A little boy announced to his parents that he had decided to become a minister when he grew up. Thrilled, the parents asked him how he arrived at the decision. “Well,” the little ministerial candidate responded, “I’ll have to go to church on Sunday anyway, so I thought I might as well be included in the service.”
If your church members are watching Saturday Night Live, they won’t settle for “Sunday Morning Dull.” Humor is a great way to include your congregation in the service.
Though pastors should never feel as if they are competing with Jay Leno and David Letterman, they are wise to learn how to intersperse humor in their sermon and teaching situations. The effective use of humor is just as important as its selective use.
Jesus talked about seasoning your speech with salt. Could it be that the one who mentioned camels going through needles and compared religious hypocrites to painted walls was recommending a smattering of light application along with the heavy principles of timeless truth?
Joel Goodman said, “Humor is a delightful and powerful way to open doors, minds and hearts.” I have seen a well-placed story almost instantly seal the truth I had been struggling to communicate. Through the years my preaching, teaching and writing endeavors have always included humor. I believe it’s a wonderful way to:
• Gain attention
• Put people at ease
• Hold interest
“Three points and a poem” may sail over the heads of the audience like a paper airplane made from a bulletin—but often a humorous story, linked to scriptural truth, will make its way to the heart of the listener and long be remembered.
THE LAWS OF HOLY LAUGHTER
Granville N. Toogood in his book, The Articulate Executive (McGraw-Hill), illustrates how effective humor can be in communicating or controlling a situation. He tells of a time when former Secretary of State Alexander Haig was speaking at the United Nations, when some South American nationalists began to heckle him from the first row of the balcony:
“Without missing a beat, Haig stopped his speech just long enough to say that he was unable to hear what the men were trying to say, but ‘if you would just step forward a few feet I’m sure I could hear you a lot better.’ The audience laughed, and the hecklers sat down and stopped heckling.”
Toogood says there are three important rules for using humor:
1. Tell the story as if it were true.
2. Tell the story to make a point.
3. Tell the story correctly.
Let me suggest several other important “humor laws” that can be applied to your presentation.
Law One: Use humor carefully. A humorous story told just for the sake of hearing laughter is empty and, perhaps, vain. Humor must have an ultimate purpose. A well-rehearsed, well-considered joke or story must be a bridge that links truth. The common expression applies here: “What’s your point?” Ask yourself some important questions:
• To whom am I speaking?
• What is the most positive way to say it?
• What is the most interesting way to say it?
Law Two: Use humor sensitively. A friend of mine was sitting on the platform waiting to preach to a large camp meeting audience. He took advantage of the pre-service time to glance at his sermon notes one last time.
Looking up from his notes to view the gathering crowd, he spotted an amputee with a hand prosthesis—metal clamps. Just as he noticed the amputee, he glanced again at his notes to discover that his opening “cute story” was about a man who looked like a pirate who had answered an ad for a sea captain. You guessed it! The applicant in the story had a hooked hand.
The story had to be abandoned immediately. But in the process, my friend began to think about similar stories that may cause discomfort to someone at the expense of a fast laugh.
Law Three: Use humor skillfully. A forgotten punch line, a failure to include pertinent story details or a failure to speak distinctly can result in a “pregnant pause” that “gives birth” to an embarrassing moment of silence. Humor has several integral elements. Humor must:
• Be relevant. The audience must understand the topic.
• Have an obvious punch line.
• Be well timed.
• Be concise.
• Have a “payoff.”
The story is told of a man who bought his first boat. It was shiny, new, powerful and expensive. He couldn’t wait to launch it and show it off to his friends. But no matter how hard he tried, the boat just wouldn’t respond. It was sluggish. It wouldn’t plane. He just couldn’t maneuver it. He began to look around the boat and to check everything topside. Everything seemed to be working.
Seeing his plight, the mechanic from a nearby marina motored out to him. Soon the mechanic was in the water checking underneath the boat, trying to find the problem. Immediately he surfaced and said to the new boat owner: “I think I’ve spotted the problem. We recommend you take the boat off the trailer before you put it in the water!”
Don’t forget the details. They will make all the difference in the world to your presentation.
Law Four: Use humor occasionally. A steady line of stories, one-liners or jokes shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a careful teaching and preaching of biblical principles. They should be used occasionally. The speaker who tries to compete with the Comedy Channel will find himself subject to the mental “remote button” of the audience.
Parishioners don’t come to church for a comedy routine. They come to be refreshed and reformed through an encounter with the living Word of God. Again, Toogood writes: “Humor can be a useful weapon…but try to avoid coming across as a comedian. Often humor is seen as sarcasm or insensitivity and can backfire.”
Law Five: Use humor effectively. The speaker should study the experts. What is conspicuous about their delivery? Timing? Eye contact? Material? Reaction to “bombs”? Learn from the pros. But learn without obviously copying their mannerisms. A steady diet of David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists, for instance, becomes trite and even trying after awhile. Learn to be original.
Humor should be an offspring of your personality. Copying the mannerisms of a well-known humorist could leave you with an omelet on your eyebrows (for beginners, that’s what’s known as “egg on your face”)!
Law Six: Use humor selectively. Humor must fit the demographics of the audience. A story about eight-track audio tapes, for instance, will be met with significant silence if it’s told to teen-agers more familiar with digital video discs (DVD) and MP3 audio technology. The speaker should always try to communicate to the audience’s level of understanding.
Law Seven: Use humor respectfully. Spouses and family members are often a good source of humor. Everyday incidents in the home are often hilarious. But restraint should be used and permission granted before those personal stories are used in a public arena. One good laugh at a family member’s expense isn’t worth the lingering hurt or disappointment. It would be better to make yourself the “fall person” rather than a family member.
You don’t have to spend your preparation time worrying about joke punch lines. Often, a personal story with a humorous slant or a careful comment about some “absurd” current event will have a greater impact than a well-rehearsed joke. “You don’t have to be funny to be effective,” Diane DiResta says in Knockout Presentations, How to Deliver Your Message With Power, Punch, and Pizazz
(Chandler House Press). “Use humor instead of telling a joke. Or, simply start with a story or a quote. Throw away the jokes. More often than not, they backfire.”
She stresses the importance of beginning your presentation with humor: “The advantage of beginning with humor (not a joke) is that it relaxes people, makes them feel good and breaks the ice. When President Kennedy spoke in France, there was much excitement in the press about the glamorous and fashionable First Lady. President Kennedy began his introduction by saying: ‘I’d like to introduce myself. I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.’ This self-deprecating humor endeared him to the French people and made him seem more approachable and human.”
There are several factors that bear consideration in the delivery of humor:
Attitude. Do you feel good about the story? If it doesn’t make sense to you, and if you don’t feel good about it, it probably will be received like an ugly cousin’s kiss. Brent Filson, in his book Executive Speeches, Tips on How to Write and Deliver Speeches From 51 CEOs (John Wiley & Sons) says: “Delivery isn’t in the hands or face or stance but in your heart and mind. Deal with challenges associated with that attitude, i.e., nervousness, reading versus giving impromptu speeches and doing well in Q&A sessions, and the outside aspects of delivery will take care of themselves.”
Rehearsal. It will probably make you more comfortable if you rehearse your presentation, including your humorous stories. One thing to remember: If it doesn’t fly at home, it probably won’t fly away! Often you can try out a humorous story on your family or friends. If that story is met with stone-cold silence by an audience in a Burger King booth, for instance, it probably will have the same impact in church!
Timing. Often a pause is as good as a punch line. Probably no other comedian mastered the “pause” better than Jack Benny. Long after you’ve forgotten his stories, jokes or one-liners, you remember the long pause, lingering look to the audience and the hand on the cheek that characterized his humor.
The legendary speaker of The Lutheran House, Oswald Huffman, mastered the “rolling punch line.” His hilarious stories often included several “payoffs.” He would present the story in segments, each with a punch line, working his way to the finale.
Motion. Filson also tells about a New York Yankee pitcher, Ryne Duren: “His fastball could almost puncture armor-plating. The trouble was, Duren was notoriously nearsighted. He wore bottle-bottom-thick glasses. Many times, during his warm-ups, he seemed to lose his bearing, and fired pitches, not into the catcher’s glove, but up into the press box high behind the batter,” Filson writes. Obviously, the batters stayed alert when they entered the batter’s box!
Both your location and your gestures can be used to keep your audience alert. In using a humorous opening story, you may want to consider moving away from the podium, perhaps walking (down) to the audience. By moving from the “comfort zone” to the “battle zone” you may disarm your audience and make them alert.
Careful hand gestures also add to your humorous story. Like the hand motions of children’s Sunday school songs, “doing the motions” of a story will help you communicate it.
Eye contact. Where you look is almost as important as what you say. The presenter should always have an “eye for the audience.” Nothing is more distracting than a speaker’s “far away look.” Part of the communication process is eye contact. That includes “panning” the audience from left to right, back to front (and reversing the process), and looking at a particular audience segment, or person, directly in the eyes.
One confidence builder is to spot the person who best reacts to your humor and deliver the punch line directly to him. If you’re in luck, your mother will be in the crowd!
GOOD TASTE TASTES GOOD
“Have you heard the one about Abraham and Sarah?” Immediately that speaker is tiptoeing on cactus limbs. From the point of the introduction on, the speaker must “walk softly.”
You’ve probably heard your parents say, “We don’t talk about those things in public.” That’s still good advice. There are some topics that are definitely off-limits in your presentation.
Humor that deals with bodily functions and the accompanying furniture is always in bad taste from the pulpit. A quick (and uncomfortable) laugh at the expense of common decency is not fitting the ministerial speaker. No matter what your audience hears on Saturday night, they expect a little decorum on Sunday morning.
Likewise, humor about an alternate lifestyle or with a racial overtone is out of place in the pulpit. Humor is used in the healing process, not the hurting process.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
A little girl was kneeling by her bed, saying her prayers: “Dear God, please make me a good little girl if You can. But if You can’t, don’t worry about it, cause I’m havin’ fun the way I am.”
In one sense, humor should be taken seriously. In another sense, don’t sweat it! Too much contemplation will only lead to “paralysis of analysis,” as one great motivational speaker warns. If you’re having fun, so will your audience.
My friend, Ike Reihard, tells the story of his daughter Abagail becoming bored with the guest preacher after he had droned on and on for 1-1/2 hours (who wouldn’t). Ike told me, “Eight year-old Abagail stood up, stretched and said, ‘Would somebody please stop the man?'”
Seek first to glorify God and model the best of His kingdom. Allow the Holy Spirit to fill your thoughts with the “funny” as well as the “fire,” and you will touch lives eternally.