June 9, 2010
The Hansen Report: Comedy in the Pulpit
What will endure when the jokes go stale?
I love to laugh. And when I laugh, you’ll hear me if you’re in the same zip code. I have a few all-time favorite comedy TV shows that I can watch over and over again. And I enjoy funny movies, so long as they forego the explicit sexual content.
So why do I often cringe when pastors crack jokes during their sermons on Sunday morning? Maybe the joke’s on me, because comedy has become many pastors’ best friend. Apparently, seminaries may want to consider adding a course in stand-up comedy to prepare their preachers. One church I know recently hosted “Church Joke Sunday.” In lieu of hearing a sermon, a dwindling number of people who actually understand denominational humor laughed about the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians. And during the recent Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, Susan Sparks coached pastors in clerical comedy.
“Close to 200 ministers crowded a classroom at First Baptist, with more hanging out in the hallway for her workshop on bringing humor into the pulpit,” Bob Smietana wrote for The Tennessean on May 20. “She says that humor can help preachers connect with their parishioners, defuse church conflict and deal with an often-stressful calling. To help get her message across, Sparks gave preachers a Ten Commandments of stand-up comedy.”
I don’t suppose there is any way to criticize this approach and come across as anything but dour. So be it. I can’t help but wonder about the health of American churches when comedy is considered a cure. Are we just bored with the gospel? Do we have nothing to offer the broader world except jokes that few outside the church would consider funny? Is anyone aware that the watching world laughs at us, not with us?
Let me be clear that I find no biblical prohibition against humor in the pulpit. I don’t even think we should make a rule against telling jokes. When I visited a pastor who has publicly argued against using humor in sermons, he joked around with his respectful, adoring congregation to great effect during an anxious time of transition. Other pastors whose sermons top the mp3 download charts wield humor as the medicine that makes their challenging preaching go down more smoothly. When listening to them, it sounds like someone is playing a laugh track. But you can’t fault these pastors for shying away from the Bible’s difficult doctrines. And for what it’s worth, I enjoy the inside jokes pastors share through the award-winning cartoons in Leadership.
I’m here, though, to defend the preachers who would flop as stand-up comedians if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-34). We are to be pitied. All we have is the good news that Jesus came to save sinners, of whom we are foremost (1 Tim. 1:15). As ambassadors for Christ, we study all week and preach our hearts out on Sunday morning, imploring everyone to be reconciled with God (2 Cor. 5:20). We might not be the best preachers, but we have the best message. We want to grow as effective communicators. But we’re tempted to despair when congregations exhort us to include more funny stories and lighten the mood.
John McClure, the Charles G. Finney Professor of Homiletics at Vanderbilt Divinity School, told The Tennessean that pastors have been debating the merits of humor for centuries. Does it aid communication or steal attention from God? Both, I think we can say, depending on the situation. On balance, though, comedian preachers run the serious risk of flaunting their funny at the expense of glorifying the God of the gospel. “Getting people to laugh feels good, and preachers can get caught up in showing worshipers that they are funny and likable,” Smietana writes.
I’m also concerned, then, for the occasionally funny pastors who will someday realize they can’t make it on the stand-up circuit, either. We can understand why they take this quick path to a congregation’s good graces. Pastoring is hard work. Ministers looking for love and support need to discharge every available arrow in their quivers. But sooner or later, those arrows will run out. If you win the congregation with humor, you need to keep the congregation with humor. The vast majority of pastors, who lack an extraordinary gift for comedy, eventually exhaust their repository of funny things kids say. Rather than an aid, comedy becomes the pastor’s cruel taskmaster.
For the unfunny and kinda funny alike, the good news is that the gospel is enough. You can win your congregation with its beauty, which will never lose its luster. There is power in this preaching when it’s faithful to God’s Word and backed up by a life of integrity. Such preaching, in fact, will leave a lasting legacy that endures long after the jokes go stale.