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.