Have you heard the joke about the stuttering Bible salesman? (The punchline: He sells so many by asking his clients, “Do you want to buy a Bible, or should I read it to you?”)
I have—and it is cringe-worthy. One time, I even heard a preacher tell the joke to open his message. Though there was laughter, there was also an audible gasp as some were surprised by the insensitive joke. In an attempt to connect with his audience through humor, he had unintentionally disaffected some of his listeners.
Comedy can help you become a more engaging communicator. But it can also act as an impediment to getting your message across. If you’re interested in incorporating humor to engage your audience and to deliver your message, though, try these tips:
1. Use practiced humor. A well written joke is a piece of art. The painter paints a definitive stroke or the musician plays a specific note. In that same way, humor should be written and practiced before speaking to a congregation. I have heard improvisational funny asides that had stilted delivery, were unintentionally offensive, or just not amusing. Sure, your audience may laugh—but they may just be accustomed to giving to the needy because they are in church. I manuscript any humor I use in a message. Because humor brings the potential to offend, I want to be able to know exactly what I said.
2. Know your audience. A keen sense of audience awareness can help you to make the most of humor in your message. I frequently travel to speak, and before I will tell a joke, I vet it with the pastor. He knows his people.
For example, I have a joke dealing with my mother’s death that I tell to point out a theological error about heaven. It is funny—but there may be someone in the audience who is struggling with a recent or impending death. My goal as a minister is to communicate the Gospel in a captivating way, not to hurt someone. I have material I can do in a club, but not a church, and that is fine because the audience’s expectations of each venue are different. I am not looking for a sermon at a comedy club, and the congregation isn’t looking for a 30-minute comedy set from their pastor.
3. Unite your audience. In our nation’s current divisive climate, we need humor which accentuates our similarities rather than pointing out our differences. Making fun of an ethnic group, a religion, a political party, or a movement will further divide your audience. It is dangerous to assume that your audience agrees with your views on politics and public figures.
4. Be yourself, but…y’know…the funny version. It often takes comedians years to find their unique voice. The same is true of preachers: In twenty years, your preaching will not sound like it does now. Using humor in communication is more than just finding a funny joke; it is finding something that matches your voice and worldview. Just because something is funny does not mean your voice can communicate the humor.
Recently, I wrote a joke that worked well, but relied on an angry point of view that did not match my own comedic voice. I tried multiple times to tell it with varied results, but none overwhelmingly positive. I finally had to conclude that my comedic voice was that of the absurdist rather than the angry, frustrated man. Though the joke was funny, people didn’t laugh because it was not my authentic voice.
What makes you laugh? Start there.
5. Be intentional about placement. Where you use humor in a message matters. I have undermined the main point of a message or ruined the response to it because of misplaced and ill-timed humor. Typically, I aim to be very funny in my introduction, and then not use humor at all in my last point. At the beginning of the message, humor acts as a hook for audience engagement. In the middle of the message, it acts as a way to reengage the listener or to give a mental break from heavier content. (Do you think people who work with the Pope ever fake sneeze?) At the end of the message, though, humor can distract the hearer from responding with their full attention.
As preachers, we should not be afraid to use humor—but we should be cautious. It can be a great communication tool to capture your audience’s attention and drive home a Gospel message, or a weapon which will alienate your congregation.
Garland Owensby is Professor of Youth and Student Ministries at Southwestern Assemblies of God University. He earned a Doctor of Educational Ministries degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, TX. Owensby is active in evangelistic and teaching ministry speaking in churches, youth groups, public school assemblies, youth camps and conventions across the nation. He also travels doing stand-up comedy and has performed at The Improv, Hyenas and heard on Sirius/XM Laugh USA, Pandora, and Spotify.