Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pulpit Humor

Not long ago I visited a church where the pastor was away and a guest was filling in. The itinerant preacher ascended to the pulpit and began with a pronouncement something like this: “I understand that Pastor Jones usually begins his sermons with a joke, so I’ll start with one of mine.” Whereupon he launched into what had the aura of something lifted from the “Church Humor” page of the Reader’s Digest.

Well, his gag barely scored a point on the chuckle-o-meter. And “gag” describes my reaction to it. Such attempts at what is supposed to be humor contribute nothing to proclamation of the Word, and often become a huge distraction—as it was in this situation. We were jolted out of the mode of worship and into something that the speaker thought was entertaining.

Won’t we ever come to understand that entertainment and worship are oil and water—they simply do not mix. When one tries to mix them, entertainment always wins out, floating on the surface.

It’s distressing when preachers try to be stand-up comedians. It so often comes off as buffoonery, and the message suffers because of the messenger.*

I suppose that preachers try this in an effort to meet the folks in the pews on their own terms. It is condescension, stooping down to their level in hopes of connecting with them. It is nothing less than an insult to their intelligence and an affront to their spiritual needs. Congregations do not assemble in churches on Sunday mornings to hear jokes—they come to meet Jesus Christ in the Word proclaimed and to be nourished in the Sacrament Meal.

This kind of joking approach to pulpit humor comes from a misunderstanding of humor and its role in proclaiming the Gospel. Humor is not one-liners or shaggy-dog stories. Humor is wit that shows perception and understanding, and it can provoke laughter.

There is a problem, however, if one goes in the opposite direction and rules humor out of sermons. It’s a mistake to consider “serious” and “solemn” to be synonyms—they are not. Preaching the Gospel is serious business, always a matter of life and death to those who listen and hear. It should not be trivialized by jocularity. Yet it should not be smothered by sober solemnity that is dour and dull.

I’m sure there are preachers who see the humor in life and share it in sermons. I’m confident that many preachers are able to be human and identify with their listeners, as they reveal the real presence of Christ not only in their words, but in their lives. Certainly there are preachers who can find laughter to share in the oxymorons and paradoxes and ambiguities of life and faith.

The point is, when preaching it’s best for most of us not to try being funny just to get a laugh. It’s risking being laughed at rather than being laughed with. Being ourselves is the best approach. If we’ve been paying attention to what happens in life and how God surprises us, there will be plenty of smiles, and even chuckles and joyous laughter.

Do you know preachers who show humor and wit in their sermons without telling jokes?

* If the urge ever rises up within you to tell a joke in the midst of or as a preface to your sermon, please sit down and think, until the impulse fades away. If you still conclude that the joke is demanding to be told, then follow these rules:
1. Make sure the joke you have to tell is a really good one and will fill the room with laughter.
2. Make sure it is used to make or reinforce a point in the sermon, so critically that the sermon cannot fly without it.
3. Make sure you can tell it well enough to achieve points 1 and 2. Rehearse it in front of your spouse.
My sense is that it you follow these rules, you won’t be telling jokes from the pulpit.

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