Serious Preaching in a Comedy Culture -- By: David P. Murray
PRJ 3:1 (January 2011) p. 328
Serious Preaching in a Comedy Culture
Since coming to North America, I’ve preached in a number of different churches. A few times I’ve been taken aback by laughter in response to something I’ve said in my sermon. The first time it happened, I froze on the spot. I could hardly go on. I was stunned. In Scotland, I never cracked a joke in the pulpit; it would not even cross my mind to try to make people laugh. That was just not done in most Reformed churches. Yet, now, the same words, said in the same way, create laughter!
A few months ago, I heard a well-known preacher give an address on a very serious subject at a large conference. He started by speaking of his own sinful inadequacy. But as he confessed his sinfulness, laughter erupted. The speaker was startled. He tried again. The result was the same. He eventually said that he could not understand the reaction, abandoned his introduction, and just got started on his address.
In some ways, none of this should surprise us. We live in a comedy-saturated culture. Evening television pumps out a steady diet of comedy programming night after night. Sitcoms dominate the ratings. The big TV names are comedians like Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien, who take the daily news and turn it into a series of jokes.
But we don’t need to go to the world to find a comedy culture. I’m afraid this culture has influenced the church. If we tune in to some of the most popular preachers, even Reformed preachers, we find their sermons peppered with jokes. Many preachers now seem to think that they cannot begin to preach without “softening up” their hearers with a little bit of stand-up comedy. So, in many ways, we cannot blame just the hearers. Preachers mix the most solemn of subjects with silly asides so that people do not know whether to
PRJ 3:1 (January 2011) p. 329
laugh or cry. I heard one famous preacher asking for prayer about a particular weakness in his life. He then said a couple of funny things about this weakness. Eventually, no one knew if he was seriously asking for prayer or just making a joke.
A Plea for Serious Preaching
This article is a plea — a plea for serious preaching in a comedy culture. Notice that I am talking about serious preaching, not life in general. Laughter is a gift of God and is good for us. There is “a time to laugh” (Eccl. 3:4). There are known health benefits of having a good laugh: it reduces stress and blood pressure, helps the digestive system, etc. But I am speaking here about preaching, not life in general. The appropriate subjects and degrees of laughter in everyday life is another topic.
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