Anyone who has listened to me preach has never heard me tell a joke in the pulpit, but that’s not because I see no place for humor in a sermon. It’s because I can’t tell a joke. In fact, I think humor, when used effectively in the right sermon context, can strengthen a message.
The question, of course, is what I mean by “used effectively in the right sermon context.”
First, I would not use humor when talking about such matters as lostness, the cross, and judgment. Some topics bear such gravity that levity weakens the point.
Second, I want to use humor that strengthens the sermon and contributes to building up the hearer. Here, the words of Charles Spurgeon are helpful to me: “Those of us who are endowed with the dangerous gift of humor have need, sometimes, to stop and take the word out of our mouth and look at it, and see whether it is quite to edification.”[i]
Third, I want the humor to be a natural fit for my style. Other preachers are great at using effective jokes – and I encourage them to use their talents – but I’m just not good at it. I use humor, but it’s much more out of my personality than it is my forcing a joke into a sermon.
With continued help from Spurgeon, here’s why I like using humor in this way in a sermon:
- It helps relax the preacher, especially in an introduction. I’ve learned that telling a funny story tends to calm my preaching nerves, simply because I usually know the story well and can tell it without notes.
- It helps the hearer perk up to listen. That’s typically the case for stories and illustrations in general, but even more so for well-placed humor. Indeed, in Spurgeon’s words, “I would sooner wake the congregation up that way than have it said that I droned away at them until we all went to sleep together.”[ii]
- It makes preachers more real in the pulpit. Especially if the humorous story I tell is appropriately self-deprecating, I hope I come across as being human and fighting for holiness. Realness in a sermon seldom hurts.
- It can illustrate and strengthen the sermon. Humor disconnected from the sermon becomes a comedy routine, but a connected story that makes one laugh can powerfully drive home a point. It can be a “clash of humor [that] will only add intenser gravity to the discourse, even as a flash of lightning makes midnight darkness all the more impressive.”[iii]
- It sets the heart up to hear the truth. I realize the risk of emotionally manipulating listeners – and I oppose that strategy – but I also realize that gaining a hearing opens the door to speak truth. One more time, I turn to Spurgeon: “I sometimes tickle my oyster until he opens his shell, and then I slip the knife in.”[iv]
What are your thoughts about using humor in the pulpit? Let me hear from you.