Humor: Practical Advice

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While doing research for this article, I read a book written by a Jesuit priest with the title: Between Heaven and Mirth.In the introduction he writes about a friend of his by the name of Mike, a really fun-loving guy!  One day, during the celebration of the Mass at church, Mike couldn't stop laughing about something that had struck him as hilarious. Feeling sorry and repentant for what he had done, he walked into the office of the head of the Jesuits to which he belonged. He took his seat and prepared to confess what he felt so guilty about. "Father," he said, "I need to confess an occasion of excessive laughter." The priest looked at Mike, paused and grimly replied, "All laughter is excessive."[1]

When it comes to preaching, I don't think that's quite the way it works!Warren Wiersbie offers this practical advice: “If humor is natural to the preacher, then it should be used in preaching; but one must never import jokes just to make the congregation laugh.”[2]

In the first article about the pastor's usage of laughter and humor, reference was made to their  appropriate use. Along this line, Ellen White gives us some practical suggestions and caution regarding laughter and humor in the church or in the sermon. Consequently, there's much wisdom in passing along some practical suggestions, some nuts and bolts advice, if you please, regarding this sensitive issue.

First of all, we must recognize that there are reasons when, how, and why pastors should employ humor. For example, don't tell a funny story just because it's entertaining and it makes you look witty. A preacher should use humor with a homiletical purpose and not simply for entertainment.  Harold Bryson advocates humor based on its practical benefits: “If humor can help illumine and impact people, it can be valuable. But if humor is used to entertain or to display cleverness, it is entirely out of place.”[3]Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix point out that the purpose of humor in the pulpit is “not to get laughs but to drive home a point in an entertaining way.”

 Furthermore, don't say something humorous that creates an irreverent or flippant attitude among the parishioners.  And don't use humor to gain a sense of control and fulfill your need of power in making others laugh. That will cheapen what you are saying.

And keep in mind what you say and how it relates to your walk with God! It is generally recognized that no one laughs at something comical until they understand it—that is, get the point. Beware that something funny you've said can result in the rising of some eminency by comparing oneself with the infirmity, ineptness or disparity of others. 

Remember that laughter that enhances the position of the laugher is closely linked to the lowering of the status of the one who is being laughed at. For this reason, avoid initiating this kind of situation. It is human nature to rejoice, and at times cheer, when a rival or competitor falls. Thus Proverbs 24:17 tells us: "Do not gloat when your enemy [rival or foe] falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice."

While much has been written about the need for laughter, relatively very little has been said about when not to laugh. The suggestion that one ought not to laugh at others is very valid, that certain laughter is off-limits . . . like laughing at someone's misfortune or abnormalities, or humor that can be seen as rude, demeaning, or disrespectful. When you laugh at somebody less fortunate than you, which is so commonly done, it's generally seen as an immature attempt to boost your own self-esteem. Remember: The grace of God that helps us to laugh in difficult times, is the same grace that gives us the strength to refrain fromlaughing when it's not the right thing to do. 

Humor is usually thought of as a cheerful bent or temperament, a frame of mind that's quick to appreciate what is amusing or quickly senses what is funny. Joy, on the other hand, is a way of life, a state of happiness that tends notto fluctuate with circumstances. Its consistent steadiness is based on one's faith in God's love and trustworthiness, and one's gratitude for His blessings.

For this reason, be mindful that one's encounter with God through a deepened understanding of His ways can be an awe-inspiring experience; thus it follows that joyous laughter can be a by-product of such an experience. Laughter of this kind should be more frequent than laughter from amusement. Thoughtful laughter is not so much a reaction to a funny story as it is a pervasive mood of exalted joy. That's what preachers should be aiming for.

It has been suggested that the introduction is an excellent place for pastors to include self-deprecating personal anecdotes because this can create empathy between preachers and their hearers. And when using this kind of humor, while always being truthful about the experience, never tell anything that might compromise your ministerial reputation.

Don't forget. Preachers have ample places from which to draw anecdotal material: personal reading, other speakers, stories from friends, and events in their personal lives. And the use of anecdotes provide a vehicle for preachers to employ self-deprecating humor. This will allow the speaker to break down barriers and build a connection with the audience by letting hearers see him or her as a normal person. 

Finally, when contemplating the use of humor in sermons, a preacher should ask, “Will the use of humor in my preaching make me a comedian or a communicator?” That distinction in preaching is always important.

Gordon Kainer is a speaker, writer, and retired academy Bible teacher living in Grants Pass, Oregon


[1]James Martin, S. J., Between Heaven and Mirth(New York, NY: Harper One, 2011), 1.

[2]Warren Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 275.

[3]Harold T. Bryson, Expository Preaching: The Art of Preaching through a Book of the Bible (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995), 395-96.