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Laughing on Purpose (Part 1)

When humor helps a message

Note: In his article, "Why Serious Preachers Use Humor," John Beukema quoted frequently from an interview he conducted with John Ortberg. This article presents the interview in full.

PreachingToday.com: When you use humor in preaching, what purposes do you have in mind?

John Ortberg: I use humor for the same reason a surgeon uses anesthesia. People tend to defend themselves against truth and particularly hard truth. Humor has the capacity to lower people's defenses, like few other forces do. It enables me to get the scalpel a lot deeper than I might be able to otherwise. There's something about the process of laughing about the human condition that gets to the heart. It penetrates past the automatic defenses and resistance that people have.

There's something about the process of laughing about the human condition that gets to the heart.

For instance, when I talk about the cross, and Jesus' death for our sins, that gets into the whole business that our sin is serious. So first, I talk about the human condition in a way that's fun, and people are laughing, and then I can move much more quickly to what this says about us." The reality is that every one of us has this condition, and it's real serious and it's real dark." There's a fast turn from light to dark, from humor to seriousness that catches people off guard, and all of a sudden you're in much deeper than they were expecting.

Would you say that you aim for humor more often when the subject is most serious?

Not necessarily when it's most serious, but if it's a subject where I anticipate there may be a lot of resistance, then I'll often aim for it. I also look for it if I'm doing a message that's heavily didactic, where for the sake of the congregation's growth we need to get through a lot of material. When there's a high information quotient to it, there can be the danger of people dropping off. So I'll look to inject humor to keep people engaged.

What other purposes do you have in mind?

Partly to have fun. Joy is a big component of Scripture. The experience of church and of being present for the preaching of God's Word ought to be a joyful experience. Not in every moment, but that ought to be a part of it.

Joy also has the capacity to create a sense of community. When you're in a room with a bunch of other people and you share moments of joy, there's a connection that often happens.

I'd also say that humor is a part of the language of our culture. Especially for unchurched folks it can help them feel like This is a place where I can see myself involved and connected. They speak my language here.

How can the preacher use humor effectively without losing the seriousness of the Word of God?

The need for discernment is huge. That comes through experience, but also by soliciting honest feedback from people whose wisdom you trust. Humor, if it's going to be used, has to be the servant of the message. That means any time it's not going to serve the purpose of forming Christ in the people listening, then I have to get rid of it. One thing I'll do is try to be sensitive to the moment. There may be times when there's a tender spirit in the room, and there is a story or a line that I know could get a laugh, but it might disrupt what's going on in that moment. I need to say, No, I'm not going to use it. I'm going to pull back in this moment because there's something else going on that's more important than the humor.

Have there been times you fought that feeling and went ahead anyway?

Absolutely. I lean on the humor side. Everybody has their own style, and there are some people who are tremendously effective communicators who use very little humor. And then there are people like Ken Davis who can't get up and recite his phone number without being funny. I lean more towards the humor side. I have learned from painful experience that sometimes I will try to be funny, and it will end up not having served the message, and it would have been better for me not to do it.

What you're saying makes me wonder if your approach to humor and how you view its importance has changed through the years.

It definitely has changed over the years. It's always been something I have enjoyed doing. I have gotten more selective with it. I have gone through some eras as a preacher where I've said, I'm too dependent on humor. For instance, there was one point when almost every talk I did I would start with something humorous, because when people laugh I get this kind of internal relaxation. But any time you get into predictable patterns, that can damage the effectiveness of a sermon. I had to work to say sometimes I want to start the sermon with different tones. I might start right off with a challenge or with information that I want to walk people through, or with something that's going to touch people's hearts but not in a humorous way.

I've also had eras where again I felt I was getting too dependent on humor, so I did several messages in a row with little humor, almost as a discipline to liberate myself from the need for it. There would be moments where humor came naturally, but I deliberately tried to avoid it.

How did that go over?

I don't know that those are the best messages I ever did, but they were helpful in my own development. We have to ask not only the questions of How can I be helpful to my congregation? but What are the things that I need to be experiencing to develop as a teacher? How do I need to stretch myself? I naturally tend to have real sensitive antenna with regard to, Are people engaged? When I feel people are starting to disengage, that's painful for me. It's challenging for me sometimes to allow people to get a little disengaged and to stretch them so I can help them on the learning side.

Engagement is a matter of degree. I'll mostly discern that in terms of the sound in the room—how much foot shuffling, coughing, and rustling is going on. There have been eras when I've had to let that get a little bit higher because I know there are still going to be a number of folks who are engaged, and I want them to learn. I have to get more comfortable with periods where the message may not be fun or entertaining, but there's a high learning quotient.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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