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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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.

Preaching Myths – Part 7

Following on from the last myth, here’s another:

7. A sermon is the output of a mechanical process

Almost every preaching textbook offers a sequence of steps that lead from the text to the pulpit. Some books use seven, eight or ten, others perhaps fourteen or more.  The number is not the point.  The sequence of steps can give the impression that you put the Bible text in at one end of the machine, crank on the handle and out pops a good biblical sermon.

A. There is a logical preparation process for a sermon.  While there may be different labels used in the various processes, there is also a logic to the process.  You have to select a passage before you can study it and determine its idea.  You have to understand the passage before you can think about formulating a sermon.  And so, at one level, the process is necessary.  Just as it is necessary to learn the basic skills and sequences for driving a car, so the textbooks give us a helpful breakdown of the sermon preparation process.  However, after driving a car for a quarter of a century, I am no longer repeating to myself “mirror-signal-maneuver” like I did at the start.  I’ve learned that driving is about much more than basic skills and sequencing.

B. Sermon preparation requires multi-directional sensitivity.  To push the driving analogy further, I could say that driving requires multi-directional sensitivity – I have to be aware of dozens of things at once.  To fully describe what is going on in a mature and skilled driver would overwhelm every beginner.  The same is true in preaching.  The preacher needs to develop multiple levels of sensitivity to the text, to the listeners, to the Spirit of God, to the occasion, to the church where the sermon is delivered, to the culture in which the listeners live, to the acoustics of the venue, to the influence of proxemics on the delivery, to the body language of the listeners, to his/her own strengths and weaknesses as a preacher, to baggage in his/her own life that may be influencing the preaching, to the clock, and more.

There is no machine that will generate the right sermon for you and your listeners for this Sunday. What there is is a preacher prayerfully relying on God and seeking to bring together every skill learned and sensitivity developed to make this sermon the best it can be.  You may rightly say that another preacher could be more skilled and more sensitized than you are, and that therefore you are a weak option for your church this Sunday.  Good.  God loves to work through the weak.  Let’s give it the best we can and know that God has got to come through again!

Preaching Myths – Part 6

Here’s another idea that we too easily believe:

6. A sermon is just the sum of its parts.

That is to say, a sermon consists of explanation combined with application and some illustrations.  There is an element of truth here, but it would be naïve to think that it is that simple.

A. There are basic components of a biblical sermon.  Essentially there are sermon components like the introduction and the conclusion.  And there are ingredients that go into the body of a sermon, such as explanation, application and so-called illustration.  At a certain level every sermon could be analysed and found to include these components and ingredients.

B. There are nuances that influence the effectiveness of each of those components and ingredients.  For example, there is no such thing as a good illustration, there is such a thing as a good illustration of something.  A good explanation for one group of people will fly completely over the heads of another crowd.

C. There are less tangible influences on the effectiveness of a sermon.  We could go in many directions here, but lets think about the preacher.  What influences how the preacher preaches the components and ingredients of a sermon?  The preacher’s love for God and love for the listener is hard to quantify, but it surely influences the choice of sermon ingredients and their delivery.  The preacher’s personal baggage is a filter through which every sermon is processed and preached.  If a preacher is struggling with pride, then in some way it will show in the sermon.  If a preacher is angry, then in some way it will show in the sermon.

A sermon is not just the ingredients of explanation, application and illustrations blended together with sermon components like an introduction and a conclusion.  The effectiveness of a sermon goes much deeper than the quality of the elements that are blended together.  There is also the moving dynamic of those listening, the occasion, as well as the preacher’s ability, style of communication and so much more.  There are complex nuances influencing every aspect of a sermon.  Let’s prayerfully keep learning so that we can be the best stewards of the preaching privilege that we can.

Redirecting the Challenge

When we prepare to preach a passage we will find ourselves wrestling with the text, and often we will find the text wrestling with us.  This is good and it should be this way.  The Spirit of God should be doing a work in us through the text that we are studying.

But there is a complexity here.  As a preacher, you are probably, and hopefully, a relatively mature believer.  This means that you will more naturally find yourself challenged by the aspects of the passage that are applicational or doxological.  This will not be the case for some, or even for many, of your listeners.

When you preach in your church there will be some present who cannot see past the challenge of believing the text.  There may be some aspects of it that seem far-fetched or fanciful.  You may have overcome those obstacles years ago and no longer see them when you look at a text, but be sure to put yourself in the shoes of a contemporary unchurched listener.

Until a text does not seem fanciful or far-fetched, the applicational and doxological implications will only have minimal impact in the listener’s heart and life.  This is why we need to spot all the challenges and help our listeners be able to hear the ones that will really help them!

Not Every Exhortation is Necessary

Haddon Robinson uses an illustration to make this point. He imagines a friend borrowing his car and then finding they have a flat tire. They call for advice. So over the phone he tells them where the spare is, where the tools are, how to release the spare wheel from its cage, and so on. At the end of the explanation he suggests it is not necessary to finish with the exhortation, “Now I exhort you: change the tire!”

That friend is already motivated to put the instruction into practice, they just need the instruction to be clear. In the same way there are some things that are preached with great life impact simply through clarity of explanation. The listeners are already stirred and motivated to implement the teaching in their lives as soon as they understand it. If that is the case, the added exhortation may do more harm than good.

This is something for us to ponder not only in respect to the practical applications for believers, but also in respect to the offer of the Gospel. We should be persuasive and there will be times when an exhortation is exactly what is needed. But there will be others times when bringing clarity to the message will be all the motivation that is needed to bring about life change.

Let’s learn to sense when our exhortation is helpful and when it might only antagonize or patronize our listeners. Let’s also make sure that our explanation is so clear that people are really understanding what is being said. Let’s pray for sensitivity to people and to God so that we know when to exhort, when to invite, and when to let clarity do its deep work in souls.

Exegesis and Exposition

What is the difference between exegesis and exposition? Haddon Robinson put it this way, “Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give your people what they need to understand the passage.” This implies that the preacher will have a lot more material after the exegesis than they are able to present in the sermon.

Here are three implications for us to ponder:

1. Passage Study Before Message Formation – When you move too quickly from studying a passage to preparing the message you will not have much left over from the exegesis phase. This will result in preaching that lacks authority, that is biblically thin, and that is more an imposition of your ideas onto a passage than the message God intended from that passage.

2. Sermon Preparation Takes Time – If you start the sermon preparation on the Saturday, then Sunday is already looming and you are already looking for the sermon. You have to work your schedule so that the pressure of preaching is not squeezing out time for exegesis and meditation. It takes hours to prepare a message, over many days, built on top of many years. The years of biblical soaking feed into the times of biblical study that bubble up into sermons worth preaching.

3. You Have to Know Better Than You Preach – When you are grasping for a sermon you will be preaching a passage that you have not grasped and that has not grasped you. Aim to know a passage so well that an informed listener can engage you in an extended conversation about the nuances of the passage after they’ve heard your sermon. You may or may not choose to create a venue for that further exegetical presentation, but being able to do that means you are preaching within your range of study, not beyond it.

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!

Pulpit Humour: Five Pointers

Some churches get very upset if the preacher uses any humour in the pulpit. I suspect heaven will be a shock to their system!  Other churches esteem humour above all else that comes from the pulpit.  This is also a problem position.  But what of the rest of us somewhere in the middle?  We know that humour is neither inherently sinful, nor the point of preaching, but it can be a minefield.

Here are some pointers:

1. Be authentic in your humour.  That is, don’t pretend to be something you are not.  If you are not a joke-teller in conversation, then don’t tell jokes in the pulpit (it won’t work).  As long as it is appropriate, go with your natural style of humour.

2. Be joyful rather than silly.  We have so much to celebrate and should be a people marked by “Easter joy.”  However, the dynamics of a responsive crowd can stir our flesh into looking for laughs.  Don’t make that your pursuit, you will be selling out on the great goals of preaching!

3. Be loving to all.  Don’t use humour that is critical, destructive, racist, sexist, etc.  Don’t use restrictive humour, that is, humour that only those on the “inside” will understand.  It can be okay to say something that some will find amusing, but it is not okay for those who don’t to feel like they are being left out.

4. Be selective.  Don’t always use the same kind of material.  For instance, it may be the cutest thing you ever heard, but not everyone in your congregation wants to hear what your child said this week at bedtime.  For some a continual diet of those comments can be like rubbing salt in an open wound.

5. Be humble. If it goes wrong, don’t hesitate to apologise.  I inadvertently mixed up two brands when giving an illustration and managed to reference something highly inappropriate … it certainly got a laugh, but I needed to both apologise and explain how I ended up saying what I did!

What would you add?  Any pointers you’ve found helpful?