Humor is a powerful tool for communication and relationship building. A good sense of humor is an essential element of mental, and even physical, health. Most people like to laugh, they like being around others who laugh, and they are drawn to those who make them laugh. Laughter is good medicine. But as with all medicine, overdoses can be deadly.
I love to laugh and there are few things more satisfying to me than being able to make others laugh. I have nothing against “funny.” However, I have noted a growing trend in worship settings that troubles me. Three quick stories.
Last fall I attended a fairly well-known church that is growing at an incredible rate. It prides itself on its contemporary worship, and it offers wonderful music, and a bright, open setting with state-of-the-art technology. The congregation buzzes with energy and excitement. What struck me as a bit bizarre was “the morning musing” — this congregation’s contemporary equivalent of “the sermon.” Auditorium lights dimmed, and a single spotlight shone on a stool with a wireless microphone sitting on it. The pastor ran down the aisle, took a swig from a bottle of water, scooped up the microphone and launched into a hysterically funny stand-up comedy routine on “you might be a Christian if…,” riffing Jeff Foxworthy’s similar “redneck” rant. There is no denying that it was funny. There is no denying that the crowd loved it. There is no denying that people are coming from all over to hear such routines. There is a question, however, of how it fits into Christian worship. Lots was said about “Christians,” but nothing about God, Jesus the Christ, or the Holy Spirit.
Another church, another city, another denomination, at another time — in place of a standard reading of scripture, a young woman stepped forward in heavy make-up and costume holding a cell phone. The morning scripture was the story of the prodigal son from Luke. However, the twist here was a stereotypic Jewish mother complaining to her best friend on the phone about her two daughters — “miss loosey-goosey, and her older sister with the stick so far up her back we rent her out as a scarecrow…” The performance was spot-on (though somewhat less than politically correct) and she finished her seven-minute bit to thundrous applause. The service was running long, and a special musical piece was prepared, so the decision was made to drop the morning message/sermon.
A few years ago, I attended a popular United Methodist church with a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings participating in a research project I was conducting. In place of a morning message/sermon, the pastor did a “talk to the audience” segment ala Letterman or Leno. He asked a series of humorous questions, some slightly risqué, and engaged in very clever, very witty banter. The theme was “what makes you happy.” It was a warm, friendly, feel-good experience. As we walked to our cars, one of the younger members of my group threw her hands up in the air asking, “What did THAT have to do with God?”
There has always been a debate about the place of humor in religion and religious observance. Robert Darden’s recent book, Jesus Laughed–The Redemptive Power of Humor, explores the historical-theological journey of humor in religion — pointing out that laughter, humor, fun, and silliness have traditionally fought an uphill battle when it comes to religion. Christians, it seems, can’t take a joke. The lack of an ecclesial sense of humor has made Christianity the target of numerous jokes and some scathing caricature — if not downright attack (check out Bill Maher’s, Religulous). Somewhere between “none” and “too much,” there must be a ‘happy’ middle ground.
One of the strongest memories I have of my first appointment to a church in New Jersey was a meeting I had with a “concerned” parishoner. This woman came assuring me that she had no agenda other than my welfare. I captured what she said at the time in my journal, but I still remember it as if it happened yesterday. She said, “No one takes you seriously, because you smile too much. People don’t think you know what you’re talking about because you tell stories and laugh. We need a minister who understands what we’re up against — you’re here to ease pain and give people hope, not to make people laugh. I think you send the wrong message when you’re happy all the time.” I remember thinking — and still do — that this is a dismal and pathetic view, but one that is actually not that uncommon.
Humor is rarely an adequate end in itself — at least in the church. Humor that illustrates and illuminates can help make important lessons memorable. But humor is much more art than science, and there is a fine line between humor that edifies and strengthens, and that which overwhelms and obscures. Well delivered humor that invites deep, cleansing laughter is an entry point into the spiritual fruit of joy. Helping people rejoice and be glad is a good thing, but the ground from which joy grows cannot be ignored.
I close with four cautionary quotes — opinions I have gathered from preachers who rely heavily on humor to preach and teach. In each case, I believe there is a potential problem — a fundamental flaw in the reasoning that deforms preaching into something else — something less.
I use laughter as a measure of how well I am communicating. If I can get the congregation laughing, and leave them laughing when I sit down, then I know I have delivered a good sermon.
I work harder on my jokes and funny stories than I do on any other part of my message. I have files of old cartoons, stories, jokes, and comic strips that I pore over every week. I find that when I am most entertaining, I hold people’s attention, and they hear more of what I have to say.
My goal is to make sure that whenever people come to church, they leave saying, “That was fun!” If church is fun, people will come. If it’s boring, they won’t.
Face it. The material we have to work with is pretty dry — its old, and formal, and outdated. It’s our job to spice it up — to make it more interesting, and wherever we can, to make it fun and funny. Just because there aren’t many laughs in the Bible doesn’t mean we can’t laugh a lot in the church.
So, what is the place of humor in our faith and worship? (Yes, I know these are two different questions…) How much humor is appropriate, and when have we gone too far? How can we use humor to build upon the foundation of our faith in ways that make it stronger, rather than compromise our integrity? Let me know what you think.