7/18/2010 12:54:00 am

Comedy and Preaching

Posted by Tom French |

I feel like Lesley's comment was such a good and challenging comment, that it needs a post of it's own. Down below she wrote:

I wonder why comedy in preaching seems so important for many preachers? Let me be clear - this is a general statement to anyone who preaches, not Tom in particular. The sermons I remember best are those where I'm challenged to change. Not quite on the scale of fire and brimstone, but challenged nonetheless. Yes, a well-placed laugh can be effective, but jokes can also make for lazy, self-conscious preaching. I hunger for intelligent, thought provoking sermons. Raise the bar, I say. How do you want to be remembered? As a funny preacher? Or something more than that? Here's a challenge: Can you can deliver a sermon without cracking a joke? ... Let the flaming begin.

I must say this is something that I've thought about a lot. Obviously if you've heard me preach, or read my blog, you'll know that comedy is an important part of my preaching. I think there are quite a few reasons for having jokes in a sermon but I certainly don't think they're vital. You can preach an excellent sermon without one joke, Piper and Stott are both key examples of this. And you can preach a useless sermon which is plenty funny. I won't give you an example of that.

Pilavachi*, in a seminar, once said that there are three types of people giving extended monologues in secular society these days, politicians, lecturers and stand-up comics. Of those, stand-up comics seem to be the once who people are most likely to listen to.

While obviously that's a generalisation I think there is a lot of truth to the statement. The best stand-up comics are making a serious comment on society in a way that is more likely to be heard. Politicians should be the ones doing it, but we're all so jaded with their self-serving, narrowly focused rhetoric we've stopped listening long ago. It takes someone with truly great oratory skills, like Obama, to make people sit up and actually want to listen.

Comics, on the other hand, can demolish pretences and prejudice just by highlighting the absurdity of people's stupid behaviour and ideas. Good comics will make you laugh and make you pay attention to the world at the same time. Driscoll once said that the best lesson he ever got on preaching was going to see Chris Rock do stand up.

Now as far as preaching goes, I feel like comedy serves many different purposes.

Positively, and in it's most basic form, comedy relaxes and focuses a congregation. A few jokes early on can help people feel pleased to be listening to the sermon. A joke or two during some of the more theological bits of a sermon will keep people focused when they might be tempted to drift off.

Another useful tool of comedy in preaching is that you can use it to highlight sin without people getting defensive. In my experience, highlighting your own sin with a self-deprecating story frees people up to laugh at you, identify with you, and realise that they too are sinful the the same way. Often we laugh because it rings true.

Also in the context of self-deprecation, is when you use humorous stories about yourself to "un-sanctify" the preacher. Preachers can seem like spiritual giants when they preach. Sometimes this is because they use the sermon to highlight their spiritual strength or to give the impression of spiritual maturity. Or because, through no fault of their own, the preacher preaches well about spiritual matters and gives the impression they are accomplished in everything they're encouraging their congregation to do.

A self-deprecating story can go a long way in putting the preacher on the level of the listener, and hopefully, by contrast, show Christ to be the hero of the sermon.

Thirdly, humour will help hard truths go down easier. As Mary Poppins said "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." Biblical preaching necessarily touches on some of the most painful parts of human existence. To tell people that they are sinners, deserving of God's judgement, is not an easy thing to do, and to be told you are an object of God's wrath, is not a nice thing to hear. A little humour, without diminishing the gravity of the truth can make things a little easier to hear, and give people a bit more good-will so they are more likely to listen.

Mostly I just use humour because it helps make listening to sermons a more enjoyable experience. While I sincerely believe that the greatest enjoyment in preaching is not in laughing but in seeing the beauty of Jesus, and the most valuable moments of preaching are not when people smile, but when their heart is broken by God convicting them, I do not think the process loses value or meaning if people are amused along the way.

However this is not to say that humour isn't used for unhelpful reasons either.

Negatively I use jokes to help with my insecurity about a message. I might feel like a sermon or talk isn't very good, so I'll add jokes to cover up the perceived lack of content or weight. Obviously this is a bad use of humour. It elevates my insecurity over my trust in God's word to be powerful, relevant and life-giving beyond the skills of the preacher. Plus it shows my laziness. It is an inadequate response to a deficient message. The answer is not to make more jokes, but to work harder to find God's voice for his people in the message he has given me to preach.

Also I use humour because it makes me feel good about myself. However high myself esteem is, it can always get higher. To have 100 people laughing at one of your jokes feel pretty good. And so the temptation is to make more jokes, so that more people laugh, more people think you're funny and you feel better about yourself. Comedy feeds my pride.

That's not to say that a sermon devoid of jokes cannot feed a preacher's pride too. The preacher will always be wrestling with pride and insecurity when they preach. They will always go to the pulpit with mixed motives. I think the task of any preacher is not to remove anything in a sermon which might make the preacher look good, or feel good about themselves, but to constantly seek the Holy Spirit to change their heart so that they recognise their own sin, and that it is only God's graciousness that they are gifted with any skills to preach at all. I think it's also a matter of praying that God might give you new desires, not to glorify yourself but to glorify him through your words.


Obviously, comedy is only a tool in preaching. It has its strengths and its weaknesses. The strengths are seen in funny preaching that is enjoyable, dynamic, insightful and God glorifying. The dangers of making jokes are that people will be more interested in having a laugh than in hearing God's word, and the preacher will be more interested in looking good, then showing how good God looks. When it comes down to it, I feel like the preacher should use the tools available to them as best they can. If you're good at being funny, then use it, for God's glory, to help preach his word. If you're not funny, don't be, because it makes everyone awkward and doesn't serve God, you or your congregation at all.

I try and use comedy only to help me preach. I try hard not to trivialise God, God's word or God's work. I try hard to help the congregation pay attention as much as possible so that they might be listening to God's truth. I know I've got it wrong in the past, and I will again. But I am sure that for me, at this time, the ability to make jokes is a gift God has given me to use, and I need to put it to service for him.

As far as Lesley's challenge to preach without making any jokes, I did it once. You can read about it and listen to it here. I might do it again. I probably will at some stage. If I do I'll let you know how it goes.

Well, that's my opinion on comedy in preaching. I know there's a good bunch of you out there who are both preachers and regular preaching listeners, what are your thoughts?

*Speaking of Pilavachi, this is one of his funniest sermons, it also serves as a great example of preaching that is both funny and important. It takes a little while to get started, but it's a good one none the less.

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