Written by: Dr. David P. Murray
Since coming to North America, I’ve preached in a number of different churches. A few times I’ve been taken aback by laughter in response to something I’ve said in my sermon. The first time it happened, I froze on the spot. I could hardly go on. I was stunned. In Scotland, I never cracked a joke in the pulpit. It would not even cross my mind to try to make people laugh. That was just not done in most Reformed churches. Yet, now, the same words, said in the same way, create laughter!
A few months ago I heard a well-known preacher give an address on a very serious subject to a large conference. He started by speaking of his own sinful inadequacy. But as he confessed his sinfulness, laughter erupted. The speaker was startled. He tried again. The result was the same. He eventually said that he could not understand the reaction, abandoned his introduction, and just got started on his address.
In some ways, none of this should surprise us. We live in a comedy-saturated culture. Evening television pumps out a steady diet of comedy programming night after night. Sit-coms dominate the ratings. The big TV names are comedians like Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, who take the daily news and turn it into a series of jokes.
But we don’t need to go to the ‘world’ to find a comedy culture. I’m afraid this culture has influenced the church. If we tune into some of the most popular preachers, even Reformed preachers, we find their sermons peppered with jokes. Many preachers now seem to think that they cannot begin to preach without ‘softening up’ their hearers with a little bit of stand-up comedy. So, in many ways, we cannot blame just the hearers. Preachers mix the most solemn of subjects with silly asides, so that people do not know whether to laugh or cry. I heard one famous preacher asking for prayer about a particular weakness in his life. He then said a couple of funny things about this weakness. Eventually, no one knew if he was seriously asking for prayer, or just making a joke.
A Plea for Serious Preaching
So this article is a plea. It is a plea for serious preaching in a comedy culture. Notice that I am talking about serious preaching, not life in general. Laughter is a gift of God and is good for us. There is ‘a time to laugh’ (Eccl. 3:4). There are known health benefits of having a good laugh. It reduces stress and blood pressure, helps the digestive system, etc. But I am speaking here about preaching, not life in general. The appropriate subjects and degrees of laughter in everyday life is another topic.
I’m also going to exclude theological lectures and seminars from this address. These are grey areas and deserve separate treatment. I want to keep our focus on preaching: the public, authoritative declaration of God’s Word to needy sinners.
Notice also that this is a plea for serious preaching. This is not an argument for dull, boring, predictable, unimaginative or lethargic preaching. Preaching should be energetic, lively, interesting, creative and joyful. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that ‘a dull preacher is a contradiction in terms; if he is dull he is not a preacher. He may stand in a pulpit and talk, but he is certainly not a preacher.’
I will support my plea for serious preaching in a comedy culture with seven arguments. Then I will briefly consider four arguments that are often made in support of humour in preaching.
The Preacher’s Examples
My first argument for serious preaching in a comedy culture is the preacher’s examples. What words come to mind when you think of Old Testament preachers like Enoch, Noah, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and Jeremiah? ‘Funny?’ ‘Light-hearted?’ ‘Humourous?’ Or, ‘Sober . . . solemn . . . grave?’ What about the New Testament apostles? Are there any jokes in the apostolic sermons of the Acts of the Apostles? At one point Paul was accused of being mad. His reply? ‘I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness’ (Acts 26:25). What was Paul’s description of his ministry? ‘And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Cor. 2:3-4).
And what about the Lord Jesus himself? Can you imagine the Sermon on the Mount producing the kind of uproarious laughter we find in some churches today? If we took our models of preaching from the Bible, we would have more sober pulpits.
The Preacher’s Office
Second, serious preaching is demanded by the preacher’s office. The preacher is an ambassador of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), speaking to sinners in his name and in his place. Our message and manner should be such that Christ can say of us: ‘He that heareth you, heareth me’ (Luke 10:16). When we speak in Christ’s name we are not just saying, ‘This is what Christ says,’ we are saying, ‘This is what Christ is like.’ And let’s take our ambassadorial models from Christ’s day, not ours. Unlike today’s ambassadors, who are often men of high society, wit and repartee, the ambassador of Paul’s day was usually on a life or death mission. Upon his words hung the fate of thousands. How much more serious is our mission, upon which hangs heaven or hell. William Perkins wrote:
Filled with a reverent sense of the majesty of God, we will speak soberly and with moderation. The minister must also be worthy of respect for his constancy, integrity, seriousness and truthfulness.1
The Preacher’s Message
The third argument for serious preaching is the preacher’s message. There is no more serious message in the world than, ‘We are sinners on the way to divine judgment and eternal damnation in hell.’
Is there not good news, though? Yes, but even the divine remedy to our desperate plight demands awe and reverence. We preach Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God. But who can stand in the shadow of that God-forsaken, cursed tree and tell a joke? Even hardened soldiers changed their tune there (Matt. 27:54).
Is there not joy in believing? Yes, but it is joy in believing, not joy in jokes. It is spiritual joy, not carnal. And even when we believe, and rejoice, it is always tempered by the new perspective we have on those who are still perishing. Richard Baxter said: ‘Let the awful and important thoughts of souls being saved by my preaching, or left to perish and be condemned to hell by my negligence, I say, let this awful and tremendous thought dwell ever upon your spirit.’ In the light of this should we not join with Solomon who ‘said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?’ (Eccl. 2:2).
The Preacher’s Fruit
Fourth, consider the preacher’s fruit. What was the effect of New Testament sermons? The first post-resurrection sermon had this effect: ‘And fear came upon every soul’ (Acts 2:43). Paul describes the impact the Word of God should have on a visitor to our church services upon hearing God’s Word: ‘. . . he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth’ (1 Cor. 14:24-25). Though we don’t see much of that today, it was certainly present in times of revival through church history
. ‘But if I stop making people laugh, people will stop coming to church.’ Yes, some will stop. But what is more important, having more people in our churches, or doing more good? Here is wise Solomon’s answer:
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity (Eccl. 7:2-6).
The Preacher’s World
Fifth, there is the preacher’s world. On the one hand we are living in a world full of suffering, sorrow and pain. Is comedy appropriate when there are deeply wounded and hurting souls in our congregation? On the other hand, we are living in a world full of vanity, frivolity, and superficiality. Is more comedy really what’s needed to make people think more deeply and carefully? James says the way to truly heal and help people is to aim at conviction and repentance:
Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up (James 4:8-10).
Paul also says that in the light of sin, inappropriate foolish talking and jesting should be replaced with giving of thanks (Eph. 5:3-4).
The preacher, Conrad Murrell, used to lace his sermons with comedy. However, God convicted him that in the light of the world we live in, it was completely out of place. He writes:
Evil is upon us. We are under sentence of death. Our children are being lost to drugs, immorality, drunkenness, despair, lawlessness and suicide. Our parents grow older and are slipping into hell. Our brothers and sisters carelessly let their lives slip by oblivious to their eternal destruction. Churches decay. False prophets deceive the people. Lies prevail. Truth is trodden under foot. The saints cry for bread. Add to this all the physical suffering, torment, starvation, political and social oppression in this world. What is funny? Where is the humour in all this reality? Is there anything any more incongruous than dying humanity hee-hawing itself to hell? How much laughter do you hear in a funeral parlor where a child lies after being run down by a drunk driver? How many comedians perform on death row in a prison house? If the world may laugh while it goes to hell, certainly Christians may not. They may be blind, but we are not. Distress may drive a fool to jesting, but it drives a Christian to his knees.2
John Angell James wrote a book arguing for a more ‘earnest’ ministry. He holds up a high standard:
It is hard to conceive how earnestness and spirituality can be maintained by those whose tables are covered, and whose leisure time is consumed, by the bewitching inspirations of the god of laughter. There is little hope of our arresting the evil except we make it our great business to raise up a ministry who shall not themselves be carried away with the torrent; who shall be grave, without being gloomy; serious, without being melancholy; and who, on the other hand, shall be cheerful without being frivolous, and whose chastened mirthfulness shall check, or at any rate reprove, the excesses of their companions. What a demand does this state of things prefer for the most intense earnestness in our Sabbath day exercises, both our prayers and our sermons! In this modern taste we have a new obstacle to our usefulness of a most formidable kind, which can be subdued only by God’s blessing upon our fidelity and zeal.3
It might also help us to remember suffering parts of the body of Christ. I spent some time with the church in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The Hungarian and Romanian churches were just emerging from decades of persecution. I don’t recall one joke in any of these sober gatherings. Though our part of Christ’s body presently enjoys times of unprecedented prosperity and comfort, let’s remember that other parts of the same body, North Korean parts, Chinese parts, Sudanese parts are being attacked, wounded, tortured, and even ‘amputated.’
The Preacher’s Bible
My sixth argument against comedy in preaching is the preacher’s Bible. The Bible never uses ‘laughter’ in the sense of comedy. Yes, there is some irony, satire, ridicule, and derision. There are a few word-plays and puns. But, of the 33 times ‘laugh’ and ‘laughter’ occur in the Old Testament, they are used in a good and positive sense only four times, and then to describe joy rather than laughter. The other 29 times usually speak of scorn or unbelieving derision. They are never used to describe anything funny. In the New Testament we find ‘laugh’ and ‘laughter’ only five times, only one of which is in a positive sense (Luke 6:2). Three of these times, the laughter is in scorning Christ. The nearest we find to ‘joke, fun, funny, humour or amuse’ in the Bible is ‘foolish talking, jesting, fool, foolishness, merry or merriment.’ Only the last two of these are ever used in any good and positive sense, and that is in reference to joy and rejoicing in the blessings of the Lord.
The Preacher’s God
Seventh, and last, think about the preacher’s God. The third commandment requires that we use anything associated with God carefully and reverently. The Westminster Larger Catechism puts it like this:
The third commandment requires, That the name of God, his titles, attributes, ordinances, the Word, sacraments, prayer, oaths, vows, lots, his works, and whatsoever else there is whereby he makes himself known, be holily and reverently used in thought, meditation, word, and writing . . .4
And no wonder! Consider the reactions of Job, Isaiah, and Daniel when they came ‘face-to-face’ with God (Job 42:5-6, Isa. 6:5, Dan. 10:17). And even Christ’s most intimate friend almost died when he met the glorified Christ on Patmos (Rev. 1:17).
Perhaps none of these arguments taken apart are convincing. But taken together the cumulative effect surely persuades us to more serious preaching in our comedy culture.
Arguments for Comedy
However, let me now briefly deal with certain arguments that have been made for using comedy in preaching.
‘I’m a funny person’
The first is, ‘I’m a funny person, so it would be unnatural for me to be serious.’ As Stuart Briscoe put it, ‘. . . if Philips Brooks’s definition of preaching is right – that preaching is truth communicated through personality – then I need to communicate through humour, because I enjoy humour.’5 In the introduction to some of his earlier sermons Charles Spurgeon wrote:
There are also many expressions which may provoke a smile: but let it be remembered that every man has his moments when his lighter feelings indulge themselves, and the preacher must be allowed to have the same passions as his fellow-men; and since he lives in the pulpit more than anywhere else, it is but natural that his whole man should be there developed; besides, he is not quite sure about a smile being a sin, and, at any rate, he thinks it less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour’s profound slumber.6
I am all for being natural in the pulpit. However, there are certain elements of our nature that we have to control when we are representing Christ. One of the repeated qualifications for an elder is to be ‘sober.’ That means to be ‘self-controlled,’ to be able to restrain and curb some elements of our nature, character and personality. In the light of the seven reasons for seriousness, I would suggest that the natural ability to make people laugh is something we should leave at the bottom of the pulpit steps. Would we crack jokes in the Oval Office?
‘But it works!’
Second, ‘But it works!’ The pragmatic argument takes different forms: ‘It captures attention . . . overcomes defences . . . drives truth home . . . matches our culture . . . releases stress, etc.’ Here is an example:
Humour also allows the mental equivalent of a seventh-inning stretch in a sermon. People’s minds need a break now and then, and humour can supply it in a way that enhances the sermon. After momentary laughter, people are ready for more content. Or when something disturbs the sermon – such as a loud sneeze – a good-humoured retort can bring attention back to the preacher.7
If this were a secular speech we were talking about, I would have no problems with these arguments, because I agree with them. Humour is a powerful tool in the hands of the public speaker. But just because something works in secular speech, does not mean that we should adopt it in ‘sacred speech.’ Paul deliberately turned his back on the rhetorical devices of his own day to ensure that people’s faith stood in the power of God and not in the wisdom of men’s words.
Because rhetoricians, statesmen, politicians, salesmen, and preachers have known for centuries that humour can be, and is, a devastatingly effective speech weapon, some men have wrongly and tragically elevated humour to the first place of importance among homiletical devices. It is important that preachers refrain from playing the role of court clown and that they live the role for which they have been divinely commissioned – the role of prophet for the King of Kings.8
Anyway, if it was really so effective in driving God’s truth into the heart, why are there no commands or examples in the Bible. And do we really want to match our decadent culture’s dominant speech form? Is this not an area where the church should be counter-cultural? Moreover, what does comedy work? It certainly works popularity. But does it work conversions and holy lives? Is laughter the best medicine? Or should we do better to follow Solomon’s advice: ‘By the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.’
‘I’m following biblical examples’
The third argument I’ve heard in favour of comedy in preaching is, ‘I am following biblical examples.’ Yes, you heard that right. I’ve even heard a well-known preacher go through the Bible picking out all the ‘funny bits’ to prove that we should use comedy in preaching. However, there is a world of difference between a preacher with a gift of stand-up comedy making the Bible funny, and the Bible actually being funny.
Some point to the prophets ‘making fun’ of the idols (1 Kings 18:27, Isa. 44:15). However, this was scathing, biting, denunciatory satire. I can’t see many people laughing on Mount Carmel. Ecclesiastes is similar. It presents life’s painful ironies, vanities and absurdities, but not in a way that would provoke hilarity. God’s ‘laugh’ of Psalm 2 is a laugh of angry derision, not amusing comedy. Did Jesus use puns and word-plays? Yes. Did they make people laugh? I somehow doubt it. Wry smile, maybe. But not ‘rolling in the aisles’ laughter.
‘I can draw the line’
Fourth, even those who use humour recognize that there are limits that should be observed. And so, they argue, ‘I can draw the line in the right place.’ Spurgeon, as we have seen, defended his use of humour, but he later distinguished between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and general levity, which is a vice.9 Others have also tried to walk the tightrope, or draw the line:
If humour has little or no relevance to what is being said; if, so to speak, it is dragged in by the feet merely to provoke laughter – it is an interruption, a diversion, and an impertinence.10
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 humour, though not levity.11
In a more contemporary work, John Piper rejected any notion of humour in the pulpit contending that laughter promotes an atmosphere that hinders revival.12
This has been a plea to my fellow-preachers of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have learned much from you, and continue to do so. I hope that you may also be willing to learn a little from these reflections. I know that I too have absorbed some of the spirit of the age in my own character and preaching, and hope that you will lovingly help me to better reflect our Lord and Master.
But I also make a plea to listeners. Encourage your pastor to preach more seriously. Tell him that you don’t need the jokes; that they often spoil the effect of what he’s said. Tell him that your children tend to go home talking about his jokes rather than about Christ. Support your pastor if he is being pressurized to ‘lighten up a bit.’
Let me conclude with this appeal of Archibald Brown, a greatly blessed minister of the Gospel, who studied under Charles Spurgeon:
The devil has seldom done a more clever thing, than hinting to the Church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out the gospel, the Church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses!
. . . In vain will the epistles be searched to find any trace of the ‘gospel of amusement.’ Their message is, ‘Therefore, come out from them and separate yourselves from them . . . Don’t touch their filthy things . . .’ Anything approaching amusement is conspicuous by its absence. They had boundless confidence in the gospel and employed no other weapon.
. . . The need of the hour for today’s ministry is earnest spirituality joined with Biblical doctrine, so understood and felt, that it sets men on fire.13