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Humor in the Pulpit

posted by Scot McKnight

What do you think of humor in the pulpit? Collin Hansen, at Christianity Today, writes about it and warns about it. If you went to seminary or took a preaching class, what were you told? Is this a personality thing? Or is this a full-human-experience thing? Sort of like Ecclesiastes’ famous line… a time for everything, with the implication that there’s right time for everything.  Or this is reverence issue? Is this a communication issue?

Here’s a clip from Collin Hansen’s piece at CT:
I love to laugh. And when I laugh, you’ll hear me if you’re in the same zip code. I have a few all-time favorite comedy TV shows that I can watch over and over again. And I enjoy funny movies, so long as they forego the explicit sexual content.

So why do I often cringe when pastors crack jokes during their sermons on Sunday morning? Maybe the joke’s on me, because comedy has become many pastors’ best friend. Apparently, seminaries may want to consider adding a course in stand-up comedy to prepare their preachers. One church I know recently hosted “Church Joke Sunday.” In lieu of hearing a sermon, a dwindling number of people who actually understand denominational humor laughed about the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians. And during the recent Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, Susan Sparks coached pastors in clerical comedy.



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Mike Bird

posted June 21, 2010 at 12:48 am


Scot,
Charles Spurgeon was criticized for the humour he included and his response was, “If only you knew how I held back”. For instance, once Spurgeon lectured on heaven to some students. He told then, “When you speak of heaven, you should smile. But when you speak of hell, feel free to use your normal face.” Humour can be over done, esp. if it’s irrelevant to the topic. But truth me told, given my personality, there’s always a few gags thrown in. It is a great way to hold peoples’ interest and make the sermon memorable (hopefully the main point rather than the humour).



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Mark

posted June 21, 2010 at 8:14 am


I think Humor can help people relate to the content but it shouldn’t be a focus. I’m sure God loves a good joke but, it can be easier to use is at a crutch for the real purpose of the pulpit.
The pulpit is for the preaching of God’s Word, Law and Gospel. Anything that distracts from that shouldn’t be there. I’m not saying jokes shouldn’t be banned but it needs to be used wisely so as not to distract people from the message of the gospel.



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T.C. Porter

posted June 21, 2010 at 8:26 am


I’m glad you brought this up. Sermons in general are equated (practically if not in theory) with church; the religious experience is largely bound up in the sermon, which is generally too long anyway. Most sermons can be edited down to under 10 minutes. Most the scrap material includes humor. People laugh and might remember the joke but it rarely contributes to edification. And don’t kid yourself, most people are not impressed. There is a hunger out there for conversations – dialog, not monologue – and real relationships. The reformers moved the pulpit in the center and our shift should be the other way: Ten minute message perhaps, with lots of conversation and activities that practice the Christian lifestyle in community – praying with others, listening to their stories, serving the community, etc. That’s what we do.



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:mic

posted June 21, 2010 at 8:29 am


Seek not, forbid not.
The goal of the sermon is not to entertain, but there are moments which are full of joy and wonder and excitement and laughter which even the holy Scriptures cannot contain.
(I am currently preaching Jonah . . . how do you ignore the wit of this narrative without severely damaging the text?)



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Scot McKnight

posted June 21, 2010 at 8:31 am


:mic,
I agree. If you aren’t laughing at Jonah, you aren’t responding to the author’s powerful satire about the prophet/s.
captcha: Mr scholars!



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Will Varner

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:10 am


Chuck Swindoll’s example is the best answer to this question. No one has ever accused his messages of lacking substantial content. Preachers who criticize the use of humor are usually humorless souls trying to defend their dour style.



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Ralph M

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:15 am


I have come to believe that the health of a congregation can be assessed by their collective sense of humor. Besides God’s joke played out on Jonah in chapter 4, Paul uses humor extensively in Philemon and in 1 Corinthians. Congregations who have no toleration for humor in the pulpit are not healthy and inviting to outsiders. As far as the comment about a 10 minute sermon, please review Paul’s sermon in Troas – lasted several hours. While sermons devoid of significant content should be shortened, people must stretch their attention spans and get past the very immature 30 second sound byte mentality which strips away richness of critical thinking.



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Wyatt Roberts

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:20 am


Maybe his pastor just isn’t very funny. Cringing at a bad joke is normal. Sometimes, when it happens our drummer does the obligatory “bad-joke drum roll.” But if he’s saying humor has no place in the pulpit, well, I disagree.



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Don Heatley

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:23 am


http://www.donheatley.com
If one needs to “add” humor to a sermon, it’s probably a bad idea. That is often an indication that the writer isn’t that funny anyway. However, if one naturally communicates in a humorous way, by all means incorporate it into the sermon. By humor, I don’t mean opening with a joke, but naturally using the humor to make one’s points. A good example of this would be Tony Campolo, who is just naturally a funny guy. For him to avoid being funny in his sermons would be inauthentic.
Regarding preachers and stand-up comedy, frankly I don’t see the problem. Some stand-up comedians are very thought-provoking and even prophetic. In fact, I would suggest that preachers and stand-up comedians are almost the only communicators left in our culture, who must rely solely on speech to connect with their hearers.
The bottom line is, if humor is part of who you are, by all means incorporate it. However, consider carefully that it is not and you shouldn’t.



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Robin

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:26 am


I wonder if this is a denominational phenomenon. After becoming a Christian I have attended mostly neo-calvinist churches, and while there is some occasional humor, it is definitely not the focus of the sermon. I grew up Catholic and attended some Southern Baptist youth groups. The youth groups, and some of the priests, used humor quite extensively and, with the exception of reading the text of scripture in introductory remarks, never used scripture throughout the message, just cute stories, anecdotes, and jokes.



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Gerard

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:29 am


A recent seminary grad myself, the common rule given to us in preaching was if you are going to use an illustration (or a joke for that matter), make sure it serves a purpose.
I love comedy and really appreciate stand-up comedy, which is why I try to avoid telling jokes; it’s too much of a temptation issue for me to be funny instead of faithful. Any humor I give usually happens off the cuff during conversation in the sermon.



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T

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:34 am


Hopefully sermons (and the persons giving them) want to represent God accurately. If God has no humor, then by all means, keep humor out of sermons. But God help us all if that’s the case!
And T.C., I agree. This seems like, to me, the problem isn’t humor in sermons, but in making them hard to see accurately, having set them so high up on that pedestal! If we’d broaden our sacramental theology a bit beyond the sermon, humor would be just one of many benefits.



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Wyatt Roberts

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:36 am


Wouldn’t jokes serve the same purpose as parables?



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Dan Reid

posted June 21, 2010 at 10:45 am


Yesterday our pastor opened with a very funny joke. It must have been–folks were laughing much more than usual. But I missed the essence of it because my mind was off onto something he’d said before the joke. But the sermon itself, well, that was excellent. I guess I didn’t need the joke. Which reminds me that jokes are too often needless window dressing. I’m not opposed to them in principle, but I’m afraid they’re too often a crutch for preachers who really need to spend more time with the substance of their preaching. It would be a good spiritual and homiletic discipline for some preachers to go on a “joke fast” and work (and pray) to capture the attention of their gathered community (not their “audience”)by the splendor of God’s Word.



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Russs

posted June 21, 2010 at 11:31 am


Some can do jokes and some cannot. An excellent example of a TV preacher who uses humor effectively is John Hagee of Cornerstone Church



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Shawn

posted June 21, 2010 at 11:32 am


All I know is that I learn best when I laugh. I don’t think being funny or being faithful has to be an either/or – it is a both/and. Some come across like humor is a sin in the pulpit. Some of the greatest preachers know and use the power of humor, including Jesus. In fact, the Bible has some very funny stories. Read Acts 20:7-13 – maybe if Paul decided to use a little humor in his preaching this would not have happened :)



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Carol

posted June 21, 2010 at 11:35 am


I am not sure about joke Sunday, but this I know–humorless communication is punishing. Laughter is a gift and is a blessing in worship.



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Aaron

posted June 21, 2010 at 11:49 am


I think Jokes can be a wonderful way to give the audience a breath / break from heavy teaching. A well timed joke or some funny illustration can help recapture the audience attention.



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Bob Smallman

posted June 21, 2010 at 11:49 am


Some people can do humor in the pulpit well and naturally, others can’t. I have a great sense of humor, but I’m not a naturally funny person when speaking in public, so (with my wife’s strong encouragement!) I don’t often try to tell a joke. But I do — hopefully only when it’s appropriate — sometimes share a laugh with folks over something in the text or in our lives. Someone once said that God must have a sense of humor — after all, He created the giraffe!
Yesterday, I was preaching on the text in Mark 7 where Jesus tells the woman from Syria that “it’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” And she came back at Him with, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And I suggested that when Jesus replied (“For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter”), He had a chuckle in His voice. This woman could give as well as she got, and Jesus got a kick out of this mom’s willingness to fight for her daughter!
[By the way, His original comment to her is not humorous at all — it’s insulting and even hurtful. But I think Jesus was purposefully giving voice to what His own disciples were undoubtedly thinking (cf. Matthew’s account), in order to stretch their vision who should be included in the Kingdom of God. Not only unclean foods (beginning of the chapter) but unclean people (end of the chapter) are welcome in Christ’s Kingdom. This was a test not so much of the woman’s faith (though that may have been involved) but of the disciples’ vision.] Sorry to get off topic!



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John Musick

posted June 21, 2010 at 11:58 am


It seems to me there is probably a big difference in telling a joke and being funny.
I imagine that there are some preachers who over-rely on humor. I also imagine that there are some who simply do not know how to tell a joke.
However, I am confused by the assumption that preaching must be a humorless affair.
Perhaps the lack of humor has less to do with denominations and more to do with the northern European, Germanic/Scandanavian stoic and modern temperament that is held or has been adopted by many who give sermons. Calvin, Luther & Augustine aren’t famous for their jocularity.
Hopefully most people understand that there’s more to preaching than just exegesis. If that’s all people want, there’s no need to go to church to get that. Preachers are communicators. They should faithfully communicate the Bible as accurately as they are able, but they must also communicate how that reflects upon human life. And often, life is funny. While it should be authentic, I believe there should be a sense of transcendent joy in our communicating. Certainly, as I’m sure the author points out int he article, there is a time for everything.
“The man who occupies the pulpit and is afraid of laughing at himself, is a man who is not worth listening to.” John Musick
But there are wiser and wittier fellow than I that have thoughts on humor:
?Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is? Francis Bacon
?A sense of humor keen enough to show a man his own absurdities will keep him from the commission of all sins, or nearly all, save those worth committing.? Samuel Butler
?The most protean aspect of comedy is its potentiality for transcending itself, for responding to the conditions of tragedy by laughing in the darkness.? Harry Levin
?Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.? Aristotle
“Humor is a serious thing. I like to think of it as one of our greatest earliest natural resources, which must be preserved at all cost.? James Thurber
?Love is an attachment to another self. Humor is a form of self-detachment – a way of looking at one’s existence, one’s misfortune, or one’s discomfort. If you really love, if you really know how to laugh, the result is the same: you forget yourself.? Unknown
?A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.” Henry Ward Beecher
?A keen sense of humor helps us to overlook the unbecoming, understand the unconventional, tolerated the unpleasant, overcome the unexpected, and outlast the unbearable? Billy Graham



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MikeK

posted June 21, 2010 at 12:39 pm


I just find Hansen boring and the weakest editor at CT. His rift on humor just verifies it.
There are so many different elements to homilectics, that to exclude one on the basis of some presumed biblical and theological higher grounds seems like the kind reductionistic tendencies that I’ve read from Hansen before.



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TeeJ

posted June 21, 2010 at 1:58 pm


Nothing is less funny than a discussion of humor… The Bible has multiple mentions of laugh and laughter (etc), and I don’t see much about “thou shalt not have any fun while in church.” Just joke-telling for its own sake (in a sermon) would be out of place (that would be fools’ laughter), and we shouldn’t mock, but some humor can really drive home a point and lighten our loads. A time to weep AND a time to laugh! Too many see Christians as “no fun,” when in fact the freedom Christ gives should allow us to have more TRUE fun than non-believers. Make them desire what we have!



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T

posted June 21, 2010 at 2:23 pm


I read the article in full and realized that the author both (i) “warns” against relying on humor (even by those who do it well) rather than the gospel, and (ii) tries “to defend the preachers who would flop as stand-up comedians. … We might not be the best preachers, but we have the best message. We want to grow as effective communicators. But we?re tempted to despair when congregations exhort us to include more funny stories and lighten the mood. … The vast majority of pastors, who lack an extraordinary gift for comedy, eventually exhaust their repository of funny things kids say. Rather than an aid, comedy becomes the pastor?s cruel taskmaster.”
While Hansen is saying something more than I originally thought, the whole post still seems wrong-headed. While there are multiple practical solutions for pastors who feel inadequate in one way or another (getting some close friends and turning sermons into a team effort are my personal favorite), encouraging pastors to be less humorous in the pulpit is a very odd choice.



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D C Cramer

posted June 21, 2010 at 2:30 pm


“If you went to seminary or took a preaching class, what were you told?”
At TEDS (where, by the way, I believe Hansen goes/went to seminary) we were discouraged from using levity in the pulpit. However, when our homiletics text by John Piper stated that Jesus is never recorded as telling a joke, our professor admitted that that was a bit of a stretch!



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Pat

posted June 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm


Humor has its place, but one really has to know how to use it. If they’re not careful, pastors can end up having the jokes be the thing that is most memorable about their sermon versus the actual substantive content.



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Larry

posted August 15, 2011 at 10:51 pm


I am often in charge of “annoucements” before the worship service begins. By nature, I am somewhat of a comedian. I realize the worshiping God in “his house” is no laughing matter, It is serious business as God is serious about our committment to him with His love and grace, or in another word, His favor. We run to finish the race as well as we can and for the final reward.

There is always a fine line when it comes to using humor during the worship service. I am reminded of that Bible verse that says: “When you pray due so in fear and trembling of God.” Yeah, its serious, Some of the best preachers in the world, in other faiths besides mine by the way, have been made great by their use of humor intermingled with the absolute truth of the word. As an example, John Haggey in a sermon about honoring your mother and father had this to say: “If you refer to you mother as the “old Lady” or your father, as the “Old Man”, you should have a razor strap taken to your buttox until it connects to your cererbrial cortex! Hilarious, but dead on biblically correct. So while reverant, also very funny at the same time.

Another preacher addressed the issue of your body being a temple unto God and that we “put on Jesus” when we keep his commandments. His conclusion was that when we “cut, tattoo, or otherwise alter are natural bodies, we are doing it to ourselves and to Jesus! He said this in his sermon: “A young lady came to me the other day with one of those “things” sticking through her bottom lip. I asked why it was there? She said because I think it is cute, to which he replied quickly that he thought it looked stupid! She then said well it makes me lose weight, to which he replied: “It will only make you lose weight if you button it to the top of your other lip!” Only a pro behind the pulpit should attempt this kind of humor and it helps if you have a southern accent!

Humor for the rest of us is probably only appropriate during the annoucements and then it must be acceptible by the Elders of the congregation, or your toast as far as ever getting the nod to do announcements again!

Larry



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