Are You Joking?
An 80-year-old man with 20/20 vision played golf with a foursome one day. One man hit the ball so far he asked the old man if he’d seen the ball land.
“Yep, I’ve spotted the ball,” the old man said.
“Okay, where is it?” the man asked impatiently.
The old man with 20/20 vision thought for a moment then said, “I forgot.”
When it comes to telling jokes, I’m like the old man. I’ll tell half then botch a punchline or forget the punchline altogether.
But then, I’m not a comedian either. I’m a preacher.
So, why do I often feel the need to be funny? Why do preachers feel the need to tell jokes in their sermons?
Maybe they feel, as I do, that boring people with the gospel is a sin. So they joke so people pay attention and maybe the gospel message oozes out and people hear it while they are still paying attention from the previous joke.
But couldn’t it be just as much a sin to prop up the gospel message with jokes?
Sure, I try when possible to engage readers and listeners with a well-timed joke or humor related to the biblical text, but how do I avoid stepping over the line of overindulgence? How do we avoid boring people, on the one hand, or cheapening the gospel with jokes, on the other hand?
This article is about how to preach between these two ditches. I’ll conclude with an alternative way of preparing and preaching that avoids boredom and overindulgence. I’ll try to write personally with the assumption that sermon content from either of these two ditches says something more about the preacher than it does our audience or society.
What’s going on with me when I bore people? What’s going on with me when I overindulge in humor?
How do I strike a balance and faithfully preach the gospel in a way that takes the gospel seriously yet communicates it in a winsome and powerful way to a twenty-first century audience?
Twenty-five years ago, as a greenhorn seminarian, I began a list of illustrations and kept a running list for many years after. At some point I quit adding to the list because I found I never really referred to it much.
I had envisioned that, each time I preached a sermon, I’d peruse the list of illustrations or jokes for just the right anecdote, but it seemed rare that my list of hundreds would ever really net me the relatable story I was looking for to illustrate the Bible text for the day.
Often the list would sidetrack me and take me into nostalgia, because many of the stories are about my children when they were young, funny things they’d say, or about news events of 20 years ago.
How was I supposed to find the right illustration?
I’ve learned that I don’t find it. More often the illustration finds me. I know, I know, that sounds like some sort of mystical falderal, but I’ll explain so it’s less esoteric than it may sound.
Okay, so what is an alternative way that avoids the ditches of boredom and overindulgence and people-pleasing?
1. Believe in the gospel. An important question for the preacher is, “Do you believe the gospel?” Do you believe it changes lives? Do you believe you need to prop up the gospel message with so many of your own opinions, jokes, current events, or movie clips that the power of the gospel is so buried that it’s obscured by you and your lack of confidence in God’s power to transform us?
2. Prioritize writing the message before writing jokes or illustrations. Preach a Bible text and submit to it. Let the driver of your sermon be the message of the Bible text that you discover through reading, re-reading, and reading again; researching with language, commentaries, and other books; experiences and your own submission, obedience or disobedience with the message of the text. Keep learning how to preach powerfully without boring and overindulging yourself.
3. Use humor as a tool for the gospel, not a platform for people-pleasing and pride. When I’m getting nervous because I have a great joke, I know I’ve gone too far into people-pleasing and making preaching about my eloquence and humor. Before you understand what your message is, you have no business writing a joke or pasting one in from a list or web site. We are not comedians. We do not build sermons on jokes or clever illustrations, current events or movies.
Using jokes or illustrations to serve the gospel message is much different than getting a clever illustration and trying to pound Bible texts to fit or painting the texts to match the illustration.
4. Ask yourself if you would be bored listening to yourself. Be your best critic. Would you want to listen to yourself? Are you boring because you haven’t really engaged the text yourself? When you are boring and can’t seem to find a handle for anyone to take the gospel out of the auditorium, what’s going on with you?
When that happens to me—and it has many times—I have to wonder about myself, “Am I really living out this message? Am I obedient to this message? Do I even have concrete evidence that I am obedient or not if I don’t even know how to apply it personally and give this kind of relevant application to my congregation?”
When you are boring, there’s something more going on than your lack of ability to crack good jokes or tell a good yarn. Ask yourself if you are really engaging the Word yourself. Someone testifying personally, powerfully, confessionally is not boring.
5. Make it your goal to log sermons that are timeless and not contemporary. My best sermons are not the timely ones for holidays and special events. When I look over my impact through the years, the sermons that seem to make the most difference in people’s lives are the ones that are the least time-bound, the least related to a special event, and the most core gospel messages explicating a biblical text.
So, write the sermon without jokes, illustrations, and references to current events. Get the core of the message. Boil it down to the one thing the text is about—what the prophets, Jesus, Paul, or one of the other writers is truly saying then and now.
When you finally come to know the message of the prophet, the Christ, or the apostle you intend to preach, then you can freely build on that message and illustrate with relevant cultural stories or a humorous anecdote to, as Andy Stanley often says, give the gospel handles so people can carry it home with them.