Why Serious Preachers Use Humor
Why Serious Preachers Use Humor
Discernment for light moments with a weighty purpose
I once introduced a sermon story by saying, "I don't like this story." Here is approximately what followed:
Fred Craddock tells of a young pastor visiting an elderly woman in the hospital. The pastor finds the woman to be quite ill, gasping for breath, and obviously nearing the end of her life. In the midst of tubes, bags, and beeping medical machines, the pastor reads Scripture and offers spiritual comfort.
He asks, "Would you like to have prayer before I go?" and the lady whispers a yes.
The pastor says, "What would you like me to pray for today?"
The patient responds, "That I would be healed."
The pastor gulps. He thinks, The poor lady can't accept the inevitable. This is like asking God to vaporize the calories from a dozen Krispy Kremes. She isn't facing reality.The young minister keeps this to himself and begins to intercede, sort of.
"Lord, we pray for your sustaining presence with this sick sister, and if it be your will, we pray she will be restored to health and service. But if it's not your will, we certainly hope she will adjust to her circumstances."
Have you prayed prayers like that? They're safe prayers. They give God a way out, an excuse, just in case the request is not in his will, and he doesn't come through.
Immediately after the pastor puts an amen on this safe prayer, the woman opens her eyes and sits up in bed. Then she throws her feet over the side and stands up.
"I think I'm healed!" she cries.
Before the pastor can react, the woman walks over to the door, pulls it open, and strides down the hospital corridor. The last thing the pastor hears before she disappears are the words "Look at me, look at me. I'm healed."
The pastor pushes his mouth closed, gets up, and slowly walks down the stairs and out to the parking lot. There is no sign of the former patient. He opens his car door and stops. Looking up to the heavens, the pastor says, "Please don't ever do that to me again."
I don't like that story. I don't like itbecause I can identify with him.
This anecdote is not hilarious. However the story is humorously effective. It has the key characteristics of what makes something funny.
Three characteristics of humor
Christian author, speaker, and comedian Ken Davis, president of Dynamic Communications, identifies three elements that make something funny: truth, exaggeration, and surprise.
The story above contains an element of reality that hearers recognize as true. It is an admission of human frailty. People identify with, in this case, praying for things they don't really expect God to supply.
The whole story is exaggerated, from the overabundance of life-support technology, to the ambiguity of the pastor's prayer, to the immediacy of the woman's recovery. In real life the woman would still be downstairs paying her bill.
This is the strong point of the story. As it unfolds, you can't help but wonder what's going to happen. The pastor's reaction is completely unexpected. The final twist is my explanation of why I don't like the story.
Nothing is funny that doesn't have at least one of these characteristics. How painful it is to be under the impression that we are saying something comical when it is not. If your stories fall flat, begin by evaluating them in light of these three categories.
Of course, these are not the only considerations in using humor well, but before exploring further, it is necessary to ask if humor has any place at all in the pulpit.
Is there a place for humor in preaching?
Haddon Robinson, preaching professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, says, "Since preaching deals with life, it has to have some element of humor. We have to look at life as it's lived and see at times how absurd it is."
Consider some of the metaphors and statements of Jesus, and it soon becomes obvious that Jesus was not above introducing a comic element to make a point. Ken Davis gives the example of Jesus' words recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Davis pokes fun at attempts to explain the "eye of a needle" as a city gate, where a camel would have to take off all encumbrances and kneel down to enter; or the explanation that the word for camel actually meant "big rope." Such interpretations militate against the point Jesus makes. Jesus presented a picture so outrageous it was funny, and yet the subject of salvation could not have been more serious.
Jesus employed exaggeration. Elton Trueblood was inspired to write the book The Humour of Christ, when he read Jesus' words about specks and logs in people's eyes, and the description made his four-year-old laugh. Jesus told stories that provoked surprise. When a Samaritan stopped to help the half-dead man, after two religious types passed the victim by, it was a shocker. A little research into Samaritan-Jewish relations at the time shows how laughably implausible this must have seemed to the hearers. Jesus spoke truth couched in a smile. Jesus' description of those who "strain out a gnat but swallow a camel," ( Matthew 23:24) is as amusing as it is pointed.
John Stott writes, "It seems to be generally agreed that humour was one of the weapons in the armoury of the Master Teacher." (Between Two Worlds, 287) If that is accepted, then the question of whether we should use humor is settled. Perhaps a better question to ask is, What types of humor do not belong in preaching?
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was renowned both for the power of his sermons and for his wit. Once Spurgeon answered a knock at the door of his home and was confronted by a man holding a big stick.
The man sprang into the hall and announced that he had come to kill Spurgeon.
"You must mean my brother," the preacher said, trying to calm the fellow. "His name is Spurgeon."
But the man would not be dissuaded. "It is the man that makes the jokes I mean to kill." (Warren Wiersbe, Walking with the Giants, p. 195)
Spurgeon the preacher was no joke teller, but he "had a gift of humor, and at times it came into play as he preached." (Arnold Dalimore, C. H. Spurgeon, p. 76) The criticism Spurgeon received prompted him to defend the use of humor in preaching and to clarify which aspects did not belong in the pulpit.
Levity is unsuitable
Spurgeon emphasizes that humor and levity are not synonymous. "Cheerfulness is one thing, and frivolity is another; he is a wise man who by a serious happiness of conversation steers between the dark rocks of moroseness, and the quicksands of levity." (Lectures to My Students, p. 151) "We must conquer our tendency to levity. A great distinction exists between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and general levity, which is a vice. There is a levity which has not enough heart to laugh, but trifles with everything; it is flippant, hollow, unreal. A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry." (Lectures to My Students, p. 212)
Spurgeon's differentiations are helpful. Levity is lighthearted to the point of being inappropriate. Flippancy communicates casual indifference or disrespect. Frivolous comments are not suitable in sermons and detract from the grand purpose of preaching. Haddon Robinson feels that "humor is more often misused in preaching than it is well-usedbecause the joke is told for its own sake."
John Piper, author and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, says, "Earnestness is the demeanor that corresponds to the weight of the subject matter of preaching. The opposite of earnest is not joyful, but trivial, flippant, frivolous, chipper. It is possible to be earnest and have elements of humor, though not levity." ("Thoughts on Earnestness in Preaching," an unpublished lecture at The Bethlehem Institute, Minneapolis, 1999)
Of course the line is not always easily drawn, and one person's witty insight might be considered glib or juvenile by another. But levity is the enemy of what Spurgeon and Piper refer to as earnestness. Earnestness gives preaching energy, fervency, sincerity, and excellence. Levity tarnishes these qualities, while humor polishes them.
Excessive humor is counterproductive
In an often repeated but unverified story, Spurgeon responds to a woman expressing her displeasure over his frequent use of humor by saying, "If you knew how much I held back, you would give me credit." While self-discipline is necessary in all aspects of the sermon, it is most required with humor. John Piper warns, "There is a place for humor in our lives, but there is something deeply wrong that we feel compelled to use so much of it in teaching and preaching and even worshiping." (from the sermon "Revival and Fasting," preached at Bethlehem Baptist Church on June 6, 1986)
John Ortberg, author and teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, went through a period when he felt humor had become too important to him. Telling a funny story became a predictable part of every message. He used it to relax when speaking and to determine that people were with him. Even though the humor was appropriate and purposeful, Ortberg sensed he was becoming dependent upon it. To combat that, he disciplined himself to preach several times in a row using little humor.
Haddon Robinson suggests if we realize we are using humor that doesn't serve the truth, we need to forgo it for a time. "If I'm addicted to it, that means I'm going to tell it for its own sake, or my sake, or the audience's sake, but not for the sake of the truth." "Humour is legitimate," says John Stott. "Nevertheless, we have to be sparing in our use of it and judicious in the topics we select for laughter." (Between Two Worlds, p. 288)
Inappropriate humor has no place
Certain subjects must never be approached in a joking manner. Stories that make fun of a person's weight, ethnicity, age, political views, or physical limitations are off limits. Sexual innuendos, foolishness, what Ephesians 5:4 calls "coarse jesting," are unacceptable.
Sacred things cannot be mentioned in any humorous context without great care. The rite of baptism and the celebration of the Lord's Table should almost always be avoided as topics of humor. Haddon Robinson notes "the most humorous things happen when we are trying to be the most serious." Before mentioning any of those things from the pulpit, you must be sure you aren't "making light of something God takes seriously."
I heard a preacher tell about visiting a woman in her mobile home in an attempt to share the good news. In a single story, he managed to demean baptism, poverty, evangelism, and obesity.
It is unlikely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should ever be invoked in a comedic context. We should not use humor that confirms stereotypes about God, treats him casually, or otherwise portrays him inaccurately.
Some humor that references God can be acceptable. For example, Ken Davis tells about a burglar who breaks into a home only to hear a voice in the darkness saying, "I see you, and Jesus sees you too." After discovering the voice belongs to a parrot, the robber goes to silence the bird, then spots a huge, snarling Doberman next to the cage. At that point the parrot says, "Sic him, Jesus." Davis walks a fine line here, but uses the story effectively by pointing out that this is how many people view God, as ferocious and ready to attack at the first wrong step.
Beware of putting the "ick" in comical. Author and speaker Fred Smith uses as a guideline the old saying "While the audience laughed, the angels cried." Smith says one test of appropriate humor is "Do the angels laugh too?"
Guided by these cautions, the preacher can be confident that humor can have an important place in the sermon. Phillips Brooks in his Lectures on Preaching called humor "one of the most helpful qualities that the preacher can possess"; and John Stott said, "We should press it [humor] gladly into service in the cause of the gospel." (Between Two Worlds, 292) What the preacher must strive for is humor that is appropriate in topic, timing, and purpose.
Phillips Brooks in his Lectures on Preaching called humor "one of the most helpful qualities that the preacher can possess"; and John Stott said, "We should press it [humor] gladly into service in the cause of the gospel." (Between Two Worlds, 292) Let's look at nine benefits that lead serious preachers like these to use humor.
Humor overcomes defenses
John Ortberg says he uses humor for the same reason a surgeon uses anesthesia: not to put people to sleep, but to prepare and enable them to receive painful truth they need. Hearers try to defend themselves against hard truth, and humor can smuggle that truth past their resistance and automatic defenses. "No other means can so quickly break the ice, relax inhibitions, and create an attitude of expectancy." (James Cox, Preaching, 186)
Ortberg says a fast turn from humor to seriousness "catches people off guard, and all of a sudden you're in much deeper than what they were expecting." He gives this example:
Many years ago, early on in our marriage, my wife and I sold our Volkswagen Beetle to buy our first really nice piece of furniture. It was a sofa. It was a pink sofa, but for that kind of money, it was called a mauve sofa. The man at the sofa store told us all about how to take care of it, and we took it home.
We had very small children in those days, and does anybody want to guess what was the Number One Rule in our house from that day on? "Don't sit on the mauve sofa! Don't play near the mauve sofa! Don't eat around the mauve sofa! Don't touch the mauve sofa! Don't breathe on the mauve sofa! Don't think about the mauve sofa! On every other chair in the house, you may freely sit, but on this sofa—the mauve sofa—you may not sit, for on the day you sit thereon, you will surely die!"
And then one day came the "Fall." There appeared on the mauve sofa a stain...a red stain...a red jelly stain. My wife called the man at the sofa factory, and he told her how bad that was. So she assembled our three children to look at the stain on the sofa. Laura, who then was about 4, and Mallory, who was about 2Â½, and Johnny, who was maybe 6 months. She said, "Children, do you see that? That's a stain. That's a red stain. That's a red jelly stain. And the man at the sofa store says it's not coming out, not for all eternity. Do you know how long eternity is, children? Eternity is how long we're all going to sit here until one of you tells me which one of you put the red jelly stain on the mauve sofa."
For a long time they all just sat there until finally Mallory cracked. I knew she would. She said, "Laura did it." Laura said, "No I didn't." Then it was dead silence for the longest time. And I knew that none of them would confess putting the stain on the sofa, because they had never seen their mom that mad in their lives. I knew none of them was going to confess putting the stain on the sofa, because they knew if they did, they would spend all of eternity in the "Time Out Chair." I knew that none of them would confess putting the stain on the sofa, because in fact, I was the one who put the stain on the sofa, and I wasn't sayin' nuthin'! Not a word!
Ortberg turns from that to say, "Here's the truth about us. We've all stained the sofa." The humor opened people's hearts, enabling Ortberg to talk about the serious subjects of sin, guilt, and a holy God.
Fred Smith calls this aspect of humor "lubricating the needle."
Humor relieves tension
John Ortberg talks about the art of tension management. Communicators gifted at motivation or conviction are able to discern how much tension the audience can tolerate. Too much tension, and hearers start to pull away emotionally. So humor can be a pressure release that keeps people engaged. But we must fight the urge to use humor to relieve the tension prematurely. Ortberg says, "We often underestimate how much tension people are able to tolerate, and we underestimate the use of tension in producing change."
Humor heightens interest
Gaining the attention of a congregation and then holding their interest is probably the most common reason speakers use humor. John Ortberg feels that the engagement of the audience can be discerned by the sounds in the room—foot shuffling, coughing, and rustling. When the noise level gets too high, spontaneous humor can often regain the attention of those whose minds have wandered. Ortberg also intentionally injects humor when a section of a sermon has a high information quotient.
Humor shows our humanity
Ken Davis likes the definition of humor as "a gentle way to acknowledge human frailty." Preachers must communicate as real people and not "wholly other" creatures. Humor conveys that perhaps better than anything else. Phillips Brooks declared, "There is no extravagance which deforms the pulpit which would not be modified and repressed, often entirely obliterated, if the minister had a true sense of humor." (Lectures on Preaching, p. 57)
If preaching is "a man uttering truth through his own personality," as Brooks described it, then for many the absence of humor would be a denial of who they are. It would be as unnatural to remove all humor from their speech as it would be to eliminate voice inflection. Says author Warren Wiersbe, "The whole man must be in the pulpit, and if this includes a sense of humor, then so be it." (Walking with the Giants, p. 197, emphasis original)
Humor expresses the joy of the Lord
John Ortberg sees joy as a large component of Scripture, the church, and the experience of being present for the preaching of God's Word. One way we express that joy is in laughter. The willingness of a preacher and congregation to laugh together is a healthy sign of spiritual vitality. Thomas Long implies that laughter indicates good theology. "Because God in Christ has broken the power of sin and death, Christian congregations and their preachers are free to laugh at themselves." (The Witness of Preaching, p. 16)
Humor establishes a connection between the speaker and the audience
A friend of John Ortberg's visits different churches in his capacity as a church consultant. After listening to many different sermons, the consultant observed that a sense of connection between a preacher and the congregation most often came at the first moment of laughter in a message. Ortberg himself feels humor is a part of who he is, so using it makes him comfortable and helps establish a relationship with listeners.
Humor encourages a sense of community
John Ortberg believes that outward expressions of joy and humor have "the capacity to create a sense of community." Beyond the relationship that humor establishes between speaker and listener, it also sparks something among the people themselves. There is a shared experience that engenders warm feelings. Humor is one way to help break people out of the isolation that comes from sitting in a congregation of strangers, enabling them to feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Humor draws attention to the truth
Spurgeon advised his preaching students to "be so thoroughly solemn that all your faculties are aroused and consecrated, and then a dash of humour will only add intenser gravity to the discourse, even as a flash of lightning makes midnight darkness all the more impressive." (Lectures to My Students, p. 189) It is in the flash of humor that truth can sometimes be most clearly seen.
That was my purpose in using this Paul Harvey story.
The Butterball company set up a Thanksgiving hotline to answer questions about cooking turkeys. One woman asked if she could use a turkey that had been in the bottom of her freezer for23 years. You heard me, 23 years. The Butterball expert—how's that for a job title—told her it would probably be safe if the freezer had been below zero the entire time. The expert then warned her that even if the turkey was safe to eat, the flavor would likely have deteriorated and wouldn't be worth eating. The woman said, "That's what I thought. We'll give the turkey to our church."
After the laughter subsided, I said, "Sin first shows itself in what you give God."
Ken Davis says, "Laughter helps people see the darkness of their hearts."
Humor is one language of our culture
Our society craves humor. People love to laugh, and they spend incalculable amounts of money seeking to be entertained. As missionaries to this culture, humor aids in presenting the message in a way people understand. A church or sermon devoid of laughter may not be seen as real.
John Ortberg feels that laughter communicates to those outside the church that this is a place where "they speak my language," a place that has a connection point with today's world.
Phillips Brooks in his Lectures on Preaching called humor "one of the most helpful qualities that the preacher can possess"; and John Stott said, "We should press [humor] gladly into service in the cause of the gospel." Let's look at six characteristics of effective humor.
Have a purpose
John Ortberg believes that since "the ultimate goal of preaching is to have Christ formed in people," humor must always be the servant of the message. If humor does nothing to forward that purpose, then the preacher must be willing to jettison it from the sermon. Haddon Robinson says the "cardinal rule of humor is it must serve the truth." One indication of this is when your audience thinks of the story they think of the truth that lies behind it.
Of the many benefits of humor listed above, some advantages may not be sufficient justification for its inclusion. Humor must serve the greater purpose. We should ask questions such as, In what way does this contribute to the point being made? How will this enable people to hear the truth? Why does this story deserve time in this message? Ken Davis says, "The purpose should be that this humor illustrates a point, clarifies a point, draws people's attention to a point that is going to take them one step closer to the cross."
Effective humor will be entertaining, and there is nothing wrong with that. Entertainment is wrong when it becomes the objective or becomes an end in itself. We can cross the line into that simply by our timing. John Ortberg suggests that when we rush to relieve tension through humor, it indicates a self-esteem issue. Our inability to wait for tension to have its greatest spiritual effect may be because we are too anxious for people to like us. When the preacher is concerned with keeping people happy, truth-telling has been compromised.
Be neither offensive nor innocuous
Preaching will always offend someone. The solution is not bland speech. Instead, we must strictly monitor those things we intend to be funny. Ask yourself who might consider this offensive and know that your own sensitivities are not always trustworthy.
One high profile speaker told a news story that involved the attempted electrocution of a pig. The speaker told this with glee, even the part where two farmers ended up dead, one was critically injured, and the pig was unharmed. I've learned the hard way that any story involving the endangerment of an animal should only be used with extreme caution. The problem with this story was not that it didn't serve the message—believe it or not, it did. But the real loss of human life should not be a source of casual mirth. The contribution the story made to the point was overshadowed by its insensitivity.
Humor used in the pulpit should not make someone cringe. Hurtful humor can be damaging even if it does not offend the "victim." Ken Davis warns that the preacher may good-naturedly rib a friend, but others don't know this comes out of friendship and take offense for that other person.
John Ortberg says the laws of humor are the same as the laws of real estate—location, location, location. The right story must come at the right time in the message. Fred Smith believes in using it like good spice, "permeating the whole," but there are moments when humor should be avoided. Ortberg speaks of times when there was a tender spirit in the room, and he realized something humorous he intended to say might disrupt that spirit. Discipline is needed "because there's something else going on that's more important than humor."
Fred Smith writes, "Humor should be used to sharpen the truth, not dull it." This is a determining factor in the placement of humor. It must not only be in the right place in the message but in the right message. In the rush to use something good, we must resist the urge to wedge it in where it does not belong. Ortberg says, "When it really fits, it's going to accomplish much more good. I have to discipline myself, wait, and save it for that time."
Be self-deprecating without becoming self-centered
Humor can be an expression of humility if the speaker is secure enough to poke fun at himself. Haddon Robinson writes, "We like people who laugh at themselves, because they are saying, 'What I'm talking about is very serious, but I don't take myself too seriously.'" (Mastering Contemporary Preaching, p. 134) When the speaker is the butt of the joke, this lowers the defenses of listeners even further to the scalpel of truth.
In a sermon from Mark 9, I challenged the congregation to pray impossible prayers. I said I myself was trying to grow in that area. I told of four impossible prayers I had once prayed for daily. Eventually I concluded the answer to the first two prayers was "No," the answer to number three was "Not yet," and prayer number four I gave up on entirely. I said:
I quit my impossible prayer. What a great prayer warrior I am. But in these last few weeks my wife has had four amazing answers to prayer, at least two of which were impossible. One was the exact request I'd given up on. She can pray, she can preach—I think you've got the wrong one of us as pastor.
People appreciated that little insight more than I could have imagined. My wife thought highly of the story also.
The caution is we should watch that we don't talk about ourselves too much. Ken Davis says to take care "that the word self doesn't become a huge part of our messages."
Practice but be open to spontaneity
John Ortberg warns, "Worse than having no humor at all is forcing humor that isn't funny."
To avoid that, Ken Davis says humor is a tool we must practice with to learn to operate well. He believes with a little work, just about anything can be funny. Preachers need to look at something that made them chuckle and figure out why it struck them as funny. When that lesson is understood, we can learn to present stories in a way that will produce the same response from our audience.
Practice ways not to introduce stories with "A funny thing happened to me the other day." Practice the flow of stories on one or two people until the timing and wording is honed. Humor comes less from what you say than from how you say it.
Practice should not preclude spontaneous humor, which can sometimes be the most effective.
A family in our church was moving. The husband told me he was only known in the church as "Kim's husband" because she was so involved and he traveled so much. She would be greatly missed, but he doubted we would know he was gone. With his permission I told that story during a sermon from Romans 12 about significance. I repeated our conversation and began to emphasize his great worth to his family and church. It started to get emotional. Suddenly a thought hit me and I said, "Now if somebody could point this guy out to me" The room went nuts.
Take care, though; these unplanned additions are also the most dangerous because you have only moments to filter and evaluate what you are going to say.
Observe daily life
Humor flowing from life experiences always trumps jokes with punch lines. Jokes are what Ken Davis calls high-risk humor. If a joke dies, everyone knows it, and the point may die with it. When a personal story doesn't elicit the laugh you thought it would, it still maintains the power to illustrate the point. That's why Davis calls this low risk humor and suggests this is where someone trying to learn to be more humorous should begin. So avoid joke books and pay more attention to what is going on around you.
John Ortberg says, "The best kind of humor is observational humor, humor that flows out of the incongruities of life and the way life works." Haddon Robinson talks about the power of humor that is "an observation about life that causes me to laugh and at the same time gives me insight."
There is no lack of material. "Life's experiences bring more humor than you could ever use in a million years," says Ken Davis. Preachers need to be aware of how everyday things can be funny—even those things that were not funny at the time. Davis tells a story about a minor car accident that set off the air bag. He says TV doesn't tell you the truth when they picture the air bag coming out like a salvation marshmallow. In his experience the impact painfully bloodied his nose. Davis turns the painful incident into a riotously funny story.
Focus on a common truth
Talk about experiences others identify with. Ken Davis ties into a common feeling among men with this observation:
There's proof in the Mall of America that men weren't supposed to shop. The proof is the 180 miles of benches, and there are no women on those benches, only men. I saw an 80-or 90-year-old guy with cobwebs hanging from his head. The sad part was that he wasn't 90 when he went into the mall.
Humor based on truth, then in this case exaggerated, gets people nodding and laughing in agreement. It may be something overlooked by the average person until you focus on it.
While Ortberg and Davis agree that we must work at humor, especially those of us who are not naturally funny, nevertheless we shouldn't try to become someone we are not. Humor must fit our personality and style. Haddon Robinson says, "If you don't do it within conversation, you are wise to avoid it in public."
Ken Davis says, "It's important to know your own style and ability. My tendency is to be way out there." But Davis admires comedian Steven Wright, who speaks slowly and unemotionally. He simply puts together truths that are rarely observed. For example, Wright points out that if you drop a buttered piece of toast, it will always fall butter side down. And if you drop a cat, he will always land on his feet. "So the other day I tied a piece of buttered toast to my cat's back."
If Steven Wright tried to act like Robin Williams, it wouldn't work. But he delivers lines in a way that fits his personality, and it's hilarious. Davis says, "Humor isn't necessarily that 'lay on the floor and laugh till you're sick' kind of thing. Sometimes it's just a comment that makes people smile and think, Man, that is so true. That's humor."
Poking fun at someone other than yourself is a minefield. Sometimes speakers feel that an infamous celebrity is fair game. That celebrity's lifestyle is so out of line with biblical morality that the speaker thinks little of holding that person up for ridicule. Haddon Robinson uses this guideline, "If that person was sitting in the front row when I made the remark, would they feel it was a cheap shot?"
Humor that is suitable for preaching tears down no one, no matter how justifiable it feels. If a celebrity or anyone the hearer appreciates is mocked, the point being made is lost. "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt," (Colossians 4:6).
Be honest about exaggeration
Exaggeration is legitimate in humor, and using hyperbole does not cause hearers to stop taking us seriously if we signal to hearers that we are using humor. Ken Davis says, "It's important to maintain integrity." He says at some point there needs to be something like a wink to the audience. Davis says that with his gestures and tone he becomes bigger than life. This clues in the audience that he's telling the story bigger than it actually happened. He suggests there may be a need to say, "You know it didn't happen quite that way," or to roll your eyes.
Preachers get themselves into trouble when they insist that a story is true when it exceeds the bounds of reality. To qualify with the words, "I don't know if this story is true," doesn't take away anything from it and gives the audience permission to have fun rather trying to determine the veracity of the speaker.
Keep the surprise
Introducing something funny by calling it funny is disastrous. It's harder to surprise people. For some people an automatic resistance kicks in. They cross their arms and think, I'll be the judge of that. The story had better be funny, or the speaker is climbing out of a deep hole for the rest of the talk.
Nothing dampens the effectiveness of humor more surely or our credibility more quickly than presenting someone else's humor as our own or someone else's experience as our own.
Giving proper credit does not take away from the enjoyment of the story. I once told a Ken Davis story in a sermon. I acknowledged him at the beginning, and everyone still laughed hard. Afterward a number of people mentioned to me they had heard the story before. Had I failed to give credit, I would have paid for it.
Transition carefully between what is serious and what is light
John Ortberg believes it is much easier to transition from light, fun material to serious issues like guilt and sin than it is to move in the other direction.
Ken Davis gives this example of a sudden shift from light to serious:
I read the response of children to what they thought love was. One little child thought love was when "a boy puts on cologne and a girl puts on perfume, and then they go on a date and smell each other." One little girl said, "I think love is when my grandma can't move anymore; she's in a wheelchair, and my grandpa clips her toenails even when he has arthritis, and he can't move his hands."
When going from seriousness to humor, in general we should do so gradually, in a step-by-step process. Otherwise, Ortberg says, "I'm going to trivialize everything I've been saying." A sacred moment will be intruded upon and lost.
An unexpected benefit of a humorous story
In a sermon on the supremacy of Christ, I used my personal feelings humorously to make a serious point. I said weddings are my least favorite pastoral duty. There was nervous laughter. I said I felt that way because so much could go wrong. I feared two outcomes: the mother of the bride would hate me, or I would end up on America's Funniest Home Videos.
I went on. As a pastor in training I'd been warned about photographers. They were the enemy, seeking to disrupt every ceremony. It didn't take long for me to see this was no idle threat. Photographers ran up and down center aisles, blinded us with flashes, and whispered stage directions during the vows. The worst was the guy who got on his hands and knees and crawled behind the choir rail. I heard him scurrying along behind me, and then every few feet he would pop his head over the rail and snap a few pictures.
I acted all this out. It was a riot. I concluded with these words.
The way I see it, weddings are the legal, spiritual, public joining together of two lives. They are not primarily a photo opportunity. Someday I'm going to grab one of those photographers by the throat and scream, "It's not about you."
You came here today with something on your mind. Maybe you were consumed with your plans, struggling with loneliness, anxious about your marriage, or worried about money. These concerns are all secondary. The gospel shouts, "It's all about Jesus."
This proved to be a powerful story. "It's all about Jesus" is a popular theme in our church. And I'm asked to do fewer weddings.