like jokes and puns?
Russell: I feel more comfortable with stories. I will occasionally tell a joke, but I don’t feel comfortable with a long joke.
Grady Nutt used to say that comedy is the funny things you invent and humor is the funny things you see. Like Grady, I prefer the latter. I find myself most comfortable with those personal stories that people can identify with. Funny stories that are “real life” can really grip them.
Preaching: When can a preacher’s humor detract from the sermon?
Russell: I think the audience can detect when the humor becomes more important than the message. They perceive that it becomes an ego thing and takes precedence over the thrust of the message. If they see that the humor is just there to manipulate, then it detracts from the sermon. Or if there is any questionable material that is used, it makes the audience uncomfortable. There is always the temptation to say, “Well, this is borderline, but I don’t see a real problem.” I think that if it is borderline and might make the audience uncomfortable, then we should not use it.
Do you remember the story about the guy who said that when he was a little boy he saw a tent in the field? He thought it was the circus, so he went and crawled under the tent flap. He said it was the biggest disappointment of his life — he found out it was a revival meeting. Years later as an adult, at a time when he was really hurting, he went into a church hoping to find a revival meeting — and he was disappointed that it was a circus. I don’t think church should ever be a circus.
Preaching: No one I have heard uses self-disclosive humor better than you do. Some might question the appropriateness of these stories that the preacher tells on himself, or stories that reveal a little bit about you. How would you respond to that?
Russell: One of the benefits is that people know you are human and that you are not trying to set yourself up as being the Great White Father. I’m sure that can be taken to extreme. But I’ll tell you something else it does: if you are telling a story where you are the hero, or you did something right, they are quicker to buy that. I can remember a sermon that illustrates that for me. I preached it several years ago at a Conference:
I was on a plane, and I was going over my sermon for the next day. There weren’t very many people on the plane. I happened to be preaching the next day on Acts 8 about the Ethiopian eunuch. A stewardess came by and said, “Boy, you’re really telling ’em, aren’t you?” I said, “How’s that?” She said, “You’re gesturing and everything — what are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m a preacher and I’m going over my sermon.”
Instead of turning me off, she said, “Well, that’s interesting. Where do you preach?” And she sat down and talked with me for about fifteen minutes. We were just beginning to descend over the Ohio River, and she looked out the window and said, “There is water, why can’t I be baptized?” (Pause) No, that’s not what she said. The truth is she got up and said “goodbye” and I said “goodbye.” If I had been one of those big evangelists, I guess I could have had her come down the aisle of the plane or something.”
The people at the conference laughed at that story. Now, at the end of the same sermon I had a story in which I had led my best friend from high school to Christ, and the story had a really dramatic conclusion. And I think it made the dramatic story more believable because I had earlier made myself the brunt of the joke. Do you understand what I’m saying? I think it adds credibility rather than detracts if you are telling the truth. I don’t like to hear a guy make himself out to be a buffoon when he wasn’t the buffoon. But I think there are those things which happen to you that are real and we ought to be open about it.
Preaching: And people can identify with those funny happenings that are “real”?
Russell: Right. They know exactly what you are talking about. That’s why I do not shy away from stories about funny things happening with my family. Given an insight into our home, I think the people realize we are human and we struggle with the very same issues and emotions they do.
Preaching: Don’t you think there is a need for people to see that in our ministers?
Russell: Maybe a little bit more so today, because there’s this image of hypocrisy that’s been projected by the media ministers — that everything is always perfect in our homes and we have no problems and we have this walk with the Lord in which He gives His audible voice.
Preaching: Do you prepare and practice delivery of your humorous stories?
Russell: Every time! I am not a very gifted person to speak spontaneously or extemporaneously. So I read sermons three or four times before I actually preach them, and that includes the humor. Once in a while something bubbles up in the telling of the story that I had not anticipated; but most of the time it is something I have gone over.
Preaching: Some say that preachers who don’t think they have the natural “knack” for humor should not try to use it in the pulpit. How would you respond to that?
Russell: There is no question that some people are more gifted than others. I would recommend to those who don’t think themselves gifted that they try to quote somebody whom other people think are funny. They can quote a Wayne Smith or a Grady Nutt. You know, Wayne Smith has the saying that “If you know you are lying and the Lord knows you are lying, it’s the same as telling the truth!” Or, Paul Harvey says he heard about a man who wanted to look young so badly that he put braces on his false teeth. I think everybody can try those things. A sense of humor can be developed. You may never be a Grady Nutt, but I think that just like a young preacher needs to “get more seasoned,” so the preacher who is not necessarily gifted with humor can learn to use it a little bit.
It is a risky thing for us; some have tried humor and it didn’t go over. And then they give up.
Preaching: How can they improve?
Russell: One of the things that has helped me is that a lot of the stories I’ve told from the pulpit, I’ve told in small groups of four or five or before the family. Many times, just telling the story, a line will develop extemporaneously that I had not thought about when I was writing it down. Or someone will say something at the end of it, and you discover a good “tag” on the end of the story. Telling it to a smaller group always helps you with timing.
Preaching: Many homiletics textbooks say that humor should never be used in the conclusion. How would you respond to this position?
Russell: I would have two comments. One is that in the conclusion it would be very rare; but I don’t like the word “never.” There should be exceptions to what we are trying to accomplish.
Also, let me mention invitations. If the invitation is too melodramatic, people are real reluctant to respond because it leaves the impression they are responding to the emotion. If there is intense emotion in the sermon, some comic relief might ease the tension. I think it can make it a little easier for people to walk forward.
Preaching: Some might be really resistant to this notion of humor in the invitation.
Russell: Yes, and I would have to say that it should be rare, an exceptional case, but I would not say that you should never use it. It may be right for the setting. I can remember when we had a platform up front for a Christmas pageant. I said, “Now, if you’re gonna come today, I mean you’ve got to really want to come. In fact, we were even thinking of putting a yellow line on the floor to show you what to follow.” Or you might say, “If you come today, I gotta tell you that the heater is broken in the baptistry. The water is really cold. We’re gonna have to dry clean you or …” I don’t think that’s inappropriate; it’s disarming. The one note that has to be struck in the church today is authenticity. If the tone or theme of the service is phony or inauthentic, we lose them when we get to the invitation.
Preaching: Two questions: Does the preacher have to be really sensitive to the context when using pulpit humor? And as one who has traveled so widely, do you see yourself varying your humor given a particular context?
Russell: Yes. I’ve used some inappropriate humor that has come back to stick me. I heard a joke years ago about a doctor who came in to the amputee and said, “I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is I have amputated the wrong leg, but the good news is we have taken another look at the other one and I think it’s going to be O.K.” In a small circle that might have been O.K. to tell. But I remember telling it to a group of nurses who were graduating — and you talk about bombing out!
I remember another one. I was talking about manual labor and I said, “Some guys think ‘manual labor’ plays second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates.” (This was before all the political correctness.) I told that story here at Southeast and it went over pretty well. But I didn’t think about what I was saying when I was preaching the same sermon in Tucson, Arizona. I got to that quip and I thought, “What am I doing?” It was a whole different situation. Yes, I have learned that what is appropriate in one area is not appropriate in another area, and what is appropriate with one group is not appropriate with another group. Sometimes you learn the hard way!
Preaching: One thing I have learned from humor studies is that the one way stereotypical humor can be appropriate and constructive is if the humor is directed at the particular group that makes up the bulk of that audience. Of course, this pre-supposes it is a very homogeneous group. If I make a joke about Baptists or you make a joke about Southeast as a whole, that could be O.K. I was just listening to a tape of William Willimon poking fun at his own denomination. He had been struggling with interpreting a certain Bible passage. Finally, he decided to “do something a little weird for a Methodist — I decided to stick with the text!”
Russell: Make sure you are including yourself in that group. There is a story I’ve used at various sites since our church has gotten a little larger: “You know, I am a little nervous when people introduce me as being pastor of a large church. We have had so many stories of failures of big church pastors that some people are a little skeptical of a pastor of a big church.
“Recently a farmer called my secretary and said, ‘I’d like to speak to The Head Hog at the Trough.’ My secretary said, ‘Excuse me?’ The man said again, ‘I’d like to speak to The Head Hog at the Trough.’ She said, ‘Sir, if you mean Bob Russell, please address him as ‘Reverend’ or ‘Pastor’ or ‘Brother,’ but not ‘Head Hog at the Trough.’ The farmer replied, ‘O.K. then, just forget it. I just sold a bunch of hogs and I was going to give a ten thousand dollar donation to the building fund.’ My secretary quickly said, ‘Hold on a minute, I think The Big Pig just walked in’!”
This is a case where I include myself, and I’m not laughing just at preachers but preachers at big churches.
Preaching: How important is it for a preacher’s planned humor to be relevant to the sermon content?
Russell: It’s very important. I have friends who disagree with me. My preaching has various degrees of humor in it; it might have a lot or it might have very little. Relevance is the key. I think it ought to flow naturally, and if it’s not coming naturally I get in trouble by trying to force it. The stories need to make a point, and the relevance will help the people remember it.
Preaching: Bob, do you have any other thoughts you would want to add regarding humor in preaching?Russell: One other thing, Jim, which is that congregations need to be flexible and allow ministers of different levels of humor giftedness to express themselves. I have heard from “old time” Christian people who thought it was wrong to laugh in church. But if a preacher comes to a church, and that preacher has the gift of humor, then we really ought to say that God has gifted that person. Let’s enjoy and appreciate that gift rather than judging somebody’s spirituality by the dynamics of his preaching — by whether he makes a person laugh or doesn’t make a person laugh.

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