Humour from the Pulpit—A Rector’s Reflections
David K. Short has been Rector of St. John’s Vancouver Anglican Church since 1992. Originally from Australia, David has a Masters of Theology from Moore Theological College and a ThM from Regent College (1997). He is well-known in Canada and elsewhere for his excellent expository preaching. He’s also known to be, on occasion, funny.
When is attempting humour in a sermon a good idea? When does it do more harm than good?
Humour in sermons is a tricky topic. Used well, it can be transcendent. Used poorly, it can alienate listeners. How does a preacher ensure they use humour wisely?
This interview offers Rector David Short’s reflections on this double-edged sword.
Do you think about humour in your sermons or does it come naturally?
I do not deliberately think about humour. I find it arises often from the text, particularly thinking through the implications, and seeing how ludicrously seriously we take ourselves. I once heard Malcolm Muggeridge say that Christians come by their humour honestly because we have a sense of the eternal.
Where (or how) do you see humour being most useful? Can you remember a time humour was used in a sermon that particularly impressed you? That it did harm?
The most powerful use of humour I’ve experienced is in exposing sin. The one I remember in particular was when a preacher told a story about being at a dinner party, and he was holding forth on a global issue. After speaking for nearly five minutes, he remembered that the man opposite him was an expert on that specific issue, with a PhD. We all identified—and laughed. Then he pointed out to his congregation that his boorish behaviour is exactly the way we treat God. Suddenly I saw how ridiculous it was to treat God as I do, and I realized I was laughing at myself.
I’ve seen much more harm done by humour in preaching than help. When the preacher is deliberately trying to be funny, it all becomes about the preacher. False characterizations of what other people believe, or holding up to scorn what you do not understand is painful for the listener.
In your own sermons, was there a particular time that you regretted using humour?
Yes. I have drawn caricatures of false beliefs and those who hold them. There is a way to call evil “evil,” and a way to give others the benefit of the doubt.
What makes it so hard to use humour well in sermons?
Different people find different things funny. The hard work is making all illustrations and humour serve the revelation of God in the text. When it doesn’t, it draws attention to itself. So a great story might be exactly the wrong thing to include—even if it is light, entertaining, and has a helpful lesson—if it is not serving the main purpose and revelation of God in the text.
Any advice to a young preacher who is still getting their courage up to use humour or make a joke in their sermons? (Is there an important distinction between the use of a joke and humour in a sermon?
It’s not about you. Stop talking about yourself! You are not that interesting. The recurring difficulty for young or new preachers is to get over themselves—to believe the preaching is not about you. If you are trying to impress, entertain, or make yourself secure using humour, you will be transparently manipulative. Young preachers also tend to preach in emotional monotone: all wind and drama, or all excitement, or all exegesis. People need windows and breezes.
Are there topics and times in preaching that humour can be a particular help?
My experience is that the more serious and heavy a topic, the more it needs the contrast of humour offered gently and appropriately.
What if you don't happen to have a naturally strong sense of humour?
It is more a matter of not taking yourself too seriously. I’ve never met someone without a sense of humour, but if you are seeking to draw people into God’s word more deeply, showing how you do not take yourself too seriously can be helpful. This is a matter of growth and maturity. The opposite is more dangerous: finding you can get an easy laugh and imagining that this is a good thing.
Are Australians truly funnier than others?
Are Anglicans less funny than others?
Want more reflections on church and humour? Read David Taylor's Pursuing a Playful Liturgy.