If there could be one word that summarized our culture, it would be “superficial.” We live in a juvenile, adolescent, immature, superficial society. People live for escapism and entertainment. They spend billions each year experiencing larger-than-life sensations at amusement parks and movie theaters in order to avoid having to think about more profound issues like moral accountability and the inevitability of death.
To make matters worse, this same superficial culture has branded its mark deeply upon the pews of our churches. Now when newly-born believers sit before the pulpit each week, they instinctively compare the quality of the pastor’s preaching to a late-night stand-up monologue. Instead of instantly craving the pure milk of the Word, they intuitively yearn to have their ears tickled. Though they have been saved on the inside, they still long for superficiality on the outside.
Immaturity does not transform its taste buds overnight. In many ways, developing a hunger for biblical preaching is an acquired taste. Therefore, the people of God must be taught to revere the truth; they must be tutored by expository preachers to appreciate the proclamation of the Word of God. They must be, in a word, trained to grasp the seriousness of Scripture.
The problem is that many preachers have turned into comedians. A growing number of churches have replaced their pulpits with stages. Though many pastors know that the Bible is no laughing matter, they are weekly tempted to accommodate their messages to meet their congregation's felt-need for humor and entertainment.
Many pastors were raised in such a light-hearted version of cultural Christianity that “being funny” is a hard to shake habit. A growing number just can’t resist the ongoing temptation to feed their congregations holy humor. Unfortunately, the badge of clerical comedy has become their trademark.
In contrast to this growing trend in evangelicalism, we see the Bible emphasizing an utterly different perspective when it comes to finding humor in the presentation of biblical truth. A weighty seriousness defines the Scriptures. From the account of creation to the vision of the Apocalypse, the Bible is first and foremost a serious story.
There is nothing inherently funny about sin, salvation, or sanctification. There is nothing humorous about the price that had to be paid in order to overcome darkness with light and triumph over ruin with redemption. There is nothing laughable about Heaven and Hell, Satan and demons, suffering and sacrifice, or fire and fools.
True, anthropomorphically speaking, God is said to have laughed in the Old Testament (Ps. 2:4; 59:8), but never as an expression of amusement due to some unexpected twist in a punch-line. No, God in the Old Testament only laughs at the sad absurdity of those who believe they will escape His wrath, but never because He thinks something is funny. The profound themes revealed in the Bible are no laughing matter.
Yet, all that said, there still is a necessary place for laughter in life. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that “There’s a time to weep and a time to laugh.” There is a time for humor. Laughter and wit are both common graces granted to us so that we can enjoy the ironies and absurdities of life. There are many appropriate moments when laughter (and the humor that fuels it) can be a profound blessing, especially to those who are going through prolonged trials. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22). Therefore, even sermons can occasionally contain humor.
It’s not that humor should always be avoided in preaching. Yet, because the superficiality of our culture is in such dire opposition to the seriousness of the Scriptures, it is important for pastors to know that there are at least three dangers connected to humor in the pulpit.
Humor can demean the dignity of the pastor
One of the most important characteristics of both an elder and deacon is the attribute of dignity (1 Tim 3:4; 8). Men who are to oversee the church are to be known as dignified, respectable, and sober-minded. The reason this is so vital is because pastors can inadvertently demean the dignity of their role in the church for the price of a laugh. Too much humor (or the wrong kind) lessens the gravitas of the pulpit; it paints the pastor as a clown, a silly man, and sometimes an egomaniac. Inordinately calling attention to one’s wit is a self-promoting and prideful practice that distracts attention away from the message onto the messenger.
Humor can trivialize the meaning of the message
A silly story or comedic comment becomes counter-productive when it diverts the attention away from the main point of the sermon. Sometimes humor can lessen the lesson; it can trivialize the message; it can dilute the sermon of its biblical seriousness for the sake of a laugh. Humor (if used at all) should match the tone of the text. (A judgment text, for example, should be preached in a tone that matches the warning of the passage.) Though it is true that sometimes a congregation needs a moment to “come up for air” to allow the impact to settle, the way in which that is done must complement the tone of the text.
Humor can desensitize the concern of the congregation
A young man once approached me after a funeral service I conducted and inquired as to when our services met on Sunday mornings. The sobriety of the moment had convinced him that it was time to be once again under the regular teaching of God’s Word. But ironically, in the same breath, he added that he also wanted a church where the pastor was as funny as his previous pastor. In a matter of minutes, a serious message about the finality of life had been tossed aside by the desire for a witty preacher.
Pastors who feed their sheep a steady diet of comedic junk food only exacerbate this kind of superficiality.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once told a story about a clown that summarized this danger well. He wrote, “It happened that a fire broke out backstage at a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke” (Either/Or, 1:30).
Though the use of humor in the pulpit should not be absolutely abolished, pastors should seriously consider the dangers inherent in its overuse. It can demean the dignity of the pastor, trivialize the meaning of the message, and desensitize the concern of the congregation.
Let us never be the clowns crying “Fire!” to the applause of our congregation.
To learn more about everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our guide: Handling Scripture.