Many preachers are excellent humorists. Not only are their sermons entertaining, but these preachers seemed to love getting a laugh – and they don’t feel that their sermons “work” unless they get a laugh or two.
There is good biblical precedent for humor. Sarah laughed when she discovered she was to have a child at an old age. God laughs in Psalm 2:4. Some of Jesus’ parables seem to want to get a chuckle. Both Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Finney were humorists in the pulpit. William Willimon, in the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, argues that humor can assist the preacher in “taking God a little more seriously and ourselves a little less so.” Charles Campbell and Johann Cilliers, in their wonderful new book Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, argue that laughter can be, in fact, a socially and politically subversive activity in the pulpit.
It seems to me that humor has several homiletical advantages:
1) it connects the preacher and the audience. There’s nothing like sharing a good laugh to put us all in the same boat.
2) it “breaks the ice” and puts the audience at ease.
3) it can promote authenticity – taking ourselves with a grain of salt, in order to shift the focus onto God.
4) it can help us subvert the status quo – showing the seams and edges, and even the dark underbelly of many of the sinful systems that enslave us.
Several potential problems seem to accompany humor in the pulpit, however.
1) it can focus too much attention on the preacher who is trying to communicate (sometimes desperately): “Look, I’m a funny, likable person!”
2) it can be forced – unnatural to the preacher’s own personality and style. This is especially true when stock jokes are told.
3) it can work at odds with the purposes of Christian communication – shifting the genre of communication to “barroom banter,” or “office party,” or “comedy club routine.”
4) it can dislocate the sermon’s “point.” We’re so busy laughing and sharing a good mutual “wink,” that we forget what the message is about.
When humor is not used for its own sake, however, and is relevant to the idea being expressed, it can have tremendous communicative power. And when it is used well in preaching it expresses the shared humility of both preacher and listener before a God who topples all of our self-serious agendas.
For more on this topic, and 143 other homiletical topics, see my book Preaching Words: 144 Key Terms in Homiletics.