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Preaching Advice You Don’t Often Hear: “Make ‘Em Laugh”

I enjoyed two fine sermons yesterday, one by my pastor, Rob King, at Cincinnati Vineyard Church, and the other via podcast by Erwin McManus of Mosaic LA. Both made me laugh numerous times, and both got their points across splendidly.

Those two preachers’ highly effective use of humor reminded me of this recent post from one of the blogs I subscribe to, the Junia Project, on “5 Reasons Not to Use Gender-Based Jokes in the Pulpit”—you know, jokes about women spending money or men being clueless, that sorta thing. Read it, please. It’s an excellent post.

Humor is a must for good preaching. It disarms, engages and reinforces a good preacher’s points. But only good humor. What do I mean by “good humor” (insert ice cream joke here)?

Humor that clarifies (rather than confuses)

I love wordplay. I enjoy humor that makes me think. But some humor can be so “sophisticated” (or obtuse) as to confuse or—even worse—make the listener feel stupid, which is always a failed attempt at humor. Inside jokes (that only someone in your denomination or someone who’s been around your church for a while would understand) almost always confuse rather than clarify.

Humor that builds bridges (rather than burning them)

This is why self-deprecating humor is the best. It helps people identify with you. It helps them like you. And, at its best, helps them laugh at themselves because they are a little bit like you.

Humor that unites (rather than dividing)

I once used a metaphor in a message, saying that something was as “rare as a Baptist in a liquor store.” I thought it was a safe reference, as most people could appreciate that Baptists don’t (or shouldn’t) frequent liquor stores. But one woman in the room took offense at the mental image of a Baptist in a liquor store. Upon reflection, I had to admit she was right. I wasn’t a Baptist; she was (though attending my church … perhaps until that moment).

Humor that respects (rather than ridicules)

This is another reason self-deprecating humor works. However, even when telling stories on ourselves, there is a limit. “Good” humor in a sermon is that which doesn’t ridicule or disrespect anyone—including the preacher, if he or she is the butt of the joke.

Humor that makes the point (rather than the joke) the point

In both of the sermons I heard yesterday, I took notes. And I didn’t note the humor, I recorded the excellent points—and supporting scripture and ringing statements—the preacher made. As the Junia Project blog post said, if people talk about your humor on the drive home or around the dinner table, your humor failed; you want them to talk about the life-changing truth you shared, not the momentary laugh they enjoyed.

What do you say, preachers? What have I left out? What would you add? Or subtract? Or improve?