Humor On the Platform: Laughter is the Best Response

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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.  .  .

Beyond The Talking Points: Of Mayors and Subpoenas

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Before I launch into today’s topic, I want to issue an apology for not posting anything for two weeks.  Last week I was at a retreat in the mountains, learning about discipleship and becoming a better disciple.  The week before that I hosted a High School Cross Country meet that sucked away most of my time.

But I thought I would venture back into the blogging world by discussing the latest culture war to flit across my computer screen.  This one is about as juicy as they come, involving liberal mayors, conservative pastors, the ongoing homosexuality debate, subpoenas, petitions and a very bitter, yet delighted mob of Christians.

What happened in Houston, or rather is happening, is nebulous at best.  Even the bipartisan articles (like Snopes) are being accused of bias.  Many conservative Christians, riled up by a FoxNews COMMENTARY (not article), are jumping up and saying, “Yes!  We told you so!  We were right and we love being right!  And finally, someone is persecuting us!”  Although nobody really is persecuting us quite yet.

Meanwhile Houston stations and papers are trying to set the record straight.  But the problem is that the record is so complicated that setting it straight is impossible.  In fact, this situation is so entangled, curvy, and bent that to set it straight would be to deny the complexity of the world around us.

But first let me try to state the facts, as I have pieced them together.

First, Houston tried to pass a law that enforced non discrimination (especially against homosexuals).  This law exempted churches but not businesses that are run by Christians.

Second, many Houston churches and their pastors protested the bill and got 50,000 signatures on a petition to stop it from being signed into law.

Third, the city rejected the petition because it argued over half the signatures were acquired under false pretenses (which I think means the churches lied to people about what the bill actually said).

Fourth, the pastors filed a lawsuit AGAINST the city saying the signatures were valid.

Fifth, the city, in defending themselves against the lawsuit, did what everybody in a lawsuit does:  They subpoenaed everything the judge would allow them to, including sermons pertaining to the issue.

I want to put an aside here to say that if my church sued our city over something as banal as property usage, I would fully expect the city to subpoena any manuscripts or recordings of sermons or announcements pertaining to the lawsuit.  That is just how lawsuits work.

Sixth, Fox News published a commentary that made it sound as if the subpoenas were filed in offense (not defense).

Seventh, most conservative Christians were overjoyed and angry at the same time and posted the link everywhere with a gleeful “I told you so!”

Eighth, I read the Fox News commentary myself and was almost fooled by it until the last few paragraphs were suddenly an angry and hasty call to action with a hearty “I Told You So.”  So I decided to ignore the situation.

Eighth, a very prominent leader on my district whom I love and trust, saw the Fox News article, was fooled by it and emailed it to all the pastors, meaning my efforts to ignore it were thwarted.

So how should a devout, committed and sane Christian respond to all this.

I have zero idea.

But here is what I did.  I sunk my head in despair at the foolishness of it all.  I shook my fist and screamed in the air at the stupidity of those in my own faith tradition.  I tried to post articles that helped Christians understand the messiness of the situation, only to realize that most Christians have zero understanding of the American legal system, nor do they want to understand it.  They just want something to be mad at.  It is how they seemingly entertain themselves.

I shook my fist in the air again.  Then I went looking for someone in real life to argue this with, armed with all the facts, only to realize that even the best arguments would not stand against the invincible ignorance of my Christian siblings.  Instead it would only increase the aggravation and break down Christian unity.

I slammed my fist against the wall.  Then I started practicing what my response would be if someone brought this up on Sunday morning during worship, only to conclude any response other than, “yeah, okay” would violate my principles as a loving pastor.

I hung my head in despair again and prayed for the church.  I begged God to forgive us for our misinformed rage and our eagerness to break all of the commandments (like, “thou shalt not lie”) just to get our nation to litigate an obscure command in Leviticus.

Then I felt better and took a deep breath, reminded myself that Christians have been stupid for 2000+ years and yet the Holy Spirit has continued to do wondrous things through the church despite its very broken sinfulness.

Finally, I sat down to write this blog in the hopes of reminding my readership of two things:

1) The world is incredibly complex.  To boil a situation like the one in Houston down to words like, “persecution” and “right” and “wrong” is to engage in the sinful practice of lying and manipulating.

2) Despite how incredibly stupid and bitter the vocal Christians are, the Holy Spirit’s work continues unhindered.  We serve a big God who covers the multitude of our sins.

So take hope my friends for our God is much bigger than us!

An Evangelistic Confession

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I have a very dear, older saint in my church who continually reminds me that every sermon must present the Romans Road Gospel.  She wants every sermon to end with new Christians confessing, “I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but I confess with my mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead so that I can live eternally in heaven.”  This prayer is sometimes called “The Sinner’s Prayer” and in her thinking, such sermons should always end with an altar call where people pray the prayer in front of the entire congregation.

I politely disagree with her but putting aside my theological convictions I do try to preach a more evangelistic sermon when the biblical text lends itself that direction.

Such is certainly the case with my text for next week, Acts 9, which narrates Saul Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus.  It is a rich text that I have worked with for a few weeks (you can look at my early exegetical notes here) and certainly Saul meeting Jesus should lead to the congregation meeting Jesus.  Furthermore I have several new attendees for whom a “Damascus Road” moment would do a lot of good.

However, my shy congregation does not respond to altar calls, at least in the “going down to the altar” kind of way.  Furthermore, as I read other articles, books and blogs, I sense a growing conclusion that the altar has had its day and is on the way out.  After all the altar call is only 150 years old, which is pretty young when you consider Christianity is 2,000 years old.

So I have had to rethink the response time and do so in light of resurgence of the Lord’s Table, which was the universal Christian response to the sermon until the altar call replaced it in evangelical congregations.

So today as I put the finishing touch on my sermon I rather painfully rejected the typical altar call.  Instead I wrote a congregational call and response to follow the sermon and precede the Eucharist.  The confession is below.  It is intended to encourage the congregation to join Saul on the road to Damascus and to confess their wickedness in the light of God’s new-found grace.  It is also based off of a sermon of John Wesley’s where Wesley states, “For the Christian only 2 truths remain: I am a wretch but Christ has died.”

Feel free to add or subtract or use this in your own evangelistic sermons or private prayer and devotional times.

The regular type is the congregational confession.  The bold is the priest’s blessing.

I am a wretch.  I have sinned against God, my neighbor, myself and creation.

But Christ has died so receive forgiving grace.

I am a wretch.  I am walking death that causes death wherever I go.

But Christ has died so receive life giving grace.

I am a wretch.  I have hurt others and myself and continue to do so.

But Christ has died so receive healing grace.

I am a wretch.  I am helpless to save myself and all my self improvement projects end in disaster.  And all my them-improvement projects destroy the them’s I am trying to improve.

But Christ has died so receive transforming grace.

Church will you rise out of death?

We will.

Church do you receive the resurrecting power of God?

We do.

Do you hear the call of Christ to come and die and find you may truly live?

We come, we die.  Christ give us life.

Amen.