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.