The Place of Humor in Preaching

Leo-LutherThere are those who believe that the pulpit is no place for humor. Puritan pastor Richard Baxter writes:

All our work must be managed reverently, as beseemeth them that believe the presence of God, and use not holy things as if they were common. Reverence is that affection of the soul which proceeds from deep apprehensions of God and indicates a mind that is much conversant with him . . . the most reverent preacher, that speaks as if he saw the face of God, does more affect my heart, though with common words, than an irreverent man with the most exquisite preparations. Of all preaching in the world, I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity, and affect them as stage-plays used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence in the name of God . . . Speak to your people as to men that must be awakened, either here or in hell. Whatever you do, let the people see that you are in good earnest. You cannot break men’s heart by jesting with them, or telling them a smooth tale, or pronouncing a gaudy oration.

Taking a very different view, John R. W. Stott writes:

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 grow too familiar with the books of all ages which have in them the truest humor, for the truest humor is the bloom of the highest life. Read George Eliot and Thackeray, and above all Shakespeare. They will help you to keep from extravagances without fading into insipidity. They will preserve your gravity while they save you from pompous frivolity.

The acknowledged need for earnestness in our preaching inevitably prompts the question whether it is ever appropriate for the preacher to make the congregation laugh. At first sights seriousness and laughter appear to be incompatible… The issue is not so easily settled, however. Because of the precedent set by Jesus, it is hardly surprising that the use of humor in preaching and teaching has had a long and honorable tradition. It particularly flourished during the sixteenth-century Reformation, for both Martin Luther on the Continent and Hugh Latimer in England used their earthy descriptive powers to the full. They drew cartoons with words, which still have the power to make us laugh today. So humor is legitimate. Nevertheless, we have to be sparing in our use of it and judicious in the topics we select for laughter. [Otherwise] people may stop taking us seriously. Our ministry will then be as effective as Lot’s who urged his sons-in-law to escape from Sodom… but ‘he seemed to be jesting’ (Gen. 19:14).

What, then, is the value of humor if used in the right places and about the right things? First it breaks tension. Most people find it hard to maintain mental concentration or to endure the build-up of emotional pressure for a prolonged period. They need to relax for a few moments, and one of the simplest, quickest and healthiest ways to secure their relaxation is to tell a joke and make them laugh.

Secondly, laughter has extraordinary power to break down people’s defenses. A man comes to church in a stubborn and rebellious frame of mind. He is determined not to respond to a missionary appeal or to change his mind over some issue. Then suddenly he laughs, in spite of himself, and his resistance collapses. [As one man put it] ‘I get their mouths open in a laugh and then ram the truth down.”

The third and greatest benefit of humor is that it humbles us by pricking the bubble of human pomposity. Moreover humor can be directed against oneself; one laughs at one’s own idiosyncrasies, at one’s ludicrous lapses from humanness. So humor should definitely not be prohibited in the pulpit. On the contrary, provided that we are laughing at the human condition, and therefore at ourselves, humor helps us to see things in proportion. It is often through laughter that we gain clear glimpses both of the heights from which we have fallen and of the depths to which we have sunk, leading to a wistful desire to be ‘ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven’. Thus humor can be a genuine preparation for the gospel. Since it can contribute to the awakening within human hearts of shame over what we are and of longing for what we could be, we should press it gladly into service in the cause of the gospel.

I believe the “good doctor” Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is right when he writes:

The history of preaching and preachers shows that there have been tremendous variations. In the case of an outstandingly great preacher like Spurgeon there was a great deal of humor – some of us would say too much humor. He was a naturally humorous man, it bubbled out of him. But then take Whitefield, on whom Spurgeon modeled himself – he was never humorous. Whitefield was always tremendously serious. In the eighteenth century to which he belonged, there were other men like John Berridge of Everton in England, who again was one of these natural humorists. These men always trouble me because I feel that they tended to go too far, and allowed their humor to run away with them. I would dare not to say that there is no place for humor in preaching; but I do suggest that it should not be a very big place because of the nature of the work, and because of the character of the Truth with which we are dealing. The preacher is dealing with and concerned about souls and their destiny. He is standing between God and men and acting as an ambassador for Christ. I would have thought that as an overriding consideration, 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

While very aware of the vast gulf between the preaching talents of C. H. Spurgeon and my own; personality wise, I think its true to say that we share something in common. I, like Spurgeon, am a “naturally humorous man”, and it bubbles out of me. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it means I do need to be aware of that fact. There is a definite need for balance in this area. Finding that balance is not always easy.

One thing is sure, as the saying goes, “you can’t please all of the people, all of the time.” Those who believe humor has no place in the pulpit, historically speaking, would have had no use whatsoever for the Luthers and the Spurgeons of this world.

One man’s view might differ greatly from another and balance is often in the eye of the beholder. May God help each of us preachers find the needed and necessary balance in the use of humor.

(Thanks to John Giarrizzo for passing the above quotes on to me)