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Let me state outright that I believe humor is a wonderful tool in sermons—I try to sprinkle a little into about every message I give. But as I prepare a message for the coming Christmas season, I’ve found fit to leave humor out of this one, which has me thinking: When is humor appropriate in sermons? Or, more specifically, when is it inappropriate? Dry humor is part of my personality, so naturally it follows me into the pulpit. But here are some times I need to rein myself back:

1. Joking about heaven and hell. There really is no excuse for joking about Hell. I’ve heard a prominent preacher who often jokes on this subject, and I always leave feeling confused: “Does this guy really believe what he’s preaching? Then how can he possibly joke about it?” Joking about eternal realities is a mixed message—let the world joke about hell. Preachers need to weep about it.

2. Joking at someone else’s expense. I realize Jesus had a few great one-liners for the religious leaders of his day, but then again, Jesus never joked at an individual’s expense. He never made fun of Peter, James or John, or “this person I was talking to the other day.” He made jokes with generalizations, but never singled anyone out for humiliation, even in a “discrete” way.

3. Joking for attention. Many times, I have to throw away lines I snicker at because they just don’t add to the sermon. When we joke for joking’s sake, there’s a real sense in which we reveal our lack of faith in God’s word. Joking that doesn’t aid the sermon says, “I realize we’re all standing under God’s word at the moment, but I know you’re all really here to hear me be funny.”

4. Joking that’s pervasive. I’ll let Martyn Lloyd Jones speak to this one: “I would not dare to say there is no place for humor in preaching; but I do suggest that it is not a very big place because of the nature of the work, and because of the character of the Truth with which it is dealing ...” Humor is great, especially, I think, when introducing a sermon. But an attitude of joviality in preaching is inappropriate. Yes, Jesus threw out some great lines—but most of his preaching was deadly serious. Joking that dominates a sermon discredits the sermon’s weight.

5. Joking when we’re not funny. Again, MLJ: “The most one can say for the place of humor is that it is only allowable if it is natural. The man who tries to be humorous is an abomination and should never be allowed to enter a pulpit.” If you’re not funny, don’t try. If you are funny, be yourself—but recognize the seriousness of your task.

6. Joking that’s insensitive. Finally, we need to know our congregation well enough to know what’s not “jokeable.” Obviously this is a fine line—sometimes the best way to communicate a hard truth to a hardened congregation is through humor. But there also needs to be an awareness of the church’s history. Sometimes humor can hit a bruise the preacher didn’t mean to hit, if he’s not deeply aware of the particular struggles and history of his congregants.

Nicholas McDonald is husband to lovely Brenna, father to Owen and Caleb, M.Div student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and youth/assistant teaching pastor at Carlisle Congregational Church. He graduated with his Bachelors in Communication from Olivet Nazarene University, studied literature and creative writing at Oxford University, and has spoken internationally at camps, youth retreats, graduations, etc. He blogs about writing, preaching and the arts at www.Scribblepreach.com, which has been featured on The Gospel Coalition, Knowlovelive.org and Challies.com. He currently resides in South Hamilton, MA.

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Bryan Herrington

commented on Mar 6, 2014

C H Spurgeon was known for his humor in preaching and it certainly did not take away from the seriousness of the gospel that he preached.

Tony Bell

commented on Mar 6, 2014

Great thought! I agree that humor is as important, especially with today's Christian and Christian prospects, having so much exposure to information[ with much knowledge comes much sorrow]. Even with the "stiffest" of necks, I've found it more effective to slip into one's heart, while laughing, the information most needed about salvation.

Brian William

commented on Mar 6, 2014

I'd add #7: jokes that don't relate to the message of the sermon. If the joke is about something humorous that happened to the preacher and helps people relate to the subject at hand, that's great and can be very effective. But if the joke is just meant to be funny but doesn't really connect with anything else in the sermon, it can really be a distraction. As a preacher, I'd *hate* for somebody to go home from worship and the only thing they can remember from my sermon is a funny joke I told, but they can't remember the gospel truth it pointed to.

Rodney Shanner

commented on Mar 6, 2014

I think these are good guidelines. However, one of the funniest jokes I ever heard was about people's theology being revealed by things they said when they ended up in Hell. Baptist, can't lose it so must have never had it. Wesleyan, had it but must have lost it. Positive thinker, it's not hot and I'm not here. :)

commented on Mar 6, 2014

Jokes in sermon would sound good than sermons which only focus on curses and money without looking at the cause. Some times jokes rise gestures in congregation and reduce tensions and stress.

Ian Watson

commented on Mar 6, 2014

There is a difference between humor and a joke. Humor - poking fun at our own hypocrisy for example, is fine. But telling a straight forward joke should only be done if it truly illustrates the point being made. From time to time I will tell a joke at my own expense - it demonstrates to our listeners that we are not perfect. I hate when preachers feel they have to begin with a joke just to warm the "audience" up.

William C. Hoglund

commented on Mar 6, 2014

I concur with Bryan Herrington and Tony Bell, and I'd further add that the Christ I worship had a wonderful sense of humor when he taught, with hyperbole in parables. Of course, you have to be sensitive to the Gospel and your setting, and it can't always be about "you," be mean-spirited, or have nothing to do with the point you seek to demonstrate. But let us not become pharisees, let us be willing to reach people where they are, even if we do so through their funny bones! I read this and my first response was a huge "C'mon, man!" And secondly, it made me shake my head...No, we cannot treat worshipers as 'consumers' for whom we must entertain in order to 'feed spirits,' but do you really worship a humorless Christ? I have to say the article missed the mark for me.

Brian William

commented on Mar 6, 2014

Nicholas said in his very first sentence that "humor is a wonderful tool in sermons" so I didn't get that he was suggesting we worship a humorless Christ. To provide a concrete example of what he's warning against, though, probably the worst worship experience I have ever had was an attempt at a joke. The worship leader had just finished telling the congregation of a heart-wrenching prayer concern -- a tragic situation where both a mother and her baby had died in childbirth. Then because it was Father's Day, they immediately went to a video the tech team had prepared that poked fun at the silly foibles of dads. It was their attempt at a joke, but I really wanted to puke. Had the worship leaders spent two minutes going through Nicholas' checklist, they would have rethought their approach.

Everett Perryy

commented on Mar 7, 2014

Good point Brian. No one up "there" on the platform is exempt from being sensitive and tender-hearted, as Jesus was. Humour, like salt is good. Too much and it ruins the "dish" being served. Only the Spirit of God knows better than preachers, teachers and worship leaders. We cannot afford to be desensitised to Him.

Mike Brenneman

commented on Mar 6, 2014

Well said, Mr. McDonald. Condensed message that I got-- "Use humor and temper it with wisdom, balance, and appropriateness. With decades of preaching behind me, I can say I missed the mark a few times. Also love the feedback that my colleagues gave. However, it seems by a few of the comments, that not all read the article accurately."

Mike Brenneman

commented on Mar 6, 2014

Well said, Mr. McDonald. Condensed message that I got-- "Use humor and temper it with wisdom, balance, and appropriateness. With decades of preaching behind me, I can say I missed the mark a few times. Also love the feedback that my colleagues gave. However, it seems by a few of the comments, that not all read the article accurately."

Terry Phillips

commented on Mar 11, 2014

May I add #8 - Avoid humour and jokes at the conclusion of a sermon, where the final sentences should encapsulate the seriousness of the whole matter dealt with.

Kashif Chand

commented on Mar 18, 2014

Good suggestions to care for in preaching

Minister Sanders

commented on Jul 8, 2014

Excellent article! There is a certain moment in preaching and teaching where humor works out well we just need to be mindful of when and where we as preachers should apply it.

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