Comedy from the pulpit: A laughing matter?

Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” I think you’d be hard pressed to find a person who would honestly say he or she prefers a crushed spirit over a cheerful heart. We can all recognize the valuable place that humor holds in each of our lives. One of the beautiful aspects of humor is how it can transcend so many barriers and bring people together in a unique way. Mark Twain once said, “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritation and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

In this interesting article, Bob Smietana shares the passion of Rev. Susan Sparks in her campaign to convince fellow pastors to add more humor to their Sunday sermons. Reverend Sparks has gone so far as to create the “Ten Commandments of stand-up comedy” as a resource for other pastors who are new and open to this idea. Sparks was careful to say that “she wasn’t advocating replacing theology with jokes. But she did remind preachers that in a world where texting and Twitter are commonplace, they can’t afford to drone on and on.”

So here’s my question: Is focusing this much on comedy from the pulpit truly beneficial to the spiritual climate of the church?

I agree with Sparks that “humor does two things. It binds us together as a community. And it breaks us open.” However, when she goes on to say that “when it’s done right, ministry and comedy make people feel less alone,” I feel a bit of conflict. On a basic level I can’t disagree with that statement, but I’m still not convinced that pastors should focus their efforts on making sure their sermons are entertaining and humorous enough to hold the attention of a so-called “sound byte generation.”

I love to laugh. I don’t think church should be a completely dismal place. At the same time, should the joy and laughter in the church be something that is dependent on the humorous material and delivery of the pastor’s sermon? Maybe we should be more focused on the truth found in Psalm 126:3: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” It is the works of the Lord and not witty one-liners from which we ought to derive real joy.


Comments:

I have always found a formal service an extremely unpleasant venue, jokes or no jokes. Sitting on uncomfortable chairs amid a large group of people and listening for an hour to a sermon from someone who has to think of a new one every week. Without being able to contribute to the discussion. The format in my church is just formal enough to be claustrophobic, without having aesthetically attractive rituals to compensate.

Be that as it may, jokes do make a service go smoother. My grandfather is good at those.
Hysterical?
Jason, we don't want to go off topic from Erika's original point. Paul may well have noticed that women enjoyed far higher status in the early Church than outside it, but were *generally* unprepared to take on leadership roles because, well, society hadn't prepared them for it. (If I have it right, most women would have been unable to read anything, much less Scripture, at the time of Jesus. Hard to comment on something if you can't refer to it.) But again, the issue is not women as reverends; SBK was making a sly remark about fundamentalist Protestants.

Trying to get back on-topic, I'll note that John Wesley preached against humor *anywhere* in Christian circles. A Mormon colleague encountered someone who was trying to follow Wesley very strictly, so they had an informal contest to see who could laugh the least and adopt the most sober countenance and outlook. The Mormon won, proving (he said) the superiority of LDS doctrine.

I'll also note, returning briefly to the theme of women reverends and fundamentalism, that a bunch of men are commenting on something a woman (and a young woman, at that) wrote. People who live in glass houses... :-)

By the way, this past Sunday my pastor told some jokes to illustrate his sermon points, and it all worked very well. The problem for me was that I'd already heard the jokes. But everyone else laughed. (Shame on them, Wesley would say.)
Technically Steve, Paul does seem to have said that women shouldn't be Reverends, and no, I don't know why.
Humor? Or story-telling
Maybe another angle on this might be, Do we need humor? Or do we really need good story-telling from the pulpit? How many times have you been drifting mentally listening to a pastor until he says the magic words, "That reminds me of a story..."

Humor can be distracting, especially to the pastor who suddenly feels the same rush that anyone with a microphone gets when a lot of people laugh at his jokes. I would encourage instead an emphasis on telling good stories, funny or not.

After all, when Jesus says in Luke 15, "A certain man had two sons...", people STILL listen.
Welcome Erika
A great topic for discussion.
For instance, some might argue that humor shouldn't be too much a part of a sermon and are they the same people arguing that women shouldn't be reverends? (I thought you'd all enjoy that).

An interesting statement in the linked article: ""Preachers have this very bad habit of never getting to the point," she said." I can agree that sometimes that happens, (certainly universalizing the statement is a bad decision). And a good humorist is someone who sees deeply into the kernel of a matter. A good humorist is someone who can surprise us and get ideas past the 'sleeping dragons' we put up.

Definitely I agree with Augustine that we should use all the tools of rhetoric in sharing the message of truth. That of course means we wouldn't want to use excessively only one tool (say, humor).

Definitely I agree that we shouldn't cater to the 'sound bite' generation.

Perhaps the discussion shines a light on the 'whole project'. Should our worship and teaching mostly come in the form of a pastor-focused setting? (Though, maybe we'll start having humor-pastors, like music-pastors).

Anyway, humor, I'd think, would flow naturally from a joyful heart. Entertainment flows naturally from our self-centric society. How to keep those separate? Well, I've said enough in this comment. Others can discuss :P
Welcome to the funhouse, Erika
And you begin with the kind of insightful musing that we long time Point-followers have almost come to take for granted here. Bravo.

I've said several times that one of my favorite Bible teachers is Gayle Erwin, whose material can be found at http://www.servant.org (including a link to see many videos and listen to audio for free). He deliberately uses humor in his lessons to get the listeners engaged early, partly as repentance for an earlier career as a hellfire-and-brimstone pastor.

Erwin says that humor, when used effectively, helps the listener to retain the message. It also lowers the natural social barrier between the listener and the speaker. But most of all, many Bible stories when properly understood - when you apply your imagination and ability to visualize - are flat-out hilarious in and of themselves. So a failure to "get the joke" is a failure to understand what God is trying to communicate. Much of human interaction is unintentionally hilarious, as with for example Gayle's description of the Last Supper - a Scriptural passage normally marinated in solemnity by preachers, but actually filled with moments as ice-breaking as a Lenny Briscoe wisecrack during a Law&Order murder investigation.

So the problem I see in the article is the idea that humor should be layered onto a message, rather than derived from the message's source material (which, hopefully, is the Bible).

But (to give an inside joke to Gina, who probably watches Geico commercials, and who I think has to read all my ramblings) please, be vewwy, vewwy quiet - today I'm hunting wabbits.




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