Rules For Being Funny in a Sermon
The 80-year-old Elder met me at the door and said “I just have to say…” and I braced myself. That’s not usually the start to a good sentence. But when he said, “I bet you could make the flu funny.” I almost kissed his feet. Because if you were to tell me I am a funny preacher, I will bow at your feet. (BLASPHEMY!) I want to be a lot of things as a preacher. But, clear, concise, and hilarious are my three main goals when it comes to preaching the Gospel. I can make a pretty good case that Jesus told jokes too, so, don’t get too uptight on me.
Also, I’ve spent my entire life trying to be funny. I fail more than I succeed, but, there’s a reason one of my distinct memories of my grandfather is him walking away and muttering “everything is funny to that boy…” So. It would make sense that over my life my dad established the “Rules to being funny.” And honestly, if you are a preacher/communicator/teacher these are so helpful. (And someday, Dad, I swear, I’ll listen.)
RULE #1 – PART OF BEING FUNNY IS BEING UNPREDICTABLE
This one was key. I think I got a portion of his sense of humor, but it didn’t take long for my energy to combine with his humor and get old, fast. So time and time again, after a failed repeat of an already-tired joke, he would say, “Ben, part of being funny is being unpredictable.” If every week, I make the same joke (I do. It’s almost always an iPhone>Android joke!) People will expect it, and they won’t laugh. It becomes a distraction. Additionally. If the point of humor is to keep people’s attention, I will lose them if there is a “line” where the jokes end and the content begins. Interweaving jokes and quips help to keep people knowing that there is an “unpredictability” to what is happening. Not in a wild, or dangerous sense. But more in a way that keeps their attention. I write manuscript but only take a keyword list onto the stage with me. It gives me the freedom to improvise and add, but it proves dangerous if my comedian side “gets on a roll.” But it takes practice to know when/where to add humor and keep it unpredictable.
RULE #2 – PART OF BEING FUNNY IS KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT
While the goal is to keep things unpredictable, there has to be a time when the jokes quit. Occasionally, it’s still a lesson I am learning. When you get into meat and potatoes, when it comes down to the brass tacks, (when you start realizing that you have too many idioms in your repertoire,) those are the moments that you must buckle down and cut the funny. Sometimes, I have snuck one in to get a few smirks, but as I grow older, I have realized that those moments are too important to throw away with cheap jokes that may get a few laughs. Know when to quit. Know that you want to leave them wanting more. Another famous saying of my Grandfather was “Little bit of this goes a long way…” and it applies to humor in our sermons.
RULE #3 – IF YOU HAVE TO EXPLAIN IT, THEN IT WASN’T FUNNY
Almost every Sunday there is at least one vague reference to The Office. Sometimes I quote memes and other TikTok trends that only 3 people will get. I’ve quickly learned that I don’t need to stop and bring other people along for the joke, I just need to move on. I try, as a rule, to make my humor pretty general, things that a guest and long-time member would get. So I don’t usually name names or say “everyone remembers the time Mike did…” because I want most of my humor to be universal. (Even if people still don’t laugh.) But I have long learned not to expect everyone to laugh, and not to expect everyone to get it.
If people laugh, great, if I pause for a laugh and get nothing, I can just move on and get to what matters. My goal isn’t humor, it’s life transformation. The point of my time on stage is connection, concision and transformation. Humor just plays a role in getting us where we want to go.