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The Place of Humor in Preaching

The fact that Scripture is silent regarding humor generally — and more particularly regarding humor in preaching — should instill humility in anybody who addresses this topic.  The old maxim says ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ so one approaches this subject with a healthy respect for the problems it presents. Some Christians today might agree with the words of the Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) who said ‘In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal and so ill-bred, as audible laughter’[i] especially if we add the words ‘in church’.  Others, however, may feel that the need to discuss such an issue is not only pedantic but is also rather pathetic.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 21, Paragraph 1) and The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Chapter 22, Paragraph 1) both make the following statement. ‘But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men…or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.’  For those who would seek to invoke the authority of the ‘Regulative Principle’ on this issue I should make a clear disclaimer.  I am not actually advocating the use of humor and I am certainly not suggesting that humor may have a role to play in the worship of God.

There are references to ‘laughter’ in both the Old and New Testaments but they do not illuminate this issue for us.  In Genesis we encounter the incredulous and inappropriate laugh of Sarah.  There are several Old Testament references to God’s derisive laughter at his enemies.[ii]  Ecclesiastes tells us there is ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh’  (3: 4).  In other words there are appropriate occasions for regrets and for rejoicing.  There are times for crying and times for celebrating.  As Paul says ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom.12: 15).

Jesus said ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh’ (Lk.6: 21) and ‘Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep’ (Lk.6: 25).  In other words Jesus is saying if you weep over your sins now and that sorrow turns your heart to God you will be comforted and know joy in the future.  On the other hand if you continue to frolic in your folly and sinfulness and refuse to repent you will know future sorrow.

These words of Christ indicate that those who pursue laughter as an end in itself and indulge in godless pursuits to fulfill that objective will regret it throughout eternity.  But he also promises laughter as a future blessing to those who are remorseful and repentant.  One of Job’s ‘comforters’, Bildad, says ‘He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy’ (Job.8: 21).  That, however, in context, is a superficial statement that is little more than a pious platitude. Solomon says, “Laughter…is foolish…” (Eccles.2: 2) and ‘Sorrow is better than laughter… (Eccles.7: 3).  His serious view of life shows contempt for superficiality and frivolity as the following verse shows: Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools’ (Eccles.7: 6).

In James we read Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom’ (4: 9).  Are we to suppose that this attitude is to characterise the Christian life?  I think not.  James was appealing for evident repentance to a hedonistic people.  I do not think we are meant to put on dour masks throughout life, especially while singing ‘O Happy Day’![iii]

We learn from this brief sketch that the preponderance of Scripture cautions against misplaced merriment.  For example Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure was essentially hedonistic and the laughter derived from such a lifestyle is denounced as superficial and sinful.  He learned that being preoccupied with the temporal world of thrills and the pursuit of happiness through possessions could only produce disappointment.  The seriousness of man’s lost condition is central to forming an appropriate mood.  The conviction of the Holy Spirit must bring about contrition and confession of sin and sinfulness.  There is a ‘Godly sorrow [that] brings repentance that leads to salvation…’ (2 Cor.7: 10).

But in a psalm that remembers past blessings the psalmist says ‘Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy’ (Ps.126: 2).  There is a connection between laughter and joy inasmuch as laughter may be an audible expression of joy.  We who ‘believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Pet.1: 8) may ask if it is appropriate to express that fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal.5: 22) in laughter?

I’m sure we all believe in the efficacious merit of laughter.  The question we are addressing, however, is what place, if any, does humor have in preaching?  Those who contrive to stimulate laughter in a religious service as a means of inducing a feeling of wellbeing ought to take heed of these words ‘Even in laughter the heart may ache’ (Proverbs 14: 13).  Recent decades have shown that the absence of humour is preferable to its abuse[iv].  It seems that laughter may be employed to evade the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  The following words seem particularly apt ‘I make myself laugh at everything, for fear of having to weep’.[v]  However, there is an issue of use and misuse to be considered here.  Paul tells the Corinthians everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way’ (1 Cor.14: 40).

I remember one instance when a city centre church had to cancel its plans to spend a weekend together in the countryside because of the restrictions imposed during the ‘Foot and Mouth’ [vi] crisis.  I had been asked to preach to those who were not going on the weekend but were remaining in their home church.  So when I arrived to preach the church was full of people who had expected to be elsewhere on that day.  After I was introduced to the congregation I publicly thanked the pastor for the invitation.  Then I said:  “I know that many of you will be disappointed that the church weekend had to be cancelled especially the children and their parents. It is quite obvious why I have been asked to speak here today.  I am the most experienced and the most eminently qualified.”  I paused while some faces evidently registered disapproval at the apparent arrogance of what I had just said.  There was a brief moment of unease, I continued “I am best qualified because I have substantial experience speaking to people who would prefer to be elsewhere!”[vii]  There was a great outburst of laughter, which helped us all to see the funny side of things. This was not showmanship; it was simply interacting with the people and acknowledging the unique circumstances of the occasion that brought us together.  You will notice, of course that these words were spoken before I began preaching and as such do not constitute an apologia for the place of humor in preaching!

Our capacity for laughter and humor is a uniquely human characteristic. We might well ask in the words of Shakespeare ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?’[viii]  This God–given gift, however, is fallen and in need of need of redemption and sanctification.  But then it is something to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Some people have a well-developed ability to perceive or express humor whereas others do not.  For the man with a good sense of humor that quality of being amusing is part of his disposition.  As such it is a state or inclination of mind and to expect him to refrain from humor altogether would be tantamount to fitting him with a straitjacket.  I think it is sad to see a man assume an austere face for his pulpit persona especially if in his private persona he has a proclivity for humor.  However, the man who is naturally humorous must, as a preacher, be very sensitive and avoid trivialising truth.  He must always avoid merely entertaining the congregation.  Humor, therefore, should not be used to create a mood or climate of receptivity for the message.  Neither should it be employed as a dramatic interlude to provide comic relief from the serious intent of the sermon.  Truth is not to be trifled with!

Preaching is essentially about explaining and proclaiming the truth of God’s word.  Whether it is expository, evangelistic[ix] or thematic it ought to be a Spirit-anointed explication and elucidation of Scripture. The preacher must take into account contextual and cultural issues as well as the historical, syntactical and doctrinal significance of the text.  In so doing he is handling supernatural truth in a responsible way.

Part of that responsibility is to fulfil the purpose of preaching which is to proclaim the unique and universal truth of God’s Word so that people may be led to faith, wholeness and maturity in Christ.  The ultimate objective of evangelistic preaching, however, is not the salvation of souls.  That is the penultimate purpose.  The primary aim is that God may be glorified in redemption.  Similarly, systematic preaching to the converted aims to cultivate Christian character so that God may be honoured.  So the ultimate aim of preaching to believers is not to produce transformed lives.  Rather it is to develop disciples who model the message of God’s grace and thereby glorify him.  The glory of God must be paramount in preaching!  The question, therefore, is what role (if any) does humor play in this process?

In seeking to answer this question I suggest that God may communicate truth through personality.[x]  As humor is part of a person’s character and nature we might well ask, therefore, what place has personality in preaching?  The Apostle Paul’s personality is profoundly significant in terms of both the substance and style of the Scripture he wrote under the auspices of the Holy Spirit.  That does not detract in any way from its divine inspiration and nature.  In the history of the church God used men of different temperaments to accomplish his purposes. Personality, of course, must always be subordinate to the supreme influence of the Holy Spirit.

Obviously preaching is a profoundly serious undertaking.  It is not lecturing, public speaking[xi] or stand up comedy.  There are issues of class, culture and Christian tradition that impinge on this matter.  Such considerations should not be underestimated as they play a role in determining our perspectives and positions.  However, the central question is whether or not the ultimate aim of preaching (i.e. to glorify God) is enhanced or undermined by humor?[xii]

It is very unlikely that a preacher intentionally determines to detract from God’s glory in his sermon.  Nevertheless it is possible to diminish that grandeur by handling the occasion or the message in a flippant manner.  Inappropriate levity is incongruous with the solemn nature of preaching but that does not mean there is no place at all for humor.  Being funny need not, necessarily, be equated with frivolity or facetiousness.

Some years ago one of my elders (a pig farmer at that time) was attacked by a boar and had to receive several stitches in his arm, which was then bandaged and placed in a sling.  He had a role in the service on the Sunday morning.  So before I invited him to come forward I explained the circumstances of his appearance to the congregation and then said “we know you are an elder but many of us did not know you had been in the Boer War!”  Although he is a shy man who would not like to be the centre of attention he has a good sense of humour.[xiii]

Humor must always be without malice.  It never ceases to amaze me that some people who would not tolerate humor in a service have no difficulty being sarcastic in their preaching.

I have little tolerance for the ‘a funny thing happened to me on the way to the church’ approach to sermon introduction.  It seems contrived and manipulative.  Unless, of course, a peculiar thing did happen and it has particular relevance to the message.  That is a different matter and it has an authentic ring to it.  We all know the sound that coins make when they fall to the ground and very few of us are fooled by the sound of washers even though they may be similar in shape and size.  Humor must be honest.  A well-rehearsed joke intended as an icebreaker or designed to win the affection of the congregation may cause one to wonder if the preacher is a little insecure.  The issue here is one of motive, which is difficult to determine.  Therefore, it may be more charitable to give the preacher the benefit of the doubt.

Many of us will recall times when the preacher said things from the pulpit that made people laugh.  In this article I share some of my experiences with you, not as an exercise in self-justification but as an insight into that sense of jocularity that is part of our human nature.  Outside the pulpit humour is a very important part of most preacher’s lives.  Like others the preacher enjoys the banter of friends and in ministry a sense of humor can help one to maintain a healthy mind.

On another occasion shortly after I had gone into ministry my former pastor was in my congregation one Sunday morning.  Everybody was conscious of his presence. So I told the story of the man in heaven that asked an angel if he could tell his story about the time he had been in a village that was washed away in a flood.  The angel organised a group who would listen to the man tell his tale.  Just as he was about to begin speaking the angel whispered in his ear “by the way Noah is in the audience.”  I told the congregation that I could understand how that man must have felt, as I was about to preach in the presence of my former pastor. I believe this enabled us to set aside the distraction of his presence.   I then welcomed him as a friend and mentor.

Some of us will have heard preachers’ malapropisms[xiv] and spoonerisms[xv] where the blundering misapplication of a word or phrase sounds somewhat like the one intended but is ludicrously wrong in the context or the transposition of the sounds of words with comic effect.   Some are smutty and unworthy of repetition.  Paul warned the Ephesians about such talk Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place…’ (Eph.5: 4).  One preacher, whom I know, in the course of a sermon, meant to say ‘the bottom fell out of his world’.  But what he actually said was ‘the world fell out of his bottom’.  There is always the danger of unwittingly saying something amusing with the unintentional and unfortunate result of detracting from the message.  That, however, is quite a different matter.

I am aware of a minister who was preaching on a passage of scripture that had a long list of names.  He intended to show that there are gems among the genealogies and if they are polished they sparkle like jewels.  Such passages contain names that most people find difficult to pronounce.  So before commencing to read he told the story of the young man who worked in a newsroom as an assistant.  His job involved fetching and carrying and delivering messages but he had an ambition to be a newsreader.  There was an outbreak of laryngitis and this presented the young man with the opportunity he had dreamed of.  The head of broadcasting asked if he would go on air and read the news, live.  The young man was thrilled and just as he was about to go on air he was handed a piece of paper saying that the President of Moldova had been assassinated.  He looked at the President’s name in despair.  It was one of those ‘Eastern European’ names all X’s and Y’ and Z’s, completely unpronounceable.[xvi]  What was he to do? Suddenly he was on air.  He read “the President of Moldova has been assassinated, his name (pause) is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.”

There was hearty laughter and after a moment he proceeded to read the verses to the best of his ability and when he finished he asked the congregation ‘what would you make of that in your quiet times?’  Again there was a ripple of merriment.  Did he use humor inappropriately?  I don’t believe he did.  I think he helped people to appreciate the text and the sermon went on to prove that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (2 Tim.3: 16).

I am neither complimenting those who use humor nor criticising those who do not and vice versa.  There is no biblical warrant for it and that is sufficient reason to be cautious.  One should not always indulge his sense of humor.  Funny things may enter the preacher’s mind but he needs to exercise discretion and put them aside because they may be a distraction.  It is easy to dismiss the use of humor altogether but if discernment is applied it need not be capricious.  The incidents related refer entirely to times in the service that fall outside the preaching activity itself.  I cannot recall any occasion when I was caught up in the act of preaching and intentionally paused to say something amusing.  I would see that as inappropriate.  Besides I think it would upset the momentum of the message.

There was one unplanned incident when I was the visiting preacher in church and a member of the congregation brought me a much-needed glass of water as I was preaching.  It would undoubtedly have been preferable to have this available to me before I commenced to preach but it was nevertheless welcome when it did arrive.  I accepted it with genuine thanks for his kindness and added the comment ‘water for the dry preacher’ (forgive the cliché).  I think it took that sense of awkwardness out of the moment.  People laughed (maybe out of politeness) and I took advantage of that time to have a drink before continuing to preach.

If preaching promotes edification and humor promotes enjoyment they need not, necessarily, be viewed as polarised extremes.  Rather than having hang-ups about being taken hostage by humor we may begin to see it as something to be harnessed.  In so doing we are not licensing preachers to become hedonistic harlequins or paving the way for congregations to become hyenas with halos!  We must continue to see the Sunday service as a ‘hallowed hour’ rather than ‘happy hour’ but healthy and honourable humour may have a place with a mature preacher who is comfortable with his congregation.  He is best placed to harmonise the holiness and happiness of God’s people.

The issue has implications for homiletics which, to my knowledge, have not been adequately addressed.  This article, at best, represents an opening statement on the matter.  I trust it will prove a satisfactory stimulus for anybody who desires to reflect on the practice of preaching.

Perhaps you have heard a preacher who engages the congregation in humor?  I recently heard a conference sermon delivered by a godly man who brought both wit and wisdom to the occasion with his assertive flamboyance and confidence of style and manner.  It is no contradiction to say that it was preached in the power of the Holy Spirit with panache!  The gentleman (and I really do mean gentleman) in question raised a series of rhetorical questions and engaged in reverent repartee in order to show us the irony and absurdity of certain situations in the light of the word of God.  Another of the conference speakers also used humor in a very natural way, which helped the delegates assimilate the truth of his message.  There was nothing awkward that hindered the absorption of that truth.

I recently read a newspaper article[xvii] about the death of Major Ronald Ferguson, the father of Queen Elizabeth’s second daughter-in-law, Sarah, Duchess of York.  For several years he had a place in the queen’s escort at the Trooping the Colour ceremony.  Apparently he once earned a gentle rebuke from the queen for riding so close to her in a procession that he blocked out part of the public’s view of its monarch!  Whatever may be said about the place of humor in preaching may the preacher never earn a rebuke from his master that he eclipsed the people’s view of their monarch!   John’s Gospel records the account of some Greeks who came to Philip with a request ‘ “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus” ‘ (12: 21).  The people have a desire and expectation to see him and the preacher has a duty to ensure that their hope will not be disappointed!

Can humor serve some purpose in the pulpit?  I believe that it is an interesting mental quality that God may deign to use in conveying truth in the same way as God may condescend to use a man’s educational background, intellectual capacities or temperament.  Like any of those things it may also be a barrier to effectively communicating the truth if it is not under the government of the Holy Spirit.  It is a wonderful gift to be able to cause people to smile and laugh but the preacher is not to be a jester who clowns around for the mere amusement of others.  Humor is like a very potent spice and ought to be used sparingly; otherwise it may spoil the spiritual food of the day.  Where it is used well it may add something positive to the occasion.  We should be aware that whereas some people enjoy the piquant of humor others do not find it pleasingly stimulating to the soul.  In this matter, therefore, we should follow the counsel of Paul who said ‘…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.  Do not cause anyone to stumble…’ (1 Cor.10: 31 -32).

Kieran Beville is pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland


[i] Advice to his Son. Graces, Laughter

[ii] See, for example, Ps. 2: 1-4 and Ps.37: 12-13.

[iii] The well known hymn by P. Doddridge (1702-51)

[iv] I am alluding to the profane practice of ‘laughing in the Spirit’ popularized through the ‘Toronto Blessing’ phenomenon.

[v] Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d’être obligé d’en pleurer’.  Pierre-Augustin Caron De Beaumarchais 1732-1799, Le Barbier de Séville, I.ii.

[vi]This disease which affects cattle and sheep threatened both the agricultural and tourist industries of Ireland in 2001. It was a problem throughout the British Isles. For Ireland, however, agriculture represents about 40% of its national wealth.  Quarantine measures to deal with the outbreak were strictly enforced and the church took the initiative in co-operating with government requests (in the national interest) concerning restriction of movement.

[vii] I’m sure my own congregation will not mind me saying this in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

[viii] Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice III. i. 61-62.

[ix] An evangelistic sermon may, of course, be expository in nature.

[x] See Anointed Expository Preaching by Stephen Olford, Broadman & Holman, Nashville Tennessee, 1998.

[xi] Even though there is a public dimension to the preaching activity it is essentially different to ‘public speaking’.

[xii] If humour serves that purpose in a subordinate and decent manner may it then have a place in preaching?

[xiii] I share this with his consent.

[xiv] For example, ‘an allegory on the banks of the Nile’ instead of ‘an alligator on the banks of the Nile’.

[xv] For example, ‘occupewing a pie’ for ‘occupying a pew’; ‘tons of soil’ for ‘sons of toil’; ‘ears and sparrows’ for ‘spears and arrows’.

[xvi] That is, of course, unpronounceable to native speakers of English who do not know the language!

[xvii] Entitled ‘Minor toff with connections to high society and low places’, The Irish Times.  Saturday, March 22, 2003, p.14.