Mullin, in his book, Laughing Out Loud and other Religious Experiences, has a chapter entitled “Please God may we laugh?” And the resounding answer from many good Christians is “No!” For them, religion is deadly serious business and — even at the risk of dullness — one must not, as the Psalmist suggested “make a joyful noise.” Don’t just read this positive affirmation. Write it down. Sign your name to it and scotch tape it to your desk and anything else you often see.
It is not necessary, on a Sunday morning, to become a comedian for Christ. Yet neither is there a scriptural reference that claims blessed are the bored. No less a preacher than Spurgeon spoke of the mistake of thinking that virtue lays in gravity and that smiles are a symptom of depravity. Humor can grab attention that might otherwise be drifting away.
Is there a danger? Of course! It always comes down to whether a laugh or two are well placed in a sermon or whether there are so many jokes the sermon becomes a joke.
When I decided to become a minister at the age of sixteen, I also gave long thought to following through on my decision because of the somberness of many ministers in my time. They approached humor as if it were an insidious disease — should it infect their sermons, terrible emotional and theological problems would arise. Admittedly this was
62 years ago, but debate continues as to the place of humor in the pulpit.
Flexibility in making your point
As an old tennis player, I long ago learned that success on the court is best accomplished by having more than one approach to driving home a winning point. Success in the pulpit is no different. We should not become a prisoner of a particular way of sermonizing. To think that every sermon should produce some laughter is both faulty in the thought and ridiculous if applied. The shining wisdom of the divine spark at work may cut off an amusing story, and wisely so. But any system that has no room for change in either direction should be prayed about and looked at carefully.
Like it or not, people today have short attention spans and want to be engaged. Therefore, theology with an occasional tie-in laugh line is certainly better than the attention of a congregant journeying to where he will be Sunday afternoon rather than where he is on Sunday morning. The fuel of humor can warm the cockles of a listening heart. It is something a listener can hang a theological thought onto and carry on into the week ahead.
I still visualize a silly description that a preacher friend told me in the early years of my ministry, that preaching is like throwing a bucketful of water at a number of narrow-necked bottles. Unfortunately, people are not always big, wide buckets open to understanding any and every thought. Rather, they are prone to having wandering, narrow minds; preconceived ideas that don’t like to be too firmly nudged; and sometimes, not laughingly so, they fail to understand what we were absolutely sure was crystal clear.
Study examples of effective humor
There is no doubt that if a decision is made to tickle the funny bone on the way to inspiring the soul, one needs to have carried a sense of humor throughout the week. Take advantage of resources that can give you a chuckle as well as modeling ways to use humor effectively. Enjoy a joke book or a collection of humorous stories; watch some of the talented Christian comedians now available on television or via DVD. Observe the examples of humor that get your attention; there’s a good chance such an approach will also be a useful tool as you try to gain and hold your congregation’s attention.
Of course, we need to make sure that humor we use is appropriate to the setting. And be aware that all preaching is not done from the pulpit. Therefore, when we tell a joke — whether it’s in the pulpit or with a friend on the golf course — it needs to fit our calling and role or else it may well make us unfit by the telling of it.
Do humor and preaching mix?
There are certainly those who will continue to argue that something funny does not belong in sermons and that anything less than serious is superficial. But the purpose of the pulpit is to cause people to listen, think and respond. When individuals laugh, they are more apt to listen. So, pure and simple, one question must be asked concerning our preaching: is anybody listening?
If listening to our preaching becomes a grudging obligation that is poorly fulfilled because too many in the congregation are half asleep, something has been lost. Illustrations can be inspirational, motivational and educational, but there is nothing wrong with a little entertaining satire or well-placed joke to make a theological point
As we use humor, however, we need to evaluate our own efforts. Am I telling this joke to gain personal attention or to gain attention for the point I am trying to make?
And effective use of humor requires preparation. Practice telling a humorous story to gain the desired impact. (In fact, it’s not a bad idea to practice preaching your entire sermon in private before presenting it in public.) Try doing so in front of a mirror and check out your facial expression. Is there a smile hidden there trying to get out, or do you need to think to remember how long it has been since you smiled on a Sunday morning?
Our ultimate example as preachers knew how to use humor. (If you’re not sure about that, check Elton Trueblood’s book The Humor of Christ or Earl Palmer’s book on The Humor of Jesus.) In teaching and in response to questions, Jesus knew that sometimes humor drives the point home better than anything else. Remember when He asked why we worry about the speck in a neighbors eye as against a plank in your own? Did you get the joke? If humor does the job, then use it.
The purpose of preaching is not to impress people with how much you know or how serious you can be, but to gain the ear of their souls. Why not engage a new listener on the back row by giving him or her a chance to laugh and — through a humorous observation — gain a new perspective on some biblical truth.
God has a sense of humor
I am not necessarily suggesting that the Apostle Paul should have been a master of witticisms, but I do call attention to Acts 20:7-10. Do you remember when an over-extended speech of his caused a man named Eutychus to fall asleep while listening and fall with a thud from a third floor window.
Would you not agree that God had a sense of humor? Look at the duck, all smooth and graceful when gliding across a lake only to turn into a waddling clown with an annoying quack when reaching land. What of the anteater who looks and labors like an animated vacuum cleaner? Look in the Bible itself: how when God wants to start a nation, He chooses a ninety-year-old woman named Sarah who has a son named “Laughing one” (Isaac). Then later, He chooses an emotionally tongue-tied Moses, who certainly wouldn’t win any homiletic awards, to talk Pharaoh into letting His people go. As a suggestion for better preaching should you change your name, not publicly or officially, to Isaac the Laughing one?
It is highly doubtful that any preacher worth his weight in homiletical skills would argue that dull is better than quick-witted brightness. An amusing anecdote can often move things along better than a theological truth presented in such an abstract, heavy-handed manner that it impedes rather than inspires.
When should we use humor?
Many church billboards try to gain attention with one-liners that tickle the funny bone. If humor is used to attract people’s attention to attend worship services, what is wrong with using humor to hold that attention during a sermon?
Should humor be limited in a sermon? Of course! Too much of a good thing can turn a preacher into a stand-up comic. And it’s also vital to know your own gifts. Even a sure-fire joke isn’t magical formula for success for everyone. Without a doubt, temperament is a large part of the equation. For some ministers the insertion of a laugh line would be disastrous.
However, being humorous doesn’t necessarily mean always telling a joke. Often it is simply having an attitude that can find a vein of humor in a gold mine of philosophical thought.
Preparing to use humor
With or without humor, one great problem for all preachers is time. It is said that Harry Emerson Fosdick enjoyed the luxury of having thirty hours a week he could devote to a thirty-minute sermon. One hour for every minute. What a great privilege! But even preachers who try to set aside mornings for study still find their time-table truncated; the counseling sessions unplanned.an emergency hospital visit.the big etc. What to do? Perhaps go searching for a sense of humor to be able to handle the problem.
Winston Churchill wasn’t giving advice for the writing of sermons but his advice to writers included the following, “You should go to your room everyday at nine o’clock and say, ‘I’m going to write for four hours.’ If you sit waiting for inspiration, you will be waiting until you are an old man, so kick yourself, irritate yourself, but write; it is the only way.” Doing anything well requires discipline and preparation, and that includes humor.
Winging it may sound spiritual, but it is also the cry of the laggard. Imagine being in the pulpit and suddenly remembering two stories that might fit and immediately, because of a lack of prior preparation, picking the wrong one. So write your thoughts. “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork,” quipped novelist Peter DeVries. However, when an idea is translated into a written sentence or paragraph, that often makes it clear whether the thought was as good as you thought it was.
All preachers need to beware of taking themselves so seriously their ego gets in the way of effective communication. A good joke at one’s own expense can do wonders, in particular, to any in the congregation who are first timers. Humor should never be the backbone of a sermon, but it can be a hard worker and a pleasant companion in the total process of driving home truth.
V. Neil Wyrick is a Presbyterian minister/dramatic evangelist. His most recent book is The Spiritual Abraham Lincoln (Magnus Press).