The Deadly Serious Art of Preaching
While I have great respect for Tony and Ben, I would have to restate my point, and note my congenial disagreement with them. As I do so, though, I want to say that I am not against humor in the pulpit and that I myself sometimes make a humorous remark when I have the opportunity to teach or preach. I am not a sphinx in the pulpit, and I do not think anyone else needs to be one, either. Failure to include humor in one's life is to me a sign of personal deficiency and a lack of enjoyment of God's good gifts. I was drawn to my own wife in part because of her fun personality and sharp wit, and we enjoy the gift of humor and laughter on a daily basis. So far be it from me to act as the tight-lipped curmudgeon on the matter of humor's place in life.
With that said, however, there are certain contexts in which solemnity, not lightheartedness, needs to be prioritized. There are occasions and places for serious thinking, and in such places humor should tread lightly. As much as we desire to live joyful, happy, and even fun lives, we must recognize that reverence, solemnity, and soberness are key ingredients of the Christian existence. I fear that our culture of sillyness, mockery, and nonstop humor has pervaded our pulpits, just as it has our political and academic environs. One of the key ways authority figures connect nowadays is to show they have a funny bone and can mock themselves--see the proliferation of otherwise serious thinkers who host "Saturday Night Live," for example, or the appearance of countless intellectuals on fake news-programs shows like "The Colbert Report" or "The Daily Show." Ours is an age in which sillyness and mockery reign. The jester does not merely dance in the king's court in our day. Now, he vies for the king's throne. He is not yet there, but then again, who would have guessed that huge numbers of twentysomethings would glean the day's news not from real television news shows, but from Comedy Central?
It is quite wrong to think that the culture, as it always seems to do, has not negatively influenced the church in this respect. There are many congregations out there that think their pastor is a sort-of "Bible entertainer," one who mixes wisdom with wit each Sunday to produce a nice little feel-good message that noone has to take seriously, lest it actually challenge their consciences and change their lives. There are all too many professors and teachers who think that they have to mock themselves to be relevant to today's youth, and that they should open each lecture with a joke in order to loosen the crowd up. These are dangerous trends, friends. It's one thing to occasionally drop a wry comment or offer an ironic aside, but it's another to be humorous enough that your personality--and not your preaching--is drawing folks to church. The doing of church is fundamentally serious business. We are gathering in joy and solemnity to celebrate our risen Savior and to proclaim His Word. We are preaching a gospel that includes news of hellfire and damnation that lasts for eternity. We are considering our sins, the wrongs that draw us away from God during the week and that, if unchecked, will draw us away from God for eternity. We who preach (one day) are speaking to husbands who neglect their wives, wives who speak badly about their husbands, children who hide secret sins from their parents, college students who view horrific pornographic acts on a daily basis and cannot stop, employees who steal time from their employers, elderly saints who forget God in the midst of physical pain and complaints, high schoolers who hate God but who mask it when at youth group, and many, many others. Sin is everywhere around us, brothers and sisters, and it is not defeated by humor. It is defeated by serious-minded proclamation of the Gospel which alone frees us from our sin. With such a weighty task before the preacher, and so little time, how can we not solemnly, soberly, boldly preach the Word?
Pastors should be winsome. They should be able to laugh and able to cry. They should be nice. They should be approachable. They should be joyful. But they should be very serious about their work. They should reject the culture of sillyness and mockery that especially characterizes young men and apply themselves to Gospel work with a sense of desperation. Yes, we must be balanced, but we who preach and teach (and all the Christians who do so as well, in Bible studies and Sunday School classes and homes, etc.) must not make the mistake so many do in this age and think that we can approach the Gospel like we approach anything else. We cannot, and we must not. We need less entertainers, less showmen, less jokesters and more Lloyd-Jones types. Occasional humor in the pulpit, a joyful life outside of it, but ever and always a commitment to the holy task of preaching and teaching the Word of God. Ezekiel and Jesus and others used irony, but they were not seeking to create a humorous environment when they did so. They were using biting irony and strange scenes to make their points, which were very serious in nature. There is no biblical example of a joke-teller preacher, and what irony is in the Bible is not silly--it is actually quite sober.
Do not hang your hat on humor, pastor, and do not be known for it in your preaching. Be known for a serious-mindedness that cannot help but pass itself on to the people of God, sin-sick and struggling for faith as we all are.