Some preachers are naturally funny while others are not. Every preacher, however, has the capacity to add a bit more humor to their preaching. Part of the battle is knowing when and how to use humor, as well as when and how not to use it. Humor is, like most elements of preaching, contextually based. Ultimately, the people to whom you preach decide what’s funny and what’s not. Your preaching context also determines how much humor is appropriate for the sermon. The point is, know the contextual expectations regarding humor and know yourself. Carefully exegeting yourself and your context can enhance your use of homiletic humor.
There are a few principles for the use of humor that can be generalized to most preaching contexts. These principles can assist the preacher who speaks in rural Wisconsin or urban Philadelphia, in America or Zambia, to youth or to senior adults.
HOW NOT TO USE HUMOR
-Humor needs no introduction. Introducing a funny story or joke with “here’s a funny story” or something like this can be more harmful than humorous. If people do not laugh you can lose credibility and confidence. Humor does not, like an unfamiliar guest preacher, need an introduction. If it’s funny it will stand on its own. If it’s not as funny as you hoped it would be credibility and confidence can still be salvaged as long as you don’t introduce the intended humor.
-Humor is not always cross-cultural. Using humor in cross-cultural preaching is extremely challenging. We often project our humor preferences onto the preaching context, assuming that what’s funny to us will be funny to them. Perhaps the preacher can get away with this in the primary context that shaped the preacher but not in a drastically different context. I had the privilege of preaching at different churches in Romania. Romania is still reeling from the impact of Communism. Church services are sacred but somewhat stiff and stoic. When I tried to use humor I paid for it with blank stares.
-Humor that is canned is often corny. Canned humor usually starts out with phrases like, “the story has been told” or “three guys are sitting in a boat.” People will often laugh at this canned humor, but the preacher’s creativity and credibility are at least slightly diminished. This diminishment is more pronounced today due to the internet, where canned humor can be found in two or three clicks of the mouse. People who listened to the preacher’s canned humor may conclude, “couldn’t the preacher come up with something more original and creative?” Perhaps I am stating this too strongly, but I’m pretty sure that lay people would laugh even more if preachers didn’t use canned humor.
-Humor should not be used at times. When the content of the message is focused primarily on pain and suffering, humor, if used at all, should be kept to a minimum. I doubt that too many preachers used humor in their sermon on the Sunday following the 9/11 terrorists attacks against America in 2001. The seriousness of the situation could potentially be trivialized by the use of humor. Sometimes listeners need to wrestle with the grief, pain, and angst of the human condition without humor letting them off the hook. Some things in life are flat out not funny.
-Humor should not stereo-type or be violently sarcastic. Venomous sarcastic humor, the type used in a political smear campaign commercial, is all too common among preachers. Because we have the microphone we are tempted to use it with angry sarcasm aimed at tearing down people or groups who get in our way. Irony is okay, but sarcasm causes listeners to wonder about the integrity of their preacher.
-Stereo-typing is a form of sarcasm that can do severe damage. I remember hearing a comedian at a large gathering of Christians several years. The event took place at a time of tension between France and America. This comedian focused about fifteen minutes of his routine on stereo-typing and humiliating French people. One of the people I invited to this gathering of men was a recent atheist who came to faith in Christ and began attending the church I served as pastor. This new believer happened to be French. Fortunately, this French friend who was newly transplanted in America and a new convert to Christ wasn’t able to attend the event. At that point in his journey with Christ, I wonder if he would have remained in the church after hearing that “Christian comedian” berate and belittle the French while nearly 10,000 Christians laughed their heads off.
Reflection: Consider the last time you used or heard someone use humor in a sermon. Did you or that person avoid the hazards above? What other items would you add to the list of humor outlaws?
Dr. Lenny Luchetti presently serves as Assistant Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University. He began his 15 years of pastoral ministry when he was 23 years old. During that time he has served as the Pastor of a small rural church, the Assistant Pastor of a large church, and as the Lead Pastor of a congregation that grew from a small to a large missional and multi-ethnic church during his tenure. Lenny has taught preaching courses for ministers since 2003. He has preached at churches, camps, and colleges in the United States and around the world. His passion these days is to invest in those who are investing in local churches.
Dr. Luchetti blogs at lennyluchetti.blogspot.com