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geoff new: a funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit

What’s the funniest sermon you’ve heard? Who’s the funniest preacher you know? What’s the funniest thing you’ve said in a sermon? As far as sermons and humour go, I suggest there are four main types of “funnies” which emerge.

The prepared joke

This is often used as an introduction to the sermon. Insofar as guest preachers are concerned, it is invariably used as an attempt to connect with the congregation rather than relate to the sermon content. For the resident preacher it can often be a great joke they’ve been dying to tell.

The off-the-cuff comment

This is a humorous aside which is unplanned but comes to mind in the moment. The comment can be pure genius or, the exact opposite – a stupid mistake.

The unintentional joke

This is the utterly innocent comment which, in the view of the preacher, does not have a molecule of humour attached. Unfortunately for the preacher no-one else sees it that way and it is hilarious. At this point the preacher invariably looks like the proverbial deer in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.

The personal anecdote

This is a funny incident from the preacher’s life which illustrates the topic at hand. If preachers are ever going to lie in the pulpit it is generally in this moment. Oh the story is true to be sure. However, with the passage of time since the incident and in the retelling of it, embellishment and exaggeration tend to kick in.

Humour is like fire. It is a great servant but a cruel master. Years ago I read a comment by Spike Milligan, “All humour is at the expense of someone”. I think he slightly overstates the case but I use his counsel to consider and measure my use of humour in the pulpit. Who will suffer because of this joke? It could be an individual, a people group, a denomination, or God.

The other aspect of humour is that it usually promotes someone. While he did not have humour specifically in mind, James Denney’s observation covers this aspect, “No preacher can convince his congregation that he is clever and, at the same time, convince them that Christ is wonderful”. Does your humour have people chuckling as they leave your sermon, smiling at what a refreshing preacher you are? Or do they leave chuckling and smiling at how God surprised them and life-changes are now in order?

My conviction concerning humour in the pulpit is “If you are not naturally funny don’t try to be. If you are, tone it down”. I’ll leave the last word to Charles Spurgeon. He was once taken to task about his use of humour in the pulpit. The woman berating him was not in the least bit impressed. Spurgeon replied, “Lady, if you knew how much I left out you’d be thanking me”.

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Geoff New has been minister of Papakura East & Hunua Presbtyterian Church since 1997. He is currently working on a DMin thesis exploring the effect of using Ignatian Gospel Contemplation and lectio divina in sermon preparation.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks Geoff, as usual I think context is everything, I recently had an experience speaking at a large church 10 minutes down the road from my home congregation, jokes that would have gone down a storm at home fell flat and left me looking a little silly. Different churches have different senses of humour. The thing is, and I think your point about humour always being at someone’s expense is spot on, my jokes are usually at my own expense but I think that congregation had a loftier view of “the speaker” than I do, I feel it is quite possible to be self deprecating and God honouring at the same time. They wanted the speaker to be on a pedestal. It is also good to invite the congregation, through humour, to be self deprecating, but perhaps not the first time you meet them!?

  2. Andy says:

    The worst compliment I was ever paid; “if you fail as a Christian, you could always make it as a stand up comedian”

    I heard the compliment but felt a sting too. Maybe I fall into your latter category but humour is something I deliberately bring to public teaching – not to entertain but to teach.

    I think whilst worth noting that humour can not go unrestrained into the pulpit I sometimes fear a restraining word can be used to bolster the boring and justify the stultified. Communication at its broadest and best makes us laugh and cry; we see rapier wit and broken hearts in Scripture – why should the pulpit as the medium of the message be artificially constrained?

    Laughter can liberate where it is used to illustrate, illuminate and provide distance from self as we look at sin, mock our madness in our sinfulness and joyously seek gracious and confident cleansing.

    I guess I’d ask – if a preacher can not bring a smile are they fit for the public teaching at all? And that is a very serious question.

  3. Scott Mackay says:

    Laughter can liberate where it is used to illustrate, illuminate and provide distance from self as we look at sin, mock our madness in our sinfulness and joyously seek gracious and confident cleansing.

    I’d really like to explore this more Andy. Especially the way God uses humour in scripture itself to achieve his purposes in our lives. I like the idea of laughter being used to see with clarity the fallenness of our world, and our own fallenness.

  4. Jonathan Cooze says:

    Humour can: Set the scene, change your dynamics, ask serious questions, provide different perspectives, make statements in palatable ways, tell your narratives, wake people up, celebrate life, satire attitudes & beliefs (is satire a verb?), challenge myths etc.

    Having said that those last two, especially, need to be handled with kid gloves and are possibly better presented in a serious vein.

    And self-deprecating humour seems a lot safer and wiser than aiming at other targets. If you draw blood you’ve gone waaay too far.

  5. Lynne Baab says:

    My husband really likes to see preachers smile at some point (hopefully at several points) during their sermons. He likes jokes and funny stories in sermons, but he likes smiling most of all. So when I preach, even if I’m not trying to use humour, I try to remember to smile from time to time. I have found this to be surprisingly helpful. It helps me lighten up, throw in the occasional off-the-cuff comment like you mentioned, and relax into the sermon. I think the smiling also helps me see whatever humour there is in the sermon so I can emphasize it appropriately. Smiling and humour are not identical, but they’re related in a good way, I’ve found.

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