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.

Laughter and the Preacher

The subject of humor in preaching can create tension.  Personally I think that natural humor appropriately used can be a great tool in preaching.  Obviously I agree that unnatural humor inappropriately used for the sake of entertainment in preaching is not good at all.  Satan loves to take something that is good and corrupt it, even in the church.  But I’m not wanting to write about humor in preaching, I’m thinking about laughter in the preacher.  Perhaps a preacher with a great laugh comes to mind, like Charles Swindoll, or a preacher with dry humor, or whatever, but I’m not thinking primarily about preaching today.

I just read the quote that laughter is an instant vacation.  Perhaps in the busy-ness of life and ministry, we need something akin to mini-sabbaths by laughter.  Before you start thinking that my view of sabbath is limited, hear me out.  I know that the biblical concept of Sabbath from Genesis 2 to the book of Hebrews is very rich theologically.  I also know that we of all people, hopefully understanding the Bible well, being experts in the struggles of contemporary life, carrying the pastoral burdens of deeply hurting folks, facing spiritual opposition at potentially elevated levels, etc., we of all people have reason to be sombre and serious.

Yet at the same time, if we know the Bible well, if we know God well, if we have a firm grasp of the theological truths in which we deal every day, the truths of a God who has grasped our hearts and poured out his love into them . . . we of all people should have laughter in our lives.  The Psalmist wrote about the return of the captives and spoke of how their mouths were filled with laughter.  Why?  Because they knew, indeed all the nations knew, that the LORD had done great things for them!  (see Psalm 126)  The book of Proverbs speaks of a joyful heart being good medicine (Pro.17:22).  They say the laughter of a Dad is critical to the psychological health of a child.  Laughter, by definition, seems to be a healthy ingredient in life.

I don’t deny the other side of the coin.  The need for seriousness in many aspects of life and ministry, the sadness that may overwhelm our hearts as they beat with His for this hurting rebellious world, the deep realities of mourning in this world that itself groans in travail.  I do not urge flippancy or silliness or folly.  I simply want to prod myself and perhaps you too . . . surely we of all people should have regular bouts of laughter.  God-inspired, clean, honest, “I’ve cast my cares on Him so the burdens are not on me” laughter.  God-given, grace-prompted, “God has given me so much to rejoice in that I am able to enjoy the little blessings” laughter.

Perhaps if we allow ourselves to laugh in private, it may even spill naturally and appropriately into the pulpit.  Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing sometimes.

Cut Unnecessary Intros

This would apply to the whole sermon, but I am thinking specifically of stories, illustrations, humor, etc.  Many of us have a tendency to set-up an element of the sermon with an introductory comment.  There are exceptions to this advice, but generally speaking, don’t.  It is better to seamlessly slide into the story than it is to introduce it.  Think of people telling jokes.  When they begin, “Here’s one that will make you laugh,” or “This is a really funny joke,” the net result is almost always negative.  Much better to hear the story and be surprised rather than expecting something good or bad.  The same goes in preaching.  Don’t say, “Here’s a startling statistic I came across this week…” (Which usually means the preacher hunted for it online!)  Just give it.  Don’t say, “Here’s an illustration that will make this notion clear…”, instead just say, “It’s like…” and say it.

There are exceptions, sometimes it helps to wisely frame or set up some element of a message.  Most of the time seamless is more effective.  When you have this kind of content in a message, think through ahead of time which will work better.  Try it both ways.  Then go with the most effective for the listeners.