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Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years from 1962 to 1992. Known for his droll wit, urbane manner and his impeccably timed delivery of a punch line, Carson still holds a major influence on comedians and certainly every late-night talk show host. Carson knew how to tell a joke.

Preachers, however, are no Carson and should not tell jokes in a sermon.

My objection is not theological. I do not believe every joke dishonors God or compromises the gravity of the preaching event. The Lord Himself interjected comedy into the narratives of Scripture, so I never would suggest He does not appreciate an occasional joke from the only creatures to which He gave a developed sense of humor.

I also do not oppose jokes in the pulpit on philosophical grounds. I understand how a good joke properly connected to a biblical concept could serve as a powerful and enlightening hook, a gateway to understanding and a peg for the listener's memory.

The basis for my proscription is much more pragmatic and not a very spiritual reason at all.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that 10,000 hours of any activity is the threshold that makes a person proficient enough to be considered an expert. If that's true, I am a specialist at sermon listening.

Not only was my childhood filled with a steady diet of my father's preaching, but even then I was also a devoted collector of sermons on cassette tapes, not to mention the full slate of Bible conferences that my family attended annually. My immersion in preaching continued into adulthood and, as a preaching professor, I estimate I have listened to more than 4,000 sermons in classes and chapel alone.

My expert opinion, therefore, is that preachers should not tell jokes for one reason only: They don't do it well. In fact, they do it badly. In all my accumulated years of sermon listening, I rarely have heard a preacher tell a joke well, let alone one that actually contributed to the homiletical goal of the sermon. As a pastor, homiletician, preaching professor and listener, my advice is simple: Be humorous, but don't tell jokes in a sermon.

Telling a joke well requires a rhythm, a tone, a perfect setup, the right pause before the punch line and precise phrasing. If it weren't hard to do, Johnny Carson would not have been unique. If a preacher spends three minutes of a 30-minute sermon telling a joke only to forget an important detail in the setup or to stutter on the punch line, he has wasted 10 percent of his time and made his audience pity him. He becomes the object of their attention rather than the point he was trying to make.

Humor, not jokes, is the way to go. Appropriate humor in a sermon is delightful and helpful. When telling funny stories about themselves—especially when they are self-deprecating—preachers do well. Amusing anecdotes relating events or the absurdity of life don't hang on the flawless timing or tone of a single punch line. Wit endears listeners to a preacher but doesn't entail the risks of a joke.

Right now, you might be hearing a little voice in your head. "You are the exception. People love it when you tell jokes. You're good at it." The voice urges you to ignore the landmines lurking beneath the surface, to go for the big laugh and great feeling a punch line promises. That voice is not your friend. Don't listen to it. You don't need to be Carson. You just need to be faithful—and occasionally lighthearted.

Hershael W. York is the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Preaching and Associate Dean in the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He also serves as Senior Pastor of the Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, KY, and co-wrote Preaching with Bold Assurance (Broadman and Holman, 2003) with communications expert Bert Decker, chairman and founder of Decker Communications. In addition to his writing, teaching, and pastoring ministries, he usually ventures deep in the Amazon at least once a year to fish for men and the elusive peacock bass.

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Darrin Mariott

commented on Aug 18, 2014

This advice unfortunately commits a simple logical fallacy--the fallacy of over-generalization. While I have no doubt that Professor York is an expert in homiletics and has heard many preachers, he has certainly not heard them all. As such, to make a sweeping statement that all preachers should avoid jokes in the pulpit simply does not follow. Perhaps the better advice would be for the preacher to truly know thyself and if one is gifted in joke telling (a la Johnny Carson), then use it. If not, then don't.

R. Marc Vincent

commented on Aug 18, 2014

I would agree with the comments that the professor's thoughts are imbalanced and although I think I understand what his concerns are regarding humor being used in an ill advised manner in the pulpit I think he has overthought his premise. It is just as potentially offensive when either the one in the pulpit or in this case the writer of the article state "of themselves" that their's is "an expert opinion" based on their criteria of what has made them the self-proclaimed expert. Balance to me is more the key to proper pulpit etiquette. I do not however claim to be an expert but am seeking to be "all things to all people".

Joseph Garner

commented on Aug 18, 2014

I agree Darrin.

James Bailey

commented on Aug 18, 2014

With all do respect to the good professor --over doing anything is not ususally good. Telling jokes would be the same thing. But some preachers tell jokes well, and make them applicable to their sermons --but maybe professors don't.

Lynn C

commented on Aug 18, 2014

While it may be a generalization, I believe it's an accurate one--most of the time jokes are made poorly, and though I'm sure the pastor is trying to connect with his audience, more often than not it's counterproductive. Jokes usually detract from the message, and from the pastor's tone of authority. If you feel you're the exception and can tell a joke well, save them for social situations, not when preaching from the pulpit.

Joel Caldwell

commented on Aug 18, 2014

I have in times past watched those who sit on the TBN couch spouting their latest heretical revelation in some desperate attempt to stay relevant in the charismatic community. In many ways this feels the same to me. In his attempt to write something thought provoking and meaningful the good professor has stumbled in to out of touch and irrelevant.

Nom De Plume

commented on Aug 18, 2014

As a lay individual, the best bible teaching I hear has zero to no "jokes/humor"; conversely, the poor and weak preaching I hear is usually peppered with humor and jokes.

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 20, 2014

Any bible teaching that has no humor might be incomplete. There is a lot of humor in the Bible. Does the best bible teaching you hear not deal with those topics?

Nom De Plume

commented on Aug 20, 2014

In what meaningful way would bible teaching be incomplete without humor? What humor in the Bible are you referring to, exactly?

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 20, 2014

Psalm 126:2, "Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy." Job 8:21, "He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting." How do you preach these texts without laughter? Or consider the story of Balaam and the donkey. This story always makes me laugh. Balaam is so upset with the donkey that when the donkey speaks to him, he talks back as if it is the most natural thing in the world, without stopping to think: What in the world is a donkey doing talking?! Or what about the fact that Isaac's name literally means "laughter." The idea that a son would be born to Abraham and Sarah, well past their child-bearing years, was so hilarious that no one could hear about it without laughing, including Abraham and Sarah themselves. My point is, how do you preach these texts without communicating the joy, the laughter, the humor that is contained in these texts?

Fred Miller

commented on Aug 18, 2014

Just this weekend I heard a pastor use a joke to nail his point with an unforgettable punch line conclusion. I have often used a joke in the introduction of my sermon to draw people into the message. I've sometimes used the first part of a joke to begin a sermon, allude to it several times during the sermon to keep the focus on where we're going and use the punch line to tie thought together as I come into the conclusion. I do agree that in using a joke it needs to be done right, but so do all the other parts of the sermon.

Derrick Tuper

commented on Aug 18, 2014

One of the problems with inserting jokes into sermons is on the basis of conflict. Typically we're telling serious sermons. We're spending our time trying to get a serious point across and to insert a joke to help make a serious point is not highly successful. It can be done but I think that's one reason why it isn't done well very often. I consider myself to be a witty guy, I get some laughs now and then but I don't often tell jokes in my sermons. Not because I'm against it but it's mainly due to the reason I stated. Something I don't like to see, and it often happens in introductions, is to tell a joke just to tell a joke. It really has nothing to do with the sermon topic but it gets told anyway. Why? Especially in the introduction. You tell a joke-even a legitimately funny one-and then you abruptly change focus and start talking about a serious issue. I don't see how that is helpful for setting the right tone for your audience.

Mason Halacker

commented on Aug 18, 2014

I have heard many good Preachers in person from the east coast to the west coast including the likes of Dr. Bob Pittman and Dr. Rick Warren- both of whom told excellent jokes. I've heard country Preachers tell good jokes as well. With all due respect Professor York, your categorical statement has not been my experience!

Nom De Plume

commented on Aug 18, 2014

I think current "evangelicalism" needs less joke-telling-pastors, less rock-star-pastors, less clever-minded pastors, less "cool" pastors and more pastors who expound the holiness of God, biblical theology, clear doctrine, a book-by-book style of teaching, and a clear, comprehensive message of the gospel.

Stephen Ventura

commented on Aug 18, 2014

I agree

Alexander Drysdale Lay Preacher Uca Australia

commented on Aug 18, 2014

There are some jokes that go down well and there are some people who are good at telling them. These are NOT the same people. So as the professor says DON'T tell jokes because you will not make them fit. However a sharp one liner or a humerous quote that fits in with what you are trying to say does not do any harm. As an example Jacob had four women in his life. We would say that a man with one wife is a monogamist. A man with two wives is a biggamistery. Point supporting humour has its place in a message. Humour for the sake of humour does not.

Tanja Cilia

commented on Aug 18, 2014

My take on this (in Maltese) was that humour should never be over the top, but always pithy and relevant: http://tanjacilia.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/prietka-tac-cajt-2/

Randy Turner

commented on Aug 19, 2014

I agree that his statement is too sweeping. It depends on who is doing the telling. Some do have that gift of "storytelling."'Rev Charles Swindall comes to mind. Although his humor is rare, when he does it is truly funny and adds to his sermon. My present pastor lacks that ability.

Joe Palmer

commented on Aug 19, 2014

Another dumb article by SermonCentral. I am only saying this because lately I think your content is more so bad than good. This article is really off point. I doubt if very many speech teachers would agree with it.

Tony Bland

commented on Aug 19, 2014

I agree with you

Steven Farless

commented on Aug 19, 2014

I would agree that telling jokes for the sake of the joke itself is rarely a tool the Spirit uses. the thing about being funny is this; no one hits it every time, that's why comedians rifle uncomfortably through their index cards on stage LOL. like many of you I have the perfect monitor on whether my humor was effective in a sermon......my wife.

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 20, 2014

"Humor, not jokes, is the way to go. Appropriate humor in a sermon is delightful and helpful." I believe that is the main point he was trying to make, and if so, I would tend to agree. Humor is such a basic part of life. Children laugh, more than anything. Some here are going beyond this point and arguing that humor has no place at all in preaching. I disagree. True, humor for its own sake is one thing. But to eliminate humor in preaching altogether is to divorce your preaching from one of the fundamental elements of human life. Personally, I don't normally prepare jokes for a sermon. But since I have a fairly good sense of humor, and since the Bible itself has so much humor in it, it just naturally comes out. I think that is the point of the article. Having said that, I disagree that you shouldn't tell jokes in a sermon because you're not Johnny Carson. That's like saying you shouldn't sing in church because your not Pavorattii. Very few people are. But many who are not as gifted as was Johnny Carson do have the talent to tell a joke well. Just as many who are not as gifted as Pavoratti do have the talent to sing well. Let's not raise the bar so high that even those with appropriate gifts and talents cannot utilize them, simply because those gifts and talents aren't on the level of others.

James Tyra

commented on Aug 20, 2014

I must admit I'm really considering not clicking on these articles anymore. Is it really productive to have so many experts telling how we are preaching incorrectly. If I took every article to heart, I wouldn't even get up in the pulpit. Seriously Sermon Central, how about some edification and uplifting to help temper the correction and rebuke for a well rounded offering.

James Tyra

commented on Aug 20, 2014

If I have one more "Five ways you're ruining your sermon" article... How about an article that is titled "Thank God Someone Is Standing Up and Proclaiming the Word of God: Five Reasons You Are Important to Your Congregation"? Soapbox over.

Robert Bravo

commented on Aug 20, 2014

Oh my. What is going on with the church today? Have people gotten so uptight that they cant tell a joke? Regardless of his expertise I bet he's boring.. Now that's the same generalization he made. The church should be alive and full of joy. Laugh people...Laugh...have fun...enjoy your time in the pulpit. Enjoy Your time in church... Jesus is coming back, death has been conquered, we will rise from the grave....Celebrate, Celebrate...Celebrate!!!!!!! Don't worry be happy. The law was given...But Grace has Come....wooowhoo

Lew Button

commented on Aug 21, 2014

Brother, you have never heard me preach or tell a joke. There was only one Spurgeon but I have not stopped preaching because I am not him. That being said I think that a joke or humorous story should connect with the message not just be an ice breaker.

Rev. Dr. Ifeanyi Azuh

commented on Aug 22, 2014

Good lecture that never fades. Thanks a lot!

Rev. Dr. Ifeanyi Azuh

commented on Aug 22, 2014

Good lecture that never fades. Thanks a lot!

Rev. Dr. Ifeanyi Azuh

commented on Aug 22, 2014

Good lecture that never fades. Thanks a lot!

Sergio Ramirez

commented on Aug 22, 2014

We as preachers must always know where to stop if we are to make a funny comment or something humorous, I had the sad experience of having a pastor who would joke about anything and everything, he became completely unapproachable, i remember that at one point in my life I was going through serious difficulties and when I tried to approach my pastor with my situation he would just respond with jokes and humor, I felt very disappointed and disrespected since I was not taken seriously.

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