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Humor in the Pulpit

Connecting, confronting, and calling people to Spirit-empowered transformation.

Preaching is a radical event. In a world moving at a breakneck pace—where most things involve a screen of some sort, and attention spans max out at 280 characters—preachers stand before a group of people who willingly choose to sit and listen for an extended period of time as we talk about an ancient book written thousands of miles—and years—apart from us. They come with the hope we can somehow bring them a good word from the Lord, a word that will make a difference when they stand up and return to their own frenetic worlds.

Preaching effectively to such a people requires more than good theology and decent public speaking skills. The preaching task requires us to connect with our listeners by building rapport. The unspoken, and perhaps subconscious, question of the listener is, Why should I allow this person to speak into my life? Authority in pulpit is no longer assumed, deepening the need for preachers to establish trust and connection with the congregation to earn the right to be heard. Women preachers face a secondary challenge in that they must also break through the barriers erected by perceptions and preconceived ideas about a woman’s place in the pulpit in order to connect effectively.

The preaching task also requires us to confront cynicism and defensiveness, as well as the deadly apathy that muffles ears and hardens hearts. Listeners come to the pew having been inundated all week long by empty promises and false hopes from the media, politics, and advertising. To survive in a world constantly vying for our attention and devotion, we develop defense mechanisms to function amidst the chaos. Our task as preachers is to surprise the listener in such a way that the Words of Life can slip past the walls of cynicism, defensiveness, and apathy and do their work.

Ultimately, the preaching task is centered on the call to a new way of life—to transformation into Christlikeness. Effective preaching moves beyond connection for connection’s sake, presses on through the confrontation of defense mechanisms, and insistently calls the listeners to respond to the Word.

What a tall order! No pressure, friend. Preaching is a radical event.

I have stacks of books in my office devoted exclusively to the task of preaching, each brimming with wisdom from seasoned preachers. You have probably read them, too. But some things can truly only be learned by doing—trying, failing, adjusting, and trying again. The responsive and effective preacher takes the tools provided to her by giants like Craddock, Long, Taylor, and a host of others and puts them to use in her unique way, in her unique voice.

One such tool I have found to be most useful in my own preaching is the tool of humor. When used appropriately, humor can enable us to connect with the listeners; confront cynicism, defensiveness, and apathy; and ultimately call our people to Spirit-empowered transformation.

Connect

Humor is a powerful means of connecting with our listeners in a meaningful way. In her article, “When the Direct Approach Backfires, Try Indirect Influence,” Martha Craumer describes humor as the “great equalizer.” Listeners are more apt to give a hearing to a person they find to be relatable and authentic, and humor helps to bridge the seemingly looming gulf between the pulpit and the pew. Craumer also suggests, “it’s hard to dislike a person who makes you laugh.” A caveat: not everyone will like you all the time. Regardless of how funny you are, there will likely always be someone who squirms under a female voice from the pulpit. Let them. But, if a little levity can open the door to potential connection and good will between the preacher and listener, why not try?

Confront

It is no easy task to confront and breach the walls of cynicism, defensiveness, and apathy. But humor—effectively employed—can serve as a pole vault, sending us right over the top, allowing us to surprise our people into receptivity. Any experienced preacher will confirm that when a preacher adeptly weaves a lighthearted or downright funny story into a sermon, there is a notable increase in attention almost immediately. Body language might shift, faces lighten. Wesley Nelson in “Taking Pulpit Humor Seriously” suggests that in the brief window following a moment of humor, the listener’s mind is—if only for a flash—“in neutral,” in which the preacher can bring a point home, slipping past barriers that were once so firmly in place, and speak a challenging word.

Call

When humor is used effectively to establish connection and foster an open posture in your listeners throughout your message, it enhances their ability to hear and respond to the call of the Gospel at the conclusion of your sermon. The point of application might not be the ideal time to try to illicit a laugh from the listener as it might detract from the moment, but if you have effectively connected with them and confronted unspoken barriers within them, there will be no need. Their hearts will be ready to respond to the call by the power of the Holy Spirit.

How-to

It’s one thing to say, “be funny in the pulpit!” It’s another thing entirely to actually put humor to work productively.

Don’t whip out a joke book and insert knock-knock jokes and corny puns into your sermon. Instead, do consider your own personal style and put it to work. Are you naturally sarcastic? How can you integrate sarcasm into your text to encourage creative thinking or to confront a false narrative? Be sure to know your context well to avoid misunderstanding and avoid making others the object of ridicule. Are you naturally witty, making interesting and humorous observations about ordinary life? Instead of stopping the flow of your sermon entirely with a formal joke, incorporate witty comments throughout and give the listener the gift of an unexpected chuckle.

Don’t use excessive self-deprecation. While it is certainly unwise (and unkind) to make others the butt of your jokes, it is equally unwise to always make yourself the object of laughter. A sermon overloaded with self-deprecation can actually undermine the rapport you have worked so diligently to establish with your congregation, particularly with those individuals who might question your authority as a female preacher. Additionally, making all your jokes about yourself can come across as self-centered. Instead, do insert occasional jabs at yourself, particularly if doing so helps the listeners perceive you as a real person, not an untouchable “Moses on the mountain.”

Don’t make light of that which is ultimately weighty. It’s one thing to make light of the Israelites begging for meat and God swamping the camp with quail until the very sight of meat makes them gag. It’s quite another thing to make light of Jesus’ suffering on the cross or the Lord’s Supper. Inappropriate levity is off-putting and can cause the listener to question our judgment. Rather, do use levity to offer moments of rest throughout the sermon. George Buttrick described preaching as climbing a mountain and suggested that stories, illustrations, and moments of humor can serve as resting points along the way that enable the listener to make it to the breathtaking peak.

For any humor to be effective, it is essential that a preacher know her context. Sarcasm might serve well in a primarily homogenous congregation but fall flat in a crowd made up of people from diverse backgrounds and languages. In addition, it is important that humor feel natural, not forced. As foolish as it might feel, try practicing your sermon aloud, maybe even in a mirror to see how your facial expressions might help the moment land well. Rehearse timing and appropriate pauses so the listener has a chance both to hear the joke or witty comment and respond accordingly.

Preaching is a radical event. But, in God’s ever-shocking way, He has invited us, preachers, to partner with the Spirit through the holy task of proclamation. And if humor can help us get the job done, pass me the mic.

Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell is a Nazarene pastor, wife, mommy of JoJo and Jack, teacher, lover of learning, and friend. She and her husband, Tommy, have served as co-pastors of several churches. Currently, Stephanie serves as co-lead pastor with Tommy, as well as the worship pastor at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene, an extraordinary community of believers in Mountain Home, Idaho, and blogs at www.stephanielobdell.com.

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July03, 2019 at 10:37 AM

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