Like answering any question not explicitly found in Scripture, answering “Should a preacher have a sense of humor?” first needs a clear understanding of what Scripture does say related to the topic of preaching along with a few guiding principles.
Let’s start by looking at a preacher’s task.
What is the role of a preacher?
A preacher is someone tasked with proclaiming God’s Word in order to help the listener encounter the Living Christ. He will seek to explain God’s Word clearly (2 Timothy 4:1-2; Colossians 4:4) and apply it directly to his listeners. Preachers are ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1-2), servants of God who seek to please Him (Galatians 1:10), and people who will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).
While Scripture’s job description of a preacher does not mention humor, I’m convinced that it is acceptable and sometimes beneficial for a preacher to use humor, assuming he has the right motivations and exercises discernment.
Bad motivations to use humor from the pulpit
The desire to entertain is a bad motivation for using humor in preaching. Woe to the preacher who doesn’t see himself as a servant, ambassador, or steward, but rather an entertainer! Preachers cannot afford to undercut God’s message in the hearts of their hearers by taking it too lightly—souls hang in the balance.
Some preachers use humor from the pulpit because of pride: they value praise from man instead of praise from God. Humor that exalts the preacher disrespects God and His Word. Preacher, if you struggle with this, consider the judgment you will face and then humble yourself before God.
Good motivations to use humor from the pulpit
Recently, a friend of opened a sermon on Hebrews 12 by describing a race he attended where one runner had a huge lead over the rest of the pack for most of the race. The crowd roared as this runner rounded the final curve and crossed the finish line, collapsing to the ground from exhaustion and elation after the dominant victory. Everything seemed great until his coach ran frantically across the field toward him screaming “ONE MORE LAP! ONE MORE LAP! ONE MORE LAP!”
My friend’s story made the audience laugh and think deeply about their Christian lives. He warned that we might do the very same thing if we don’t run “with endurance the race set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). This is an example of using humor to draw listeners’ attention and imagination to the Scriptures.
Another use for humor might be to keep listeners engaged. Humor can connect a preacher with his audience on a personal level and build trust, making the audience more receptive. Appropriate humor can counter today’s short attention spans by bringing people who zone out back into the message.
All in all, I believe God created us to enjoy humor and it is a powerful tool in a preacher’s arsenal when used responsibly.
A few suggested guidelines for preachers:
Humor should support Scripture’s message. If your use of humor doesn’t help you explain, illustrate, or apply what Scripture is saying, then it might be a random add-on that will hurt the sermon’s overall focus, clarity, and power.
Humor should not distract or overpower. Some jokes, even if they tie to Scripture, could completely derail the message for your listeners. Know your people and what would help them understand God’s truth and what would lead their thoughts astray. Don’t be afraid to “kill your darling” by scrapping a great joke.
Be careful of jokes when preaching off-the-cuff. If you don’t preach from a full manuscript, beware that unplanned jokes have a greater potential to backfire either by offending a congregant or accidentally being inappropriate. You want your people to remember powerful truths of Scripture and not your slip-ups.
Let the tone of the passage set the tone of the preaching. You probably don’t want to use humor when preaching about judgment, the need for repentance, or through a psalm of lament. Simply put: preach the tone of the text.
Humor should usually be brief. I don’t think the Bible is devoid of humor, but it is never the main thing being communicated. The longer jokes go, the more you draw attention away from God’s Word.
Take care not to embarrass others. Preachers’ wives and children are weary of having their idiosyncrasies proclaimed from the pulpit. If using stories involving other members of the congregation, seek their permission and blessing to share about them. Self-deprecating humor is often better than humor that disparages or embarrasses another, but also needs to be utilized wisely.
If used, humor is more appropriate at the beginning of a sermon. Preaching God’s eternal Word is an important and weighty matter. If a preacher uses humor, it should be toward the beginning of a message so the weightiness of truth can build as a sermon progresses. The Reformers said that sermons should lead to the Lord’s Supper by causing us to feel our need for Christ, see God’s provision in Christ, and commune with the risen Redeemer who grants grace and mercy at the communion table. We don’t want humor to kill a moment the Holy Spirit is using to minister life.