Why Keep Humour Subtle?

I was talking with some friends yesterday about humour in preaching.  We decided that it always seems to work best when it is subtle.  Why?

Imagine a line running through your sermon.  It is the progression of your main idea – that combination of unity, order and progress that keeps your message coherent, structured and moving.  It is possible to use humour below that line, in a subtle way.  Or it is possible to interrupt that line and feature some humour above that line.

When we generally keep our humour below the line, i.e. subtle, it means that the progression of the message is uninterrupted.  It means that the message is treated as the most important thing.  It means that listeners are free to engage the humour or ignore it.  Actually, it means they can catch the humour or miss it, but they won’t feel like they are missing something that is key to understanding the message as a whole.

I am not suggesting that our humour should be tricky, or an “inside joke” – that is typically rude to those who notice it but don’t understand (which is why saying, “sorry, that is an inside joke” never feels good to listeners, no matter how much you smile, laugh, apologise, etc.)

I am suggesting that humour is a complicated thing.  I think we should be extremely humble about it.  If you think you are funny, you probably aren’t.  If you think you can tell a joke, you probably can’t.  If you think your funny remark will make sense to everyone, it probably won’t.  And if you think other cultures will easily get what you are saying, well, you probably haven’t watched a mix-culture crowd react to preaching much.  (That was a very sour sounding paragraph!  I don’t mean to sound sour, I just want to encourage humility in this area.)

What happens when we “feature” humour and let it break through the line and become a significant thing in the message?  We interrupt the flow of thought and require listeners to both understand and appreciate our humour.  We run the risk of making the humour a feature of the message, and sail very close to being an entertainer, which is a far lesser calling than being an engaging authentic proclaimer of God’s Word.  We risk alienating individuals, groups or cultures within our congregation.

I absolutely do not believe we should avoid all humour in our preaching.  I do not believe in dispassionate, disconnected or dull preaching.  I think we should prayerfully take onboard helpful feedback as God continues to sanctify our sense of humour over time, but then generally let the humour be an appropriate, loving and subtle element of our preaching.

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3 thoughts on “Why Keep Humour Subtle?

  1. Thank you for this, Peter.
    I am doing some ‘in depth’ work on the Acts of the Apostles for a Christian Fellowship Group on the Estate on which I live. I have never been happy with the comment (often given as a ‘put-you-right’) about God’s having a sense of humour. Always strikes me as theologically inept. But I have noted that in the Acts, as I read and re-read it, one cannot but notice the author’s occasional, as you would say, ‘subtle’ sense of humour, eg. Acts 5.17-25; 25.26-27 etc. So these, then, are germane to the passages and not something incongruously imported to gratify those in the congregation who must be entertained, or to feed the speaker’s ego.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love humor, but I have been disappointed when exactly what you describe here happens: a preacher tells some funny story that completely distracts from the message. In contrast, humor used well—subtly—helps draw people in. I really appreciate that you wrote about this!

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