This is my third post on using humor in ministry. In these posts I have been trying to find and articulate the boundaries and effectiveness of humor in my many roles as pastor. This has been difficult because “humor” is a nebulous concept and an often changing target. Still, it is a wonderful reality in which to live because, as I have been arguing, laughing at the absurdity in the world is the best way keep it from consuming us.
This is important because I have been told that there was a day when humor wasn’t allowed within thirty feet of a Christian worship service. But I did not grow up in that day. Instead,I grew up in a shifting scenery of modern (or post modern, or maybe emergent and definitely missional) worship. Many preachers tried way too hard to be funny all the time and failed miserably. Others genuinely succeeded, having that right personality. Others didn’t try to be funny but ended up making humorous gaffes anyway and added to the humor by being horribly embarrassed.
So when I filled my first pulpit, it was with careful measures of self condescension, humorous asides and perfectly timed (or not so perfectly timed) punchlines. Not surprisingly, the humor in my sermons have brought me consistent praise.
Still, I struggle with how to be funny and when to be funny during my twenty minutes of fame every Sunday. The danger is not that the joke might bomb or that your jokes might be offensive. The danger is that the humor will be misplaced or misdirected and, in turn, misdirect the congregation.
The greatest example of misdirected humor is self condescension. Certainly, insulting myself is the easiest way to get a few laughs and to get people to lower their guards. So I use it a lot. But I really struggle with why I use it. Am I being manipulative or even honest?
Beyond that, I have found that insulting yourself for laughs is that you also insult the people who like you. And there are those in my congregation who take it offensively because I am insulting their judgment in having me as a pastor.
To give an example, two years ago at our annual assembly gathering with the other churches, I had to give a three minute report on the state of my church. So I got up and said, “Everything is going great” and gave examples of things that were going well. After the examples I concluded, “So you see everything is going splendidly, except for their new Senior Pastor. He is a young kid, right out of seminary, first pastorate, has no clue what he is doing. He has spent the last year bumbling around town getting himself into trouble and then calling the district office at all times of day and night asking for advice and help. Seriously, I don’t know what they were thinking hiring him!”
Everybody laughed hysterically but afterward my church’s delegates pulled me aside and said, “That was funny but you are not a lousy pastor and we are really mad you said that. If you do it next year we will stand up right then and there and let everybody know how full of it you are!” And though they were being slightly facetious, I still could sense the disappointment behind their voices.
So I try hard not to run myself down, especially when doing so is just a manipulative move to get people to think I am more humble than I really am.
Another dangerous area is using humor as a way of making people like you. The truth is people enjoy being around funny people and if you make people laugh, they are probably less likely to kill you, or fire you, which would be the same thing. However, in the pulpit, humor that scores cheap political points is misguided. Typically these sermons are not technically sermons but stand up routines fit for comedy clubs. They flit from joke to joke with no real point or direction. People leave them thinking, “That was funny. We sure like Pastor,” but their lives are not helped or changed for the better and the only reason the pastor was funny was to keep people from firing him or to give the church more money.
A third area of danger is forcing Scripture to be funny when it just isn’t. I addressed this in part yesterday but usually these sermons rely on heavy embellishments from the biblical text in a way that violates the historical reality and the actual meaning. They aim to make the text funnier than it is and in so doing create huge exegetical problems.
With those three danger zones in mind, there are a few incredibly useful ways to use humor in sermons.
The first is to point to the absurdity lying beneath our lives. A common sermon structure (and one I fall back on a lot) is to describe a problem in the world, describe the problem in the Biblical text, tell the solution in the text and use that to form a solution to the problem in the world. Humor is a great way to begin these sermons because nothing like humor helps us come to grips with the absurdity of our lives.
For example, last Sunday I preached about joy in light of the third advent candle. I began the sermon by pointing out that I love joy because it is the only virtue you get to say you have. But after laughing about how humble people can’t say they are humble and loving people can’t claim to be loving, I turned the joke on its head and said, “But here is the thing: I don’t think we should let people get away with claiming they are joyful when they are not.” It worked quite well both for capturing attention and helping people come to grips with the despair hiding beneath their fake smiles.
Another way to use humor is to highlight the awkwardness in confronting a Biblical passage that is hard to connect with. This is not an attempt to make a Bible passage funny that isn’t. Instead it is pointing out, in a humorous way, how detached we are from the original audience of the text. It is laughing at the absurdity of trying to honestly read a passage written 2,000 years ago in a language we don’t understand and that nobody speaks any more.
One of my funnier moments happened awhile back when I described in short detail one of Paul’s more lengthy and complex arguments. At the end of my description I said, “It all gets quite complicated if you ask me but the conclusion he arrives at is. . .” The congregation burst into laughter because I acknowledged what they were thinking and let them know I was thinking it too. We are far removed from this type of thinking and logic.
A third way to use humor is to move beyond jokes to actions and pictures. Humorous pictures of the text on a screen really help people relate to the story. The Brick Testament is a great site that recreates Biblical stories using Lego’s. Sometimes having those funny pictures behind me while I seriously address the text helps people laugh at and understand some of the weirdness in the Bible stories.
Other times I use hand motions or even invite others up to the stage to help me address the text in a humorous way. It lightens the mood and helps people connect and relate. An added bonus is that those invited to help won’t soon forget the Bible story.
Regardless of how you use humor in your sermons, I would invite all my preaching peers to continue to experiment with it. I hope this post (and all my posts) are not the last word on the issue but just helpful notes that guide conversation.
I hope to write soon about humor in pastoral counseling. Until then a farmer and a welder walk into a bar. . .or a church. . .