Chapter 55

The Playful Preacher

Using humor and irony

Most listeners today are skeptical of power and control. With our culture's commitment to relativism, we have been taught to fear patriarchy and colonialism, not to mention preachers and politicians. To protect ourselves from manipulation, the current generation often use irony. The shrug and the wink deconstruct power better than argument or confrontation. If we don't take the government, Church, university, or media seriously, they can't hurt us, says the postmodernist. Besides, who's to say whose version of "truth" is true, anyway?

While preachers who see themselves as heralds of God's Word must be skeptical of such skepticism, I believe we can plunder the Egyptians by using humor and irony in our preaching. More playfulness can help us communicate more seriously. But that's not easy for me, one whose spiritual ancestors are John Calvin and John Knox.

As I've tried to lighten up, here's what I've discovered.

Coloring inside the lines

Playfulness is sometimes misunderstood. One of my early attempts came while preaching about sexuality. To introduce the sermon, I asked both the men and women to read responsively some of the more graphic passages from the Song of Songs. Sure that I had made my point, I playfully asked when they were finished, "Did any of you know this X-rated material was in the Bible?"

I was met with stone-faced, hostile silence. One person's playfulness is another's irreverence. So it is wise to know your congregation's limits.

Another try with my current church brought better results. A guest preacher had described being so excited when his football team scored a touchdown that he jumped off the couch in front of the TV, pumped his arm up and down, and shouted, "Yes, yes, yes. YES!" So I decided to use his antics the following Sunday after a soloist had just sung a deeply moving piece.

"There's just one thing I want to say after James's song," I said in my best preacher's voice. I paused. Then, pumping my arm, I said, "Yes, yes, yes. YES!" Everyone who had attended the previous Sunday roared with laughter.

My former congregation would have seen this as irreverent. But not this church. They considered it playful—and appropriate.

Playful preachers do not try to use reverse psychology. It's not stating the opposite of what I desire. ("Guess what? Our church does not need your money this year.") Such obvious gimmicks are both ineffective and false.

Playfulness does not misrepresent or deny the truth; it creates a new dynamic—within me. "The major effect of playfulness and paradox is on the perpetrator," says Friedman. "It takes him or her out of the feedback position. It detriangles and changes the balance of the emotional interdependency. It is the change in the structure of the triangle that gets the other person functioning or thinking differently."

In preaching, I am the "perpetrator." Becoming more playful affects me more than my audience. I lighten up. Playfulness frees me from trying so hard to make an impact. Hence, the emotional triangle involving me, the congregation, and the message changes. People are free to listen without activating their defenses. The possibility of impact actually increases.

That's the paradox.

Around the Maginot Line

I've found it helpful to identify who in the congregation I feel most responsible to convince. Ironically, these are often the very people I will never touch. Why? They have built a Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line was the impenetrable system of barriers and bunkers built by France to protect itself from Imperial Germany after World War I. In World War II, however, Hitler didn't attack France through the Maginot Line. His Panzer divisions made a sweeping detour around it through Belgium. France fell swiftly.

When preachers try too hard to make an impact, Klaxons sound and bunker walls go up. My people often know what I'm going to say even before I say it (they know the issues I'm most serious about). When facing a Maginot Line, frontal attacks are valiant but ineffective.

Rather than slug it out in a frontal attack, wisdom suggests a detour. What is the last thing they expect me to say on this issue? What would make them laugh? How can I good-naturedly (not spitefully) be playful?

To sting like a bee

Playful preachers do not overemphasize exegetical data. As a young preacher, I was certain that if I marshaled enough exegetical evidence (from the original languages, of course), I could bludgeon my listeners into belief. My sermons were like boxing matches: I didn't always score a knockout, but I expected to win on points.

Since then, I have joined the Mohammed Ali school of homiletics. I must learn to dance like a butterfly if I want to sting like a bee. The footwork of the sermon (how you say it) is just as, if not more, essential than the content (what you say).

Of course, footwork is a means to an end—impact. Playful sermons are not intended to impress the listener (or the preacher) with one's creativity. They are used to communicate truth.

Once I preached about the Lord's Supper as being a prelude to the Messianic banquet. I wanted to communicate the joy felt by the early church as they celebrated this event. However, only by coming at the sermon in a lighter fashion could I detour around my church's years of solemn tradition. The Sacrament had an aura more of wake than banquet.

I hit on the idea of having eyewitnesses report on their joyful experience. I imagined what caterers present at the meals might have observed.

The sermon opened with two caterers pausing for breath while serving the heavenly banquet. Soon they begin to reminisce about their previous catering jobs for the Lord. They remember the joyful Old Testament feasts in the Temple, Jesus' upper room meal with his disciples, the agape meals of the early church, and modern expressions that somehow (in the caterers' minds) lost the intended joy. Finally, the caterers gesture at the people enjoying the heavenly banquet and ask each other, "When they were back on earth, do you ever wonder if they really understood what they were doing?"

This sermon, "Observations of God's Caterers," was my fancy footwork around the entrenched expectations of my listeners. Because it was screened through playful, imaginary characters, most who listened did not feel defensive or threatened.

With friends like these

Some of us need permission to be playful. Like my personality, my preaching tends to be serious: to travel well-worn intellectual pathways, expressing the doctrines of the faith in centuries-old imagery. Fortunately, I also have some friends who release me to be playful with the great themes of my faith.

One such friend is Frederick Buechner. Another is C.S. Lewis. While studying, I keep an anthology of one or the other close at hand. I often dip into it for fifteen or twenty minutes as I begin thinking about my sermon. Their playful ideas, even on topics completely unrelated to my theme, push me to play with ideas as well. In their company, I see fresh approaches to the old, old story. Lewis' Screwtape Letters is deadly serious; but it's also lots of fun. Lewis shows us his playful stance in the opening quotations: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn" (Martin Luther); and "The devil … the proud spirite … cannot endure to be mocked" (Thomas More).

Playing with words

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word," wrote Mark Twain, "is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."

That's a helpful reminder. Words are the raw materials of sermons. The right use of words can inject a sermon with needed doses of playfulness.

Here are some questions I ask myself to add freshness to my words:

Can it be understood in different ways? While preparing an Easter message on the Emmaus road experience, I noticed that when the doubtful disciples were confronted with the risen Christ, they "disbelieved for joy" (Luke 24:41, RSV).

It dawned on me that "I can't believe it" can be understood in two ways: either as an expression of doubt or as an ecstatic expression of joy (like when the 1980 U.S. hockey team won an Olympic gold medal against overwhelming odds: "I can't believe it!"). My sermon traced the journey each of us takes with the disciples. It began with the "I can't believe it" of doubt and despair while trudging down the Emmaus road and ended with the "I can't believe it" of joy, hugging and dancing in the presence of the risen Christ.

Does it have a little known or surprising meaning? Dr. Ian Pitt-Watson, former professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, once preached a sermon in which he playfully countered the common assumption that Jesus' beatitude "blessed are the meek" implies wimpish weakness.

He observes of the word meek: "In the French Bible the word is translated debonnaire—debonair!—with overtones of courtesy, gallantry, chivalry (remember Hollywood's 'golden oldies' and Cary Grant in his heyday?). Debonair: gentle, sensitive, courteous, modest, unpretentious—yet strong and brave and fun and happy."

Debonair Cary Grant released meekness from the negative images from which I had imprisoned it.

Not every sermon can or should be playful. But when we find ourselves trying harder to little effect, we may want to try less hard. Loosen up and be playful! Freedom comes to us and our listeners when we say with Bill Murray, an alumnus of Saturday Night Live, "Hey, I'm serious!"