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 is a plea for serious preaching in this 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 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 model 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.”
– David P. Murray