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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Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 3

We have thought about the preacher as a video painter, and as a gallery guide.  Here’s the third in my list:

A Quirky Detective – When you are preaching epistles it may be helpful to think of yourself as a quirky detective.  You might be thinking that quirky is a strange qualifier to add, but hang in there, I have a paragraph to come up with a justification for that bit.  Epistles are powerful.  They offer a unique presentation of gospel truth and application of theology to a specific situation.  When an epistle does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to ignore the contextual features and offer sterilized theological argumentation using a blend of biblical and theologically loaded terminology?  Or are we supposed to hold out the epistle in all its uniqueness, helping listeners to see how the letter was designed to change lives then, and consequently, watch them feel the force of it now?  A good preacher of epistles ignites the imagination, clarifies the thinking of the writer, demonstrates its compelling relevance to today, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  A detective holds up something as apparently insignificant as a piece of mail and shows how it unlocks and clarifies a real life (and death) situation.  And since people might expect an epistle to be just another boring letter, it probably doesn’t hurt to be a bit quirky too (all the best TV detectives are a little bit unique!)  There is more to preaching epistle than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

As before, feel free to add your own metaphors in the comments and I might develop some (giving credit).

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 2

Last time we looked at the preacher as a video painter, particularly when preaching biblical narratives.  Let’s add another metaphor that will not become a classic, but may be helpful for now:

A Gallery Guide – When you are preaching biblical poetry it may be helpful to think of yourself as a guide in an art gallery. You might be thinking that you don’t enjoy art galleries so perhaps you should skip this point, but hang in there.  Poetry is powerful.  Through stirring imagery and crafted structure, listeners are moved in a way that prose could never achieve. When biblical poetry does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those poetic features and coldly present the results of our analysis of an ancient poem?  Or are we supposed to preach that poem in words that help the listeners to appreciate the depth of feeling and thought that was stirring in the artist’s heart and life as he wrote the poem?  A good preacher of poetry does for listeners what a gallery guide might do for me: lead me beyond first impressions, cause me to slow down and start to feel with the artist as he or she begins to plumb the depths of the piece before me.  When the preacher does that, he allows the text to do what the text  was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching poetry than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add one more metaphor.  Feel free to make up your own in the comments … I might even develop it as a post (giving you credit, of course).

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 1

Perhaps you have read Between Two Worlds by John Stott?  It is a classic textbook for preachers.  In it, Stott lists the biblical metaphors for a preacher: a herald, a seed sower, etc.  Then he reverently adds his own – the preacher as a bridge-builder.  Well, this is not a classic textbook, this is a blog post.  And I am not John Stott.  So I am going to offer several only marginally helpful metaphors for the preacher.  They are probably helpful as far as they go, and it is also helpful to not go too far!

A Video Painter – When you are preaching biblical narrative it may be helpful to think of yourself as a video painter.  You might be thinking these metaphors are only marginally helpful because this is not a real thing, but hang in there.  Narratives are powerful.  They grip listeners with the tension of a plot.  They stir identification and association with the reality of the characters.  When a narrative does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those narrative features and perform an autopsy on a dissected and dead story?  Or are we supposed to preach that story in words that paint moving pictures on the internal video screen of our listeners’ imaginations?  A good preacher of narrative ignites the imagination, paints pictures that move, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching narrative than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add another!

The Goals of Biblical Preaching Are Not Pragmatic

Good preaching should be biblical, clear, engaging and relevant.  At first sight we may be tempted to think that only the first, being biblical, is a theologically driven goal.  At first sight we may feel that being clear, engaging and relevant are more pragmatic goals.  I disagree.

There is a theological foundation for each of the goals.

When we preach we can be more or less clear in both content and delivery.  We can be organised in our material to help our listeners follow us, and we can be easy to understand in our delivery: through our diction, enunciation, body language, expression, and so on.  It is easy to think of clarity as a pragmatic issue.  It is more than that.

When we preach we can be more or less engaging in both content and delivery. We can offer content that seems aloof and tedious, or content that is captivating and connecting.  We can deliver our messages in a manner that feels odd and distant, or we can speak with a contagious enthusiasm and energy for the preaching event that arrests our listeners’ attention and holds their interest throughout.  It is easy to think of being engaging as a pragmatic issue. It is more than that.

When we preach we can be more or less relevant in both content and delivery. We can launch distant content over the top of peoples’ heads, or we can target our content into the very nitty gritty of our listeners’ lives.  We can deliver in such a way that listeners have the sense that we don’t care, or in such a way that they know we are relevant and so is our content.  It is easy to think of being relevant as a pragmatic issue.  It is more than that.

We should be clear, engaging and relevant for theological reasons.  God is a good communicator.  His ultimate communication was in the incarnation, the human to human dynamic that makes our union with Christ possible.  We speak as human to humans, as representatives of the communicator God, the incarnating God, and so we represent him not only in what we say, but also in how we say it.  Nobody cares about the listener being able to follow, knowing it is for them, and wanting to listen, as much as God does.  As his representatives, therefore, we should be stirred toward ever-growing clarity, engagement and relevance in what we say.

Preaching Myths – Part 8

I could extend this series for much longer, but I think I will finish with this familiar myth:

8. Since preaching is not a performance, as long as the content is good, delivery doesn’t matter.

This myth is birthed from a good motivation.  Many preachers want to honour the biblical text (content), and don’t want to draw attention to themselves (delivery).  So, in an attempt to avoid performance or entertainment, the preacher therefore ignores delivery.  This is worth wrestling with though:

A. Poor delivery skills will draw attention to the preacher.  If you have ever heard someone preaching with an unchecked verbal pause (i.e. the repeated use of a word without intending to use its meaning), or with an awkward gesture, or without any hint of a smile, or with unusual or absent eye contact, then you will know that it can become very distracting.  A preacher you cannot hear, or who bores you to tears, or who doesn’t seem to care about you, is a preacher who will draw attention to himself as people try not to roast the preacher over their Sunday lunch (instead of celebrating the great content that may or may not have been there).

B. Working on delivery is not about performing.  Obviously, for some it is, and there are plenty of examples on YouTube or in the press that bring shame on the name of Christ for their quirky insistence on being strange.  However, for most of us, working on our delivery is a matter of love for our listeners and good stewardship of the ministry God has entrusted to us.  Working on delivery is not about performing, it is about communicating effectively.

C. The goal of giving attention to our delivery is to help us become more natural.  We are not living in the old days where delivery was largely about platform presence and effective acoustics (i.e. vocal projection).  In this day and age, the goal should be to be natural, normal, authentic.  And in the unnatural environment of public speaking, it takes work to be natural.  It takes some work to make our gestures “fit” the size of the audience, or to progress logically or chronologically from left to right (from the listeners’ viewpoint).  It takes work to bring the energy and dynamism we have in conversation into the strange setting of addressing a crowd.  Our goal is not to perform, but to be able to communicate effectively … and to be ourselves.

D. We cannot abdicate any aspect of preaching and “leave it to the Spirit.”  I have seen this logic in several variations.  There is the “I will do the explaining, but leave the application to the Spirit” idea – this is not good thinking.  The Spirit is involved in your study, your explanation and your application.  (What you can’t do is force change inside your listeners, that is His exclusive domain.)  Equally, there is the “I will do the content, but I will leave the engaging of listeners’ attention and interest to the Spirit” excuse for being a dull communicator.  Again, poor thinking.  We need to be leaning on the Spirit’s help in every aspect of sermon preparation and delivery.  We cannot hand over one part of that, any more than we can push out the Spirit and claim to handle any part on our own.

There are many other myths I could ponder, but I will leave it there for this series.  Thanks for your comments, conversation, sharing, etc. – it is all appreciated.

Hungry People Pay Attention to Food

I read an article Jeffrey Arthurs wrote about getting and keeping listeners’ attention. He built his article around the point that hungry people pay attention to food. It is so true. Recently I sat in a home where I was being hosted for a meal, waiting for the final guest to arrive so that we could sit down and eat. I was hungry. Consequently every waft from the kitchen, every comment about final touches to the meal, every hint about what was to come had my full attention.

The same is true of preaching. Listeners can ignore Bible passages for years, but when a preacher helps them to see that this passage is relevant to their deepest needs, they will give it their full attention. But this is not easy to do. Too easily we settle for an introduction that is interesting, but doesn’t surface a need. It is not enough to introduce the context for the text back then, we need to show the context for its relevance today.

How can we do that? One key skill is to incorporate awareness of what Haddon Robinson calls the Depravity Factor into our passage study. What is the impact of Genesis 3 on this passage? How does fallenness in this passage mirror brokenness in our contemporary world? It is not always sin that presents itself, sometimes it is hurt, it is need, it is fear, it is inadequacy … but always the fallenness of this world shows in the passage you are studying.

A study of the passage and of our listeners should yield complementary facets of fallenness. Help people to taste their need for security, for hope, for forgiveness, for life, for whatever this passage will address, and then watch them care about the passage like never before.

“Welcome to today’s sermon, turn with me to Bible Book chapter 4, verse 1…” Stop. Start that sermon again. Not just with a joke or an anecdote, but with a real taste for the goodness to come. Help the listeners sense their inner craving for that goodness and your sermon will be off to a much better start!

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 4

connections2The connection between preacher and listener is a multi-faceted and complex thing. We’ve scratched the surface of the preacher’s personal life, their pastoral ministry and their content. Now let’s ponder some suggestions for improving your delivery to increase the preacher-listener connection.

14.    Manuscript in preparation but use less notes when preaching. To put it simply every moment you are looking at your notes you are not connecting with your listeners.  In an ideal world I would like to fully manuscript each message and always preach without notes. The manuscripting allows for careful and prayerful consideration of exact wording. Preaching without notes increases connection exponentially. I do not always follow this ideal, but I know that as much as I move away from that, I move away from connection.

15.    Watch yourself on video to check your visual presentation. Watching yourself on video will help you see what others see. Do you convey warmth? Is your energy contagious? Do you smile? Are your gestures appropriate? That is, are they big enough for the audience and venue? Are references to time or progression moving from left to right from the perspective of the listener? Do the gestures appear natural or forced? Do you seem comfortable?

16.    Listen to yourself on audio to check your voice.  Does your voice convey enthusiasm and warmth, or nervousness and tension? Do you sound natural or, to be blunt, do you sound weird? People are experts in reading both visual and vocal signals, and they do so to determine whether there is a connection or not. They do it all day every day. So they are still doing it when you preach.

17.    Interpersonal connection’s golden ticket? Make eye contact!  Whatever you can do to increase eye contact is worth doing. Less notes, change of position, adjustment of lighting, more run throughs, better sleep . . . pray about what you can do to improve meaningful eye contact with your listeners.

Lots more could be said about delivery, but it does matter. Tomorrow we will finish the series with one more important category.

Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

Praying Your Way to the Pulpit

PrayingBible2Sometimes it feels like we are living in an age of prayerless and therefore relatively powerless ministry.  We live in an age of increasing noise and preachers crave efficient preparation.  In this post I would like to narrate the journey from passage to pulpit in terms of prayer.  Maybe this can help nudge us toward the kind of preaching we all want to experience.

“What Shall I Preach?” – before the process of preparing a message can really begin, we have to select the passage or passages that we will study and preach.  New preachers tend to get stuck at this stage.  “Lord, give me a good sense of what they need to hear,” combined with “Father, stir my heart for Christ so I can preach out of the overflow of my own heart,” should help with picking a text or texts.  If necessary add this, “Ok Lord, I’m struggling to pick, so on Tuesday evening I am going to make a choice – would you please be in that decision!”

In the study – Now it is time to turn off all distractions and get alone with God and the Bible.  Your goal is to understand the text, and to meet with God personally.  “My Father, please give me eyes to see the meaning of this text as you intended when you inspired it.  And please give me eyes to see your heart revealed in this text.  And please change my heart in the process.  Give me determination to do the work necessary with the passage, and may the fruit of this study so stir and lift my heart that I am deeply changed…”

Before you move into message mode – You have the fruit of your study, and now you consciously reintroduce the listeners to your prayers again.  “O Lord, I am thankful for what this text has already done in my heart, but now I pray for my listeners.  I don’t love them as you do, please give me your heart for them.  How can the main idea of this text be a gift from you to them this Sunday?”

Shaping the message – It is time to form and shape the message – it’s purpose, main idea, structure and detail.  “Our Father, I so want this message to communicate with the hearts of my listeners.  Please give me wisdom to know how I can shape this message as an act of love for them.” And as you go, detail by detail, “Lord, will Steve understand it if I put it that way?” and “Father, you know how Sarah is hurting at the moment, how can I say that sensitively for her sake?”

Delivery time – Both before and during delivery we can be praying continually, even if only in arrow prayers…“May we see you!” and “Protect us from distractions,” and “Help the guys on sound to sort that annoying hum,” and “Guard my heart heart from pride in this,” and “I feel like I’m rushing, help me pace this better,” and “Lord, John seems troubled,” and “Protect us from the evil one,” and “Lord only you can give them eyes to see the glory of your grace in this,” and “Change lives, Lord!” and so on.

Preaching is about exegesis and communication and pastoral care and evangelism and leadership and discipleship . . . but it should be preeminently about prayer.