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Humor in the pulpit


I find myself often painting a picture of gloom and doom as I editorialize on some of the religious, social, and political issues of our day.

It is not pleasant. In fact, it’s often painful to write about our declining and plateaued churches, the plummeting baptismal rates in the Southern Baptist Convention, the rising tide of anti-denominationalism, the socialist agenda being foisted upon our nation, the tragedy being wrought by activists judges, the devaluation of life as our personhood is under assault, the dismantling of the sanctity of marriage as we begin to slouch toward Sodom, and a variety of other things.

So, in this editorial I would like to do something rather out of the ordinary and address the value of humor. Josh Billings once said, “There ain’t much fun in medicine, but there’s a h_ _k of a lot of medicine in fun.”

The Bible says the same thing and with more decorum and propriety in Proverbs 17:22: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Henry Ward Beecher added, “Mirth is God’s medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it.”

I think many of us take ourselves far too seriously. I have always loved evangelist Junior Hill not only because of his godly character, but also because of his self-deprecating humor. He has deliberately set himself up as the brunt of his own jokes and in doing so he has won the appreciation of many.

It was said of Charles Spurgeon that he glided from laughter to prayer with the naturalness of one who lived in both elements.

Spurgeon’s friends and even casual acquaintances remarked on his hearty laughter. His humor also found expression in his sermons and writings, for which he was sometimes criticized. Spurgeon responded that if his critics only knew how much humor he suppressed they would keep silent.

Neil Wyrick, writing for Preaching Magazine, comments, “It is not necessary, on a Sunday morning, to become a comedian for Christ. Yet neither is there a scriptural reference that claims, ‘blessed are the bored.’ No less a preacher than Spurgeon spoke of the mistake of thinking that virtue lays in gravity and that smiles are a symptom of depravity. Humor can grab attention that might otherwise be drifting away.”

For example, in a sermon I have occasionally illustrated our failure to face up to our sins by telling a true humorous story from my experience as president of the Georgia Baptist Convention. I was presiding over our annual meeting in Macon in 1999 when we were in a heated discussion about two churches in our convention that were seemingly endorsing a homosexual lifestyle.

It was an extremely stressful moment and the convention had increased security to prevent or minimize any possible demonstrations that some had anticipated. In the midst of all that tension I was told that an alarm had sounded in another part of the coliseum and that the law enforcement authorities had been called and the convention proceedings could potentially be suspended.

I immediately looked for my wife, who had been sitting with our four-year-old grandson and noticed they were not in their place. That concerned me, because I wanted to be able to keep an eye on them.

It was said of Charles Spurgeon that he glided from laughter to prayer with the naturalness of one who lived in both elements.

The afternoon session was not suspended and we finished our business and adjourned the meeting at the appropriate time. We had supper in the Green Room of the Convention Center, had the evening session, and went to Tabernacle Baptist Church downtown to the reception for the new president. Martha Jean and I got to our hotel very late that night.

It was the first time we had a chance to really talk privately that day. I asked her how her day had gone and she said, “You won’t believe what happened today. I left the afternoon session in the heat of the discussion about the homosexual issue to take (our grandson) Harris to the restroom. The corridors were empty, because everyone wanted to be in that business discussion. As we walked down the hall Harris saw a fire alarm that he could reach and before I could get to him, he pulled the fire alarm.”

Harris was the loveable culprit who nearly caused that afternoon session to be suspended by his mischievous deed. I asked Martha Jean, “What did you do when that happened?”

She said, “We ran.”

The humorous story captures the attention of the congregation and illustrates that we must not run from our misdeeds, but face them and deal with them redemptively.

Obviously, humor injected at certain points in a sermon can serve the preacher’s purpose exceedingly well when used with spiritual discernment, but pastors need to be careful about using the pulpit as the place for a comedy routine.

In fact, the pulpit should be a place for both laughter and weeping. To have one without the other would foster an imbalanced preaching ministry. It has been said that the problem in our day is that we have a dry-eyed church in a hell-bent world.

I once heard that George W. Truett was an amazingly effective pulpiteer, because he preached with a tear in his voice. His voice of pathos and feeling would make his congregation weep and never be ashamed of it.

In Acts 20:31 the Apostle Paul said to the Ephesian Christians, “I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.”

Of course, a preacher must not weep and cry in the pulpit unless God Himself moves him to do so. George Whitefield was often moved to tears when he preached. But he preached with tears only because he was moved to do so by God. Speaking of those who tried to copy Whitefield, and cry whenever they preached, D. Lloyd-Jones said, “Of course, a man who tries to produce an effect (by weeping in the pulpit) becomes an actor, and is an abominable imposter.”

Most of our weeping and praying should be done in private, or sometimes in the services before the preaching. However, it is unlikely that there can be no real revival and very few real individual conversions, unless people are brought to tears over their sinful condition.

I believe there is a place for both laughter and weeping in the church.