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Are Christians Being Laughed “At” or “With”?

Jon Acuff’s new book Stuff Christians Like has got a lot of folks laughing. And for church-goers, that’s an accomplishment. Christians have a long history of frowning upon merriment. And laughing at ourselves is, for some, virtually anathema.

But things are changing. Humor is suddenly afoot amongst the saints. Take Colin Hansen’s post at Out of Ur entitled Comedy in the Pulpit:

One church I know recently hosted “Church Joke Sunday.” …And during the recent Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, Susan Sparks coached pastors in clerical comedy.

“Close to 200 ministers crowded a classroom at First Baptist, with more hanging out in the hallway for her workshop on bringing humor into the pulpit,” Bob Smietana wrote for The Tennessean on May 20. “She says that humor can help preachers connect with their parishioners, defuse church conflict and deal with an often-stressful calling. To help get her message across, Sparks gave preachers a Ten Commandments of stand-up comedy.”

Preachers and “stand-up comedy” seem about as compatible as brain surgery and an oil change. Besides, preachers should be better at handling the word of truth than nailing the punch line. However, if contemporary Christian culture is trending toward more humor, conviction will inevitably take a back seat to laughter. Hansen concludes:

I don’t suppose there is any way to criticize this approach and come across as anything but dour. So be it. I can’t help but wonder about the health of American churches when comedy is considered a cure. Are we just bored with the gospel? Do we have nothing to offer the broader world except jokes that few outside the church would consider funny? Is anyone aware that the watching world laughs at us, not with us? (emphasis mine)

There is a big difference between learning to use humor effectively in the pulpit and routinely snarking about American evangelicals. Kitschy, insular, religious culture deserves some jest, and I think Acuff captures this without malice. Nevertheless, I find myself wondering whether we aren’t undermining ourselves in the process.

I mean, how will people ever believe the Message if the messengers are such complete dolts? Or does the admission that we are dolts lend credence to our Message?

Whatever the case, bashing the Church seems to be en vogue these days and in many cases, the derision comes from professing Christians. I can’t help but feel that the “Let’s Laugh at Ourselves” sentiment is part of this trend. Perhaps I’m over-reaching. Yet behind the amusement is a desire by post-evangelicals to caricature, question, and ultimately dismiss the Western Church.

Do we need more humor in the pulpit? Absolutely. Should Christians lighten up? No question. Are elements of evangelical culture deserving of satire? For sure. But at what point does our ridicule trivialize the very Gospel we possess? Go ahead, call me prudish. But if we are so eager to laugh at evangelicals, maybe it’s their theology that is the real butt of the joke.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Kaci June 20, 2010, 8:38 PM

    There is a big difference between learning to use humor effectively in the pulpit and routinely snarking about Westernized Christianity.

    I could hug you right now.

    My short answer: There’s a time to laugh and a time to weep; a time to rejoice and a time to mourn.

    God has a sense of humor. A friend and I were just discussing that. When tragedy or frustration hits, it’s better to laugh at the dark irony of it than it is to get mad. Easier, anyway. Pity and deep sorrow are certainly gentler moods of compassion rather than the harsh, though possibly deserved, scorn of mockery.

    But the key is always: When is it appropriate to laugh?

  • A. J. Walker June 21, 2010, 12:28 AM

    Ouch Mike!

    I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to Timothy: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. (II Timothy 4:2)

    As someone who prays daily for the church to stop the slippery slope decline of “christianity-lite”, I don’t think humor is going to make the difference.

  • Nicole June 21, 2010, 7:29 AM

    Nothing wrong with humor. Anywhere. But, let’s face it: the Gospel isn’t funny. I agree with all of you, Mike, Kaci, and A.J. What is it with people who go to church to be “entertained”? Go to a movie, a concert, a standup comedy routine at a club instead. Go to church to gather with the saints and worship the One who gives you life, who is too deep to chart, measure, or explain, who is passionate in His love for you and even those who laugh at you and Him. He is the One who holds life itself in His hands. Sing to the King. Pray to know Him better. Let His passion consume us. Sorry, in preaching mode . . .

  • Jill June 21, 2010, 8:04 AM

    I agree that the gospel isn’t funny, and I also live by that Eccl. chapter (partially quoted by Kaci above). Eccl. ch. 3 has helped me put my life and the world around me in perspective. Humor is healthy and absolutely the right response in certain circumstances, but degrading in others.

    You said, “how will people ever believe the Message if the messengers are such complete dolts? Or does the admission that we are dolts lend credence to our Message?” This is a great chiasmus. And the answer to both questions is “yes”.

    • Mike Duran June 22, 2010, 4:49 AM

      Jill, I agree that “the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.” Which is why I don’t discount satire, parody, and jest as a necessary part of keeping the Church humble. What I’m wrestling with here is that line between using humor to denigrate or elevate our Message. Making fun of Christian culture could be a way to actually amplify the validity of the Gospel and show how short we humans fall. On the other hand, making fun of Christian culture could also be used to invalidate the Gospel and show how essentially brainless believers (and their beliefs) are. That’s the gist of my dilemma.

      • Jill June 22, 2010, 10:06 AM

        Frankly, I’m a little sick of the way our society mocks Christianity and Christians. Probably, a lot of Christians feel the same way. I know this doesn’t help your dilemma any, but I still feel that humor is good for us and society in general and does demonstrate humility. Sometimes it’s a hard laugh, though, because a lot of people are wary of being laughed at. On the other hand, Most people will sense if the humor is in the right spirit–and that is probably key.

        And on another note, I can’t tell you how sick I am of the stereotypical hypocrite pastor character in so many books. That character isn’t a bit funny, though.

        • Jill June 22, 2010, 10:07 AM

          p.s. love your Samuel Johnson quote on your sidebar, which just caught my eye. SJ is one of my heroes.

  • Mark June 21, 2010, 10:25 AM

    Frankly, if we can’t laugh at ourselves and our Christian culture, we are taking ourselves too seriously. And I love a good joke or funny story in a sermon.

    But there must be that balance. And a good preacher can find it between using laughter to engage the audience and then getting serious to drive home the point.

    As has been said, the Gospel is serious. We can’t and shouldn’t make light of it. But Jesus used stories to engage His audience. I bet He even used humor to drive home his serious points. Like any other tool, it’s a matter of knowing how and when to use it.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 21, 2010, 1:45 PM

    The pastor I had for twenty plus years LOVED to laugh. He had a great sense of humor and it often came out during his sermons. Our pastor now is different. He laughs, too, but maybe not as readily.

    My point here is, a pastor should “stay within himself.” If humor is part of who he is, then by all means, he should use it.

    But to take stand-up comic lessons? I think that’s missing an essential part of what a sermon is supposed to be. It isn’t a performance; though it’s not wrong for it to be entertaining, I think it’s missing the mark to TRY to be entertaining.

    Since CSFF is touring Matt Mikalatos’s Imaginary Jesus, very much a book that uses humor, I’m particularly interested in this subject. I think Matt brought humor to bear on our thoughts and behaviors that shouldn’t get an automatic pass because of long-held assumptions.

    In no way, however, does he ridicule the church, the Bible, or God. He pokes fun at human weaknesses and tendencies. And since he is the protagonist of his own story, he first is poking fun at himself. The rest of us come along for the ride and apply what fits. To me it’s a great approach, but definitely not one I’d want to see issuing from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.

    Becky

  • Jeanne Damoff June 21, 2010, 2:35 PM

    I love a lot about Jon Acuff’s blog and book, but one of the things I love most is that I never feel like he’s mocking theology or Christ. Jon makes fun of church culture–things we do that have no real bearing on what we believe. Like the way people say “just” when they pray. “Lord, we just ask you to just come and just bless our meeting. Just help us focus on you, Lord, because we just want to worship you and just lift you up . . .” Who hasn’t been distracted in a prayer meeting by that tendency? And, if it annoys us as believers, imagine how it sounds to the uninitiated? This is the sort of thing that needs to be laughed at, especially if we follow up the laughter with deliberate change.

    I definitely do not appreciate humorists who get their laughs bashing segments of the church, but Jon doesn’t bash. He makes me laugh while also making me take a step back and ask, “Why do we (I) do that?”

    The Gospel is serious business, and in some ways, so is humor. It has power to do good or evil. Some use it to destroy and some to enlighten. I’d place Jon squarely in the second category, and I bless him for his gifts to the body of Christ.

    The last thing I’d ever promote is trivializing the Gospel. I think Jon would say the same thing. If you want more of my take on his book, I reviewed it on The Master’s Artist last Thursday (themastersartist.com).

    • Mike Duran June 21, 2010, 5:18 PM

      Jeanne, I read your review and really enjoyed it (here’s THE LINK for anyone interested). I want to make clear that I like Acuff’s spirit and don’t consider him antagonistic toward the Church. While I haven’t read his book, I have followed his blog. What’s disturbed me is how many people who ARE antagonistic of the Church reference Acuff’s book as evidence of the Church’s irrelevance. As much as I am openly critical of some aspects of the Church and I love humor, this trend bothers me. Thanks for your comments, Jeanne!

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