Can preaching be funny? Some great Christians through the ages have been dubious. John Wesley admonished pastors, “Let your whole deportment before the congregation be serious, weighty, and solemn.” Along with his teetotalism, Wesley must have been a real treat at cocktail parties.
Conversely, one cannot get too far into the corpus of the esteemed Martin Luther’s sermons without coming across a comedic barb (of course, it was often directed at the papacy). As the good doctor once said, quoted as an epigraph to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”
Furthermore, humor is sprinkled throughout the Bible. Perhaps most famous is God’s naming Abraham’s son Isaac, “He laughs” (Genesis 17:19). You think as well of the exchange with Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22) or the madcap prison break of Peter (Acts 12). And it is commonplace to note there is a humorous touch in Jesus’ nickname for the apostolic brothers James and John: Boanerges or “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17).
So, there is surely a place for humor in our faith, and perhaps even for preachers to be funny, though this is not to say they should be comics by any means (if you want to try your hand at stand-up, stick to open mic night at the bar). What, then, is the role of humor in the pulpit? What could be the uses of comedy in preaching?
1. Humor humanizes
Humor has a humanizing effect. It enables the hearers to recognize, “Oh! That guy up front is actually a real person!” One of the finest compliments I have received as a preacher was from a young man (who incidentally himself went on to do stand-up comedy) who said, “What I appreciate about you is that you can both joke about [erstwhile Detroit Lions coach] Wayne Fontes and teach about Jesus Christ.”
The goal in preaching is to help God’s people to hear from Him, not to admire His messengers. Humor helps to convey that we preachers are ourselves fellow humans in need of the divine communication. Will Willimon writes, “Christians are most interested in humor that arises as a gracious by-product of our never-ending task of taking God a little more seriously and ourselves a little less so.”
“Christians are most interested in humor that arises as a gracious by-product of our never-ending task of taking God a little more seriously and ourselves a little less so.”-Will Willimon
2. Humor creates connection
It is important that the preacher establish his rapport with the hearers, but it also matters for the hearers to have a connection with their fellow pew-sitters. In their book, The Power of Moments, authors Chip and Dan Heath note how laughter is “a social reaction.” “We laugh to tie the group together. Our laughter says, I’m with you. I’m part of your group.” Humor helps to forge bonds in the Body of Christ.
This is especially helpful for newcomers to the faith. Humor helps them to see these churchgoing folks are real people. In the immortal words of Billy Joel, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” Better yet to be able to laugh with those who are simul justus et peccator, who recognize the outrageous truth that God accepts them as simultaneously sinners and saints.
3. Humor disarms
I recently had the opportunity to hear Dave Zahl of Mockingbird Ministries speak at Camp Arcadia, and he made this point: “Humor disarms the hearers.” Especially when it comes to preaching the Law, humor helps people to drop their defenses and receive the sting of God’s truth.
This can certainly be taken too far. You want to be careful not to make light of God’s weighty Word. But in particular when that humor starts in a self-deprecating way, at the preacher’s own expense, it opens the way for the message to hit its mark.
4. Humor adds levity
Preachers must address difficult, life-and-death topics: Idolatry, mortality, salvation, eternity, the Trinity, and all contained therein. Sometimes the air in the sanctuary can become so thick that the people in the pew will simply “check out” rather than persist in a state of suspended animation. The response is understandable.
A dash of humor can help to ease the tension without losing the thread. Willimon notes, “Humor enables us to treat deadly serious subjects without deadliness.” The point is not that we should not address heavy topics. The point is we can do so without being heavy-handed. Humor helps the hearers breathe, and in so doing, retains their attention.
A dash of humor can help to ease the tension without losing the thread.
5. Humor reflects the Gospel
There is supposedly a practice dating from the Middle Ages known as the risus Paschalis, or “Easter laughter.” The idea was, in the week following Easter Sunday, preachers would tell jokes in the pulpit, poking fun in particular at the Devil’s folly in thinking he had the Son of God pinned. Whether this was ever actually practiced or, like the Jubilee Year of the Old Testament, amounted to little more than a pious pipedream, I admire the impulse.
The good news is hilarious. While it is not especially funny in the conventional sense, there is a reason Dante entitled his opus The Divine Comedy. The Gospel is the story of God overturning the ways of the world, giving Satan the slip, and at the last reversing the curse of death in Jesus’ resurrection. Like any good rom com, you have even got a wedding at the end.
“Bad comedy and bad preaching have this in common,” says Dave Zahl. “They are both overly moralistic.” Preaching which eschews the harping harangues of legalistic schoolmarms in favor of the Savior’s undeserved favor reflects the holy hilarity of the Gospel. Just go easy on the dad jokes.