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 just was 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. Same result. He eventually said that he could not understand the reaction, abandoned his introduction, and just got started on his address. 

Living as we do in a comedy-saturated culture, this should not surprise us. 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 has influenced the church as well. 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 head 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.

So this article is a plea. It is a plea for serious preaching in a comedy culture. And notice, 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. It 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 gray areas and deserve separate treatment. I want to keep our focus on preaching the Word: 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 in a comedy culture with seven arguments. Then I will briefly consider four arguments that are often made in support of humor in preaching.

Read the rest of the article here.

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  • Cliff

    Hello David,I had that very thing happen to me yesterday. I find it happening in my sermons and yesterday in an adult class I was discussing hell and one man kept chuckling as if what I was saying was funny. I just ignored it. But I find that people are looking for the jokes and are quick to laugh at times when it’s the last thing I’m trying to accomplish.Cliff

  • Paul C

    Last Friday, I wrote about this very thing (though not as in-depth or as well): remember listening to that video in which the pastor was genuinely exposing his shortcomings, only to receive raucous laughter at every turn. It did pull him up short. To me it was very eerie. Odd. It sounded like canned laughter from late night television – but with nothing to laugh at.The sad part today is that this spirit is being catered to by many preachers. There is a sense that the jokes are like the peaks of ocean waves, while the word of God is the trough. As long as you bring your listeners to the peak, you’ll be able to get them to listen in the trough. The problem? If there’s no peaks and people’s ears aren’t tickled, they may not pay heed to the word of God.I am not against the odd comical event in a sermon (even Spurgeon had these), but there is certainly a spirit of entertainment that has crept into the church and all too many preachers are willing to dance to the music.

  • stephenaltrogge

    Thanks for these thoughts David. I really appreciate them. We are in need of serious, earnest preaching.Do you think, however, that all humor is to be excluded from preaching? That sort of sweeping statement seems to be beyond the teaching of scripture. Additionally, it seems that humor can have a very small place in preaching as long as it is done tastefully and does nothing to detract from the primary intention of the text. I’m thinking out loud here. I’m still learning to preach, so I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Caleb

    Dr Murray,Thanks so much for posting this. It is worrying, to say the least, how much less solemn preaching is today, compared to the preaching recorded in Scripture. I remember reading somewhere, that a common characteristic of true revivals (the ones with lasting effects) was that the preaching suddenly became exceedingly solemn.Oh for more people who are “sorrowful for the solemn assembly!” (Zephaniah 3:18).

  • David Murray

    Stephen, I know it has become so widespread that we can hardly imagine preaching without jokes, but I can’t see “funny preaching” anywhere in Scripture.