One of the more difficult issues with which I have struggled in preaching is the use of humor. My humor is sometimes biting, ironic (and perhaps too often a bit ribald). And yet I love being funny–especially one liners. (Sometimes it is also a cover for insecurity). But what are the guidelines for when you begin a sermon with humor?
I remember at my last church (in Garden City, KS–I was there 1987-1999) that one of my elders (appropriately) upbraided me because the humor I used to begin my sermons often had no relevance to the sermon itself. While I usually can keep the ribald stuff out of the pulpit, I struggled with how best to use humor.
In recent years, I hardly ever begin my sermon with a "joke." But I still struggled with guidelines for using humor, particularly in the introduction.
I found the following words from Bryan Chapell very helpful. They come from his Covenant Theological Seminary lectures on preaching. (It may be similar in his book on preaching, but I haven’t compared them):
Here is the basic idea: humor serves you when you raise the hammer of emotional intensity in order to drive home a point. Now, you must hear that it is to drive a point. The humor must be obviously used to drive a point because of what happens to listeners if the humor does not do that. Not so long ago, if you were trained in law or almost any business school, you were trained to begin virtually every public address, any talk, with a joke. Start every talk with a joke. This is because of that rubric from rhetoric of long ago, “The introduction is the handshake of good intent,” was taught over and over and over again. Therefore people thought, “If I just say something funny, it will draw people in. They will like the joke, and they will feel good about me.” And it is true. If you were to look for the emotional reason people will listen to a message, they will say that by using humor you will get people’s attention. Humor really draws people in, and they listen. But—here is the important “but”—what they also began to recognize was that everyone was doing this. Thus all listeners knew what was going on. “You are telling a joke at the beginning to get my attention and to draw me in and to make me feel good about either you or the situation I am in. Therefore by telling the joke you are trying to manipulate me.” This happens so much in our culture that those who researched it would say that just as fast as attention is aroused, trust goes down, because no one wants to be manipulated.
Now, what is the way to bring attention and trust together to accomplish your point? You should recognize that humor does work when people do not feel manipulated. They do not feel manipulated if they can see what you told as a joke is tied to the subject. It has a purpose. It is when the humor appears not to have a purpose other than manipulation that I will strongly distrust you. When the humor is tied to the point, I can often say, “I now feel the subject in my heart with greater intensity because of the way you used this. Now I actually appreciate the humor and recognize you did it with purpose for your subject, not merely to manipulate my feelings.” Now, if you throw away humor from your message, believe me, you will be a very sour preacher. Did Jesus ever use humor? There is no question that Jesus used humor. When He talked about “You are willing to judge your brother, and by that you will take the splinter out of his eye but ignore the log in your own eye” or when He said, “It is harder for a wealthy man to get to heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he was using humor. We may not be sure exactly how to exegete these passages, but there is no question that people laughed when He said it. He used humor, and His humor had a point. That is the issue: humor must have a purpose that is clear.
I don’t know about you, but I find that particularly helpful. What have been some of your struggles in using humor? Have you found a good solution? Let me/us know!!