Did you hear the one about the preacher who wanted to be funny? James Cary looks at the downsides of starting sermons with jokes.
A basic rule of preaching seems to be that no matter how long your sermon is, you’re allowed to take up a minute or two at the start telling a joke.
Sometimes it’s an anecdote snipped from a local newspaper, or a personal story about a humorous calamity. Maybe it’s a holiday disaster, or a funeral that went hilariously wrong. Ideally, that joke should, in some way be linked to the text or topic of the sermon. But the overall intention of that comic introduction is to do one thing: get a laugh.
This is a problem.
Why? Am I just being too hard on jokes? I’m a professional comedy writer and have been since, well, I failed to get any other job. Normally in a church context, aversity to jokes isn’t associated with professional pride or comedy snobbery. It’s normally down to an over-inflated sense of holiness. Being down on jokes in church makes one sound like Jorge, from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.He was a monk who (NB: spoilers) was prepared to murder and set fire to a whole precious library in order to suppress laughter, given that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christ laughed.
Jorge may be misguided, but his point cannot be denied. In the gospels we see Christ being angry, hostile, sad and enigmatic. But laughing? No. Is it that comedy has no place in the pulpit? Is it un-Christlike to tell jokes?
By no means! True, there is no ‘Jesus laughed’ verse, there are many verses in which Jesus says things which can only really be described as jokes. The most obvious examples would be his use of hyperbole with specks and planks in the eye, and swallowing camels. This is undoubtedly intentionally comic.
The Comedy of Jesus
From there, is not much of a leap to imagine Jesus impersonating the Pharisees who twist their faces with hunger in their public show of fasting. One can also imagine gasps and sniggers as Jesus called his powerful haters ‘vipers’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’.
Was Jesus a comedian? Perhaps, in the sense that he didn’t laugh at his own jokes. That’s bad form. But no, Jesus wasn’t a comedian. But he used comedy. And he was funny. His very incarnation as the God-Man is inherently comic, for reasons I go into in my forthcoming book and hint at here. But to present Jesus as a comedian would be going too far.
Even so, the pulpit should not be a laughter-free zone. So what’s the problem with starting sermons with jokes? After all, if you want to reach your audience, you have to show you have a sense of humour, right? We Brits think it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. Comedy is now a common currency on television, radio and even the realm of politics. Boris Johnson, for example, has side-stepped numerous political storms thanks to well-turned comic turns of phrase. And a willingness to look like an ass.
Comedy is regularly used in teaching, to make it more fun and memorable. My children now know an awful lot about history because it’s presented in comic form in Horrible Histories books and TV shows. Comedy is the lingua franca.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the sermon is a culturally very odd phenomenon. When does one listen to one person speaking uninterrupted for 15-30 minutes? For most people, the only other time they would do that would be watching a stand-up comedy set, either live or on TV. Isn’t it helpful to nod towards that in sermon, making it more palatable for the average Joe in the pew?
Given that comedy is everywhere, it should be no surprise then, that lots of people don’t enjoy speaking in public, including gifted preachers. It’s because they feel that they have to be funny. That’s what the people want, and that’s what they mostly get from the culture. The pressure is on. (This is why there is a secret speechwriting industry.)
Getting a Laugh
The desire to start a sermon with a joke and get a laugh, then, is entirely understandable. But it is misplaced. A congregation who spend their whole week listening to secular radio and watching secular television are hungry for God’s word. Surely, every second of the sermon should be trying to give them just that? Why waste time on indulging in jokes?
Many preachers long to preach for more than their allotted time, bemoaning the attention span of the average Christian. What preacher doesn’t long to share the riches of the scriptures with the assembled faithful for longer? So why do the same people cheerfully give away a couple of minutes of their limited time for a bit of Songs-of-Praise-meets-Live At The Apollo? Is this time well spent?
In a few cases, it might be. A joke at the start of the sermon may be entirely pertinent to the sermon, and lines up exactly with the main point being made. But. Any preacher with their hand on their heart will know that is rarely the case. They might find themselves telling a joke about a disastrous wedding, and then say ‘Well, the wedding in our passage in John 2 went wrong, but in a very different way.’ The gulf between the anecdote and the passage of scripture has been made, and mostly people didn’t spot the join, or even see the need for one. But we should be able to do better than that.
The desire to use comedy in a sermon is not a bad one. All techniques and forms of rhetoric should be employed in the preaching of the Word, as the text or the topic demands. The preacher should use humour as well as changes of pace and pitch, dramatic pauses, emotional appeals and stark warnings. Some of these techniques fit better with different personality types. A naturally serious preacher probably will not tell jokes well, but used sparingly and carefully jokes can be very surprising and effective. Likewise, a naturally comic speaker can make good use of silence and seriousness as a counterpoint.
Never Preach Like Your Heroes
When preachers aspire to preach like their heroes, they are in danger of becoming clones of that hero. Perhaps it might not seem so bad to have 500 cloned Spurgeons or Whitefields, or even a dozen Evangelical Frank Skinners. But preachers are to preach using the gifts and abilities they have been given, not to seek to ape the gifts of others. Moreover, every preacher has been placed in a specific pastoral situation. There’s no point trying to preach like much-renowned Manhattan church planter, Tim Keller, in a rural Devon parish or the Highlands of Scotland. In fact, it would be wrong to do so. This would be either misusing your gifts or disrespecting your congregation by speaking in a language that’s broadly alien to them – for your own satisfaction.
Telling jokes is a little bit like importing someone else’s rhetorical style. A joke works for the comedian who wrote it, and for his or her audience in a secular setting on a Saturday night, but it is likely to be inappropriate when copied, pasted and then retold in church on a Sunday morning in a sermon about the Wedding at Cana. It’s not that it’s not funny. Lots of jokes are funny in many contexts. It’s that it’s inauthentic. It’s fake. The preacher is not giving of themselves and their gifts in pointing their congregation in their care towards Jesus Christ. The preacher is telling a joke. Why?
Why not? Maybe the odd joke here or there is fine, but here’s what happens when you do it a lot. If one consistently imports comedy one will eventually persuade the congregation that God’s word is not surprising, vibrant and comic, when it is all of those things. The Bible is not a dull book that needs to be jazzed up with some jokes.
Why tell a passable wedding joke you found on the internet when the story in John 2 is already inherently comic? Because John 2 probably won’t seem so in your Sunday service. This is for a variety of reasons. One is that your congregation might be very familiar with the story, and therefore any kind of comic surprise evaporated years ago. The bizarre events of that wedding could be re-presented much more humorously if the passage is read aloud with feeling and empathy.
The Public Reading of Scripture
The chances are, however, the lesson was read at best mechanically or audibly by someone with no desire, training or encouragement to do the task well. Reading from the lectern is often seen as a way of ‘involving people in the service’. You wouldn’t let anyone lead the music on this basis. It seems odd to allow God’s word to be treated in this way.
Bear in mind that scripture is a script. For most people in history, scripture was not something they absorbed in private study, but was read aloud, even on one’s own. The Bible doesn’t need rewriting to be dramatised. It is already dramatic, as well as inspired by God. Beat that. Scripture just needs reading properly. This takes time, preparation and effort. But reading scripture aloud well will often surprise a congregation. What always strikes people when this happens is how funny the Bible is.
Meanwhile, In Cana
Read the wedding story in John Chapter 2 with fresh eyes. Jesus’s mother drags him into this embarrassing situation. He says that his time has not yet come. Mary completely ignores this and tells the servants to do whatever he says. Thanks, mum. They fill the jars with water as instructed even though they must have thought Jesus was mad. Only in recent times has water been fit for human consumption. And since when did water just become wine? That’s not how it works. And to make matters worse, some poor fellow has to take some of this water to the master of the banquet. In a cup. To drink. He would be cringing as it is tasted. At best, he will have the water spat into his face. Why is Jesus asking him to do this? It’s insane, surely? Imagine the sigh of relief and euphoria when it is revealed that the water has become wine.
Why not talk about this in a sermon, rather than scrabbling around for jokes written by someone else about weddings that look nothing like the one in John 2? Even stories about your own wedding, or weddings you’ve attended, are of limited value. Why not marvel at the true events of the wedding in Cana, which point to the great wedding feast of Christ and his bride, the church?
If we take the text of the Bible seriously, we will find all kinds of humourous, incongruous and bizarre moments. Expectations are confounded. Down is up. Black is white. The blind are given their sight and forced to explain themselves to the spiritually blind religious people. Jesus proves his power over death by calling Lazarus from the tomb, and the priests and scribes decide it would be best to kill him. Why replace all this with a joke about a life-long golfer at the pearly gates or what happens when three men walk into bar? The Bible contains stories about the Supreme Being walking into a world. Why not start with that one?
James Cary is writing a book about comedy and religion for SPCK, which will be available from January 2019. Join the mailing list (right) for further information.
You can listen to James talk to Barry Cooper on the Cooper and Cary Have Words podcast.
You can also listen to James talk to comedy legends like Paul Merton, Graham Linehan, John Finnemore and Barry Cryer on the Sitcom Geeks podcast.