I must have forty or fifty books on preaching. Some of them deal with humor–a little, not much–but as far as I’ve been able to tell, none answer the great question of the hour that is bugging the h–k out of a large number of preachers on this Friday morning, two days before the moment of truth:
Should I or should I not tell that joke when I get up to preach?
It’s a great joke. It’s had me in stitches all week, ever since I heard it at the pastors’ conference last Monday. And furthermore, I’ve figured out how to use it as the introduction to my sermon. Okay, it’s a stretch, but I think I can make it work. But it’s such a great joke, everyone will enjoy it.
Groan. (That’s the reaction of 99.9% of the non-preachers who are reading this. To them, it’s a no-brainer. “No! Do not start a sermon with a joke! The very idea!”)
Only the preacher deals with such temptation. He’s about to do the most serious thing in the world–speak for the living God to people who desperately need a word from Him–and he wants to begin with a funny story!
The first week of August, Greg Woodward and I led a seminary workshop for 45 masters level students on “Worship Leadership.” The actual classes took place that week–morning, afternoon, and an evening or two. Then, there were book reviews to turn in during the rest of this fall semester, and something else you might find interesting.
Each student was charged with visiting three worship services in various types of churches/synagogues and writing a report on each. This week, I’ve been reading those reports and grading them. One thing in particular keeps recurring.
Several of the students made a point of stressing that the preacher/priest/rabbi did not begin his message with a joke. (I think one of the texts had said something about that.)
Finally, after reading for the umpteenth time that the pastor of Buttercup Church did NOT begin his sermon by telling a joke–as though this earns the man accolades–I decided I’d about had enough.
There is a lot to be said for telling a joke at the beginning of a worship service or the start of a sermon.
And–just so you’ll know I haven’t gone completely looney here–there’s more to be said for NOT telling one. Still, there are two sides to this issue.
First, let’s backtrack a bit and establish the important role of humor in sermons, teachings, speeches, and such.
Stuart Briscoe, no mean preacher himself, says, “If the preacher’s personality plays a significant role in the communication of the truth, as (Phillips) Brooks insists it does, and if the preacher has a keen sense of humor, then it would be strange if the humor were not a powerful weapon in his armory.”
Not everyone agrees, he quickly points out, and quotes Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “I would not dare to say there is no place for humor in preaching; but I do suggest that it is not a very big place because of the nature of the work, and because of the character of the Truth with which it is dealing…. The most one can say for the place of humor is that it is only allowable if it is natural. The man who tries to be humorous is an abomination and should never be allowed to enter a pulpit.”
Briscoe also quotes David Buttrick, a well-known professor of preaching. Concerning using humorous illustrations, he said: “We can state a general rule with ease: If you are a naturally funny person, your problem will be control; it you are not a naturally funny person, do not try.”
All are good words, methinks.
Stuart Briscoe was in my church a few years back, and gave me his book “Fresh Air in the Pulpit,” from which these notes are taken. At the end of this discussion, he gives the last word to Phillips Brooks himself, from his lectures to students at Yale:
Humor involves the perception of the true proportions of life. It is one of the most helpful qualities that the preacher can possess. There is no extravagance which deforms the pulpit which would not be modified and repressed, often entirely obliterated, if the minister had a true sense of humor. It has softened the bitterness of controversy a thousand times. You cannot encourage it too much.
You cannot encourage a true sense of humor too much? Wow. I’ll take that in a heartbeat. Thank you, Dr. Brooks.
So, then, back to our original question: Shall we tell that joke at the beginning of next Sunday’s sermon?
Yes, tell that joke at the beginning of the sermon, if….
IF the joke will add something significant to the message, to the service, to the people, to yourself.
IF the joke will not detract from what you are trying to accomplish.
IF the joke will not overwhelm the congregation to the point that no one will be able to quit thinking of it and to focus on the message.
IF it fits in the service as a whole. Sometimes, the worship service–and by that we mean the prayers and hymns, the special music, the scripture readings–has been of such a high and holy nature that to walk to the pulpit and begin with a joke would be as out of place as the proverbial dog in the manger.
IF you have cleared it with your worship leader. Say what? This is a biggie, pastor, so please stay with us. Few things drive a worship leader (minister of music, song director, whatever title you use) crazy like preparing the congregation through worship for a word from God, then have you get up and engage in a bit of silliness at the start of the sermon. He/she will never mention it to you, but I can guarantee you that it matters to them greatly. So, while you are not asking for their permission or even their approval, you show respect by alerting them to your intentions.
IF your wife gives her okay. You do not need the approval of your co-workers, but you do need your wife’s say-so. Why? Because no one knows you the way she does and she has a handle on what is proper in your church setting in ways you might not. Your wife has an entirely different sense of humor from you? Sure she does. That’s life. And that’s why you are going to value her opinion more than anyone else’s. So, pastor, if she even hesitates, forget the joke. Tell it at the deacons meeting.
IF you’re leaving this church anyway and you want to take a parting shot at the music people, go ahead and tell the joke. (I’m being facetious, gang!)
Otherwise, think long and hard.
Did our Lord make jokes? There are some who say so.
Jesus told the Pharisees: “You hypocrites! You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). Some say he was having a little fun with a pun. In the Aramaic, gamla is camel and galma is gnat.
So, the Lord was telling these pious religious leaders: “You strain out the galma and swallow the gamla!”
In their little book “The Elements of Preaching,” David and Warren Wiersbe include a chapter by the title “Abusing the use of humor in the pulpit.” They say, “Humor can become a toy to play with, a tool to build with, or a dangerous weapon to fight with.”
The Wiersbes say there is no place in the pulpit for a comedian, for jesting about eternal things, for “clerical jesters.”
They quote Spurgeon: I must confess that I would rather hear people laugh than I would see them asleep in the house of God; and I would rather get the truth into them through the medium of ridicule than i would have it neglected, or leave the people to perish through lack of reception of the message.
Warren Wiersbe says: “The preacher has thirty minutes to raise the dead. We do not have time for toys.”
A pastor I know was caught in some sort of shenanigans and had to resign abruptly. A day or two after he vacated his office, someone found a book of jokes he had left behind. Inside, they saw where he had noted in the margins the dates when he had used each of those jokes in his sermons. They were mortified, and with good reason.
I expect the overuse of jokes in sermons is meant as a camouflage for the failure to provide anything of merit in them. If so, let the preacher take note: it doesn’t work.
The sermon which depends on a joke for its effectiveness is an insult to God, to the audience, and to one’s calling.
I say this as one who loves a great story and enjoys being the one telling it. In fact, I often do church banquets during which I sketch people, relate silly happenings from a half-century of ministry, and even drop in an appropriate joke or two. I love to laugh and enjoy encouraging others to laugh.
But, as Solomon said, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl. 3:4).
Let’s pray the Lord will always help us know the time.