The legendary British preacher Charles Spurgeon was once rebuked by a woman in his congregation who felt he used too much humor in his sermons. As Baptist historian Michael Haykin recounts the story, Spurgeon replied, “Well, madam, if you knew the number of things that I refrain from saying, you would give me more credit.”
Humor abounds in the human mind, but the question for preachers is how often, if ever, to employ it in sermons.
Chris Osborne, a Texas pastor who is writing a Ph.D. dissertation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on the use of humor in preaching, told Baptist Press there are three general views on the subject.
“One is you don’t use it at all ever, which is [the view of Baptist preacher and author] John Piper,” said Osborne, pastor of Central Baptist Church in College Station, Texas. “The other is that you use it … all the time, which is [the view of Charismatic minister] Jesse Duplantis. My dissertation argues there is a judicious use. You use it in a way that’s appropriate – not overused, not underused.”
Humor for average pastors
Among Southern Baptists, humorists like Dennis Swanberg (“America’s minister of encouragement”) and the late Grady Nutt (“the prime minister of humor”) have made jokes and funny anecdotes a centerpiece of their ministries for a combined 50 years. At the same time, a study of 1,400 regular church attendees released this month by Christian Resources Exhibitions in London found just 1.6 percent of sermon listeners view humor as the most important element of a message while 44 percent view “biblical exposition” as most important, The Telegraph reported.
Amid that backdrop, Osborne counseled average pastors to chart a middle course.
He sees precedent for some homiletical humor in Scripture, arguing Jesus’ statement about having a plank in one’s eye and His habit of calling James and John the “sons of thunder” both were intended to be funny. Osborne also notes satire in the Old Testament prophets and says the account of Balaam’s talking donkey “is obviously a fairly humorous story.”
In his own preaching, Osborne said, humor is an important tool for connecting with a congregation and disarming skeptics.
“When a man speaks on the passage about women submitting to their husbands,” Osborne said by way of example, “a woman might take that well from a woman. She’s not going to take that well from a man. So you kind of have to use a little humor to grease the skids.”
Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Spurgeon and others established a precedent of using humor in preaching, Osborne said, though some historians disagree with his assessment of Whitefield. But Osborne warned that preachers should never feel more joy in making people laugh than in communicating truth. He also suggested pastors ask trusted friends to evaluate whether their use of humor in sermons is excessive.
Rules of thumb
Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board and a preacher noted for his humor, agreed humor can help preachers connect with their audiences. He offered several “rules of thumb” to help negotiate the proper use of lightheartedness.
– “When in doubt, leave it out.”
Ezell told BP, “In preaching, you roll the dice when you throw out a joke just to throw out a joke. If you throw it out early and it dies, you just feel the whole sermon headed toward a crash.”
– Never use the church’s leadership or your family as the brunt of a joke.
“Even though people may laugh,” Ezell said, “my experience is that they don’t like it.”
– You can use humor too much.
“There’s a tipping point where instead of trying to get a point across, you’re just trying to be funny,” Ezell said.
– Use humor “as a tool, not as the ultimate end.”
Hershael York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., and a preaching professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered a pragmatic reason not to tell jokes in sermons.
“Telling a joke requires a rhythm, a tone, a perfect setup, the right pause before the punch line, and precise phrasing,” York wrote on the website Preaching.com. “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 the point he was trying to make.
“Humor, not jokes, is the way to go,” York continued. “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.”
Humor not required
Andy Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., estimated he uses humor in 20 percent of his sermons. But he told BP the humor is never pre-planned. While not objecting to humor in sermons, Davis said preachers should bear in mind “the gravity” of their task and only use humor if doing so accords with their personality.
“Humor is not required for a good sermon,” Davis said. “As a matter of fact, you can go an entire life of preaching and never use humor in the pulpit and still be a very, very effective preacher.”
Davis, who holds a Ph.D. in church history, cited John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards as noted preachers who do not seem to have used humor in the pulpit. Twentieth-century pastor and evangelist Martyn Lloyd-Jones likewise was cautious about humor, Davis said, adding he is not sure whether some statements of Jesus often cited as humor were intended to be funny.
“Conversely, however, I would not say the use of humor in the pulpit is sinful or wrong,” Davis said. “You definitely see Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon and others using humor very effectively.”
Still, Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 1-2 against using flashy rhetorical techniques in sermons can be applied to humor, Davis said. Paul “did not want the focus to be on him as a personality, as a man. He really wanted the focus to be on Christ and on the Word of God.”
Davis also cautioned that transitions can be awkward from humor to “the weighty issues of Christ crucified and resurrected, of eternity, of Judgment Day.” Pastors come across as “changing gears in a rough way” when their transitions seem reminiscent of a comedian’s saying, “But seriously folks …”
Judicious use of humor
In the end, all the preachers interviewed by BP seemed to adopt Osborne’s philosophy of using humor “judiciously,” though there may be some difference over the definition of judicious.
Osborne expressed a common sentiment when he said, “If [listeners] remember your humor more than they remember the reason for the humor, then you’re probably overusing it.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.)