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The Strengths and Seductions of Humor (Part 1)

For humor to have value in a sermon, it must serve the truth.

PreachingToday.com: What is the practical theology behind using humor in preaching?

Haddon Robinson: Humor is part of life. You pity people who don't have a sense of humor, who take all of life too seriously. Preaching deals with life; therefore it has to have some element of humor. Humor has a place in preaching because it touches the human experience.

We also use it because people love it. Folks love to laugh, and they respond to it with great delight. In fact, therein lies its strength, and therein lies its danger. It's easy to use humor for itself. You tell a joke or make some humorous remark, not because it really serves the truth you're preaching, but simply because you know people love it.

Another danger is, if you use humor with great effect, after people are through laughing and you go back to trying to be serious, they'd rather laugh some more. You say, "Now let's turn to the Book of Hebrews," and they're thinking, I'd rather hear a joke. So it can hurt the mood.

The cardinal rule is humor has to serve the truth. When you use humor in the service of the truth, it has great advantages. You can often make a sharp point without it hurting the audience. That is, you can use humor so that the audience laughs about itself and then realizes what it's doing. That's what you're driving at in your sermon. That's where humor has its strength.

Humor is more often misused in preaching than it is well used in preaching.

How do you draw that line between humor that serves a purpose and humor that distracts or detracts?

You must use discipline, especially when you're preparing. You ought not put humor into a sermon because it's really a funny story, but because that funny story really does get this point across.

Generally, when you are in the church where you preach regularly, you ought not start off sermons with jokes. But in a new place, that's one time where you have to think about using humor, because you're not only introducing your sermon, you're introducing yourself. When you're new, humor helps you build rapport, helps you relate to an audience. We like people who laugh. We like people who don't take themselves too seriously. They take the truth seriously, but not themselves. We tend to respond to those kinds of people.

Sometimes as you're preaching, humorous things come to your mind. Often it's a turn of phrase or an observation in passing. As long as you're concentrating on getting across the message, then that often adds a flavor to what you're saying.

Is it ever possible for a preacher to joke about someone other than himself or joke about a group beyond his own—safely?

The important word is safely. Sometimes you can. For example, if in a sermon you are debating someone who isn't actually present. You represent them as taking a position that folks have used, say, against the Bible or against the Christian faith and observe things about the assumptions made that are humorous. On the other hand, I don't want to be mocking an opponent. You've got to use humor in a way that if that person was sitting in the front row, they wouldn't feel it was a cheap shot.

What are some other mistakes in attempting to use humor?

Telling a joke can be a mistake. There's a world of difference between having a sense of humor and a sense of joke. If you use a joke, it's not good if you have to explain it. If you have to spend time telling people why it fits your point, chances are you're using it for its own sake.

In addition, if you don't have the ability to tell a joke in conversation, you're wise to avoid it in public. There are folks who just flat out can't tell a joke. My daughter is a public speaker, and she has a great sense of humor, but she doesn't use any jokes when she's speaking because she doesn't tell jokes well. She makes observations about herself, about life, and that sense of humor enriches her talk. It takes skill to tell a joke well in a sermon.

Another thing is, you can't depend on it. There's nothing worse than telling a joke or making a humorous remark that falls flat. There have been times when I have told a story that's humorous, and somehow it worked with that audience, and then I told it again with another audience, and I didn't get two teeth. I mean, no response. The danger of that is it throws you. Sometimes that can set you off your whole approach to the sermon. So you can't depend on it. You can't say, "With this joke, even if the Holy Spirit leaves me, they'll laugh." They don't laugh.

Humor is more often misused in preaching than it's well used in preaching. Sometimes when you hear preachers use humor, you find yourself laughing for the speaker's sake, not because it has really caused you to laugh. Other people, like Tony Campolo for example, use humor very well to get across their points. But not everybody is a Tony Campolo. Most of us would be better served if we were more like a Garrison Keillor, who makes observations about things but seldom tells a joke. It's the way he looks at life. It takes some skill, but more of us can do that well than can tell formal jokes.

What should someone do to keep from becoming too dependent on humor?

We are servants of the Word. It's easy for public speakers to turn from that role to being entertainers, and especially if they're good at it. It's dangerous because people love it. But you discover that when people say, "I really enjoyed that sermon," they don't mean, I appreciated that truth; it got through to me; it gave me a new insight. What they mean is, That was funny. It's like an overly emotional sermon illustration that doesn't really illustrate. People remember that. The seduction of it is, I will use it even though it doesn't serve the truth. If that is happening, you need to say, Okay, I'll have to swear off humor for a while because I'm addicted to it. I'm telling this for its own sake, or for my sake, or for the audience's sake, but not for the sake of the truth.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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