I’ve noticed something about some of the better-known preachers of our time. They’re all funny! People like Rick Warren, Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, Erwin McManus – these guys will crack their listeners up. They know how to tell a story that is both insightful and entertaining. Listening to them is not only helpful, but it can be a pleasure.
This is a trend that seems to have taken hold. I’ve noticed that my funnier student preachers get much better peer reviews in class. I’ve even heard of preachers taking stand-up comedy courses so as to improve their delivery.
As a communicator, I understand the power of humor. But when did humor become a primary element of powerful preaching? No doubt they had their moments, but I don’t sense that there was a whole lot of humor in the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, D. L. Moody, Billy Graham, or any of the great preachers of previous generations. Even today, there are still some excellent preachers out there who never stoop to tell a joke. Still, coming to church is starting to feel like a night at the Improv.
I imagine this says something about us as a people at the beginning of a new millennium, though I’m not sure what. Are we less serious? Are we more trivial in our interests? Or are we somehow more aware of the incongruities in life? Is more humor in preaching a good or a bad thing?
I’m not ready to make any final comment on this phenomena. Clearly, people enjoy humor and I’ve been known to make use of it myself. If I can help them stay connected with the text and with the sermon by saying something funny or describing something in a witty way that’s great – just so long as the humor doesn’t get in the way of the message or trivialize it in any way. Sometimes humor brings the law of unintended consequences into play.
Humor itself is not what it used to be. The late George Carlin, famous for his “seven words that can’t be said on television,” recently won a Mark Twain award. I’ve no doubt Carlin can be funny, but Mark Twain he was not. The problem with contemporary humor is that it is often so cynical. Humor that gains a laugh by tearing something down or that comes at the expense of another human being, or group of fellow humans has no place in the preacher’s repertoire.
On the other hand, some things in life are just plain funny and if by looking at things from another perspective we can lead our listeners to laugh, this might be a good thing.
Preachers don’t preach so as to get a laugh. Laughter is not our goal. However, if humor can lift a little stress for people and draw them closer to our message, it might be just the thing we need to help our people hear.