The danger of being funny in the pulpit.

If there could be one word that summarizes the culture in which we live, that word would be “superficial.” We live in a juvenile, adolescent, immature, superficial society. People live for escapism and entertainment. They spend countless billions each year to experience larger-than-life sensations at amusement parks and movie theaters to avoid having to think about more profound issues like moral accountability and the inevitability of death.

To make matters worse, this is the same superficial culture that has branded its mark deep upon the pews of the church. 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 crave having their ears tickled by the world. Though they have been saved on the inside they still long for superficiality on the outside.

Immaturity doesn’t transform its taste buds overnight. Developing a hunger for biblical preaching in some ways 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 God’s Word. They must be, in a word, trained to grasp the seriousness of Scripture.

The problem is many preachers have turned into comedians. A growing number of churches have replaced their pulpits with a stage. Though many pastors know full well that the Bible is not a laughing matter, they still are constantly tempted to accommodate their messages to fit their congregations 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 habit to shake. A growing number can’t seem to resist the ongoing temptation of providing holy humor to their congregations. Unfortunately the badge of clerical comedy has become their trade-mark.

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. Seriousness defines the Scriptures. From the account of creation to the vision of the Apocalypse, the Bible is quintessentially a serious story.

There is nothing inherently funny about sin, salvation, or sanctification. There is nothing humorous about the price involved in overcoming darkness with light and triumphing 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 in the Old Testament is said to have laughed (Ps. 2:4; 59:8), but never as an expression of joy or 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 is not a 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 creates 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 being too funny in the pulpit.

1. Humor can demean the dignity of the pastor.

One of the most important characteristics of both an elder and deacon in the church 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 men. The reason that is so vital is because pastors can inadvertently demean the dignity of their role in the church in one fell swoop for the price of a joke. 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.

2. Humor can trivialize the meaning of the message.

A silly story or comedic comment becomes counter-productive when it diverts the audience’s attention away from the 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. The humor (if used at all) should match the tone of the text. (A judgment text, for example, should be preached in such a way that the tone reflects the warning of the passage.) Though it is true that sometimes a congregation needs a moment to “come up for air” so as to allow the impact to settle in, the way in which that is done must complement the tone of the text.

3. 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 regular services met on Sunday mornings. The sobriety of the moment had convinced him that it was time for him to be once again under the regular teaching of God’s Word. But ironically, in the same breath, he added that he also wanted to find a church where the pastor was as funny as his previous pastor had been. In a matter of minutes, a serious message about the finality of life had been superseded by the desire for a witty preacher.

Pastors who feed their sheep a steady diet of comedic junk food only exacerbate that kind of superficiality.

A story was once told by the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard about a clown that summarized this danger most succinctly. 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 is not to 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 seen as a clowns crying “fire!” to the applause of our audience.