In Charles Spurgeon’s day, ministry and merriment didn’t often mix.
Evangelicals, particularly those of the Reformed variety, weren’t exactly known for their sense of humor. In his autobiography, Spurgeon quipped that the 12th commandment must have been, “Thou shalt [wear] a long face on Sunday.”
But Spurgeon bucked the trend. He was quick-witted—and it showed in his sermons. The great Spurgeon took the gospel with blood-earnest seriousness, but didn’t take himself seriously at all.
Speaking of preaching, Spurgeon said it’s “less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour’s profound slumber.” He confessed to one listener who’d objected to a witty comment he’d made in the pulpit:
If you had known how many others I kept back, you would not have found fault with that one, but you would have commended me for the restraint I had exercised. . . . Were I not watchful, I should become too hilarious.
Did Spurgeon use humor gratuitously? Wasn’t he aware of the dangers of too much mirth when dealing with the deep things of God? In his biography of Spurgeon, Tom Nettles says the Prince of Preachers saw humor functioning as a sort of bait for his gospel hook:
These touches of humor, as low as some might find them to be, Spurgeon defended, sprinkling his messages with humor as the use of “gathering bait” to make the fish come. [Spurgeon said] some of [his] contemporaries were “so dull, so monotonous, so long, and so sour,” that he did not wonder that their pews were so sparsely populated.
Should preachers today emulate Spurgeon? Is there a place for lighthearted laughter in sermons? I think Spurgeon himself had the healthiest view of laughter in the pulpit: use it if it fits your personality, but take care never to let it distract from or undermine sublime gospel truths. Susie Spurgeon perhaps said it best of her husband’s view of humor in the pulpit: “Charles never went out of his way to make a joke—or to avoid one.”
I’m definitely not the funniest man in the world (ask my kids!), but I do enjoy laughter and I appreciate serious-minded people who don’t take themselves too seriously. I agree with Spurgeon that humor, rightly wielded, can make preaching more engaging. Consistent with Spurgeon, here are four guidelines I’ve found helpful in governing humor in my own preaching.
1. Use humor only if it’s natural to your personality.
Here’s how not to do it: I once heard a speaker, known for blood-earnest seriousness, try to make a joke about his wife. It fell flat, and he came off sounding mean-spirited. The silence that greeted his attempt at humor must’ve embarrassed him—it would’ve me.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who was not against all humor in the pulpit—see Preaching and Preachers) is helpful here:
The most one can say for the place of humor is that it is only allowable if it is natural. The man who tries to be humorous is an abomination and should never be allowed to to enter a pulpit. The same applies to the man who does it deliberately in order to ingratiate himself with the people.
There are plenty of examples among modern evangelical preachers who employ humor effectively because it’s part of who they are: Alistair Begg (surely the Scottish accent accentuates his humor), Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, Russell Moore, Trip Lee, and the late R. C. Sproul.
2. Use humor sparingly.
There is humor in the Bible. Some proverbs paint a picture of the absurdity of the unwise life. To the shiftless, for example, Solomon says: “Go to the ant, you sluggard, and consider her ways” (Prov. 6:6). And Jesus employed sanctified satire when telling the Pharisees (and us) to remove the power pole from their own eyes so they can see clearly enough to get the speck out of another’s (Matt. 7:1–5). Other examples could be multiplied.
Still, humor in Scripture is pretty rare. God’s Word overall is serious business—which our preaching should reflect in proportion.
3. Don’t use humor gratuitously.
When I first began preaching, a longtime pastor advised me to buy a joke book and fill my mind with as many hilarious anecdotes and stories as possible. “I start each sermon with several jokes to kind of warmup the crowd,” he said. “Then I get serious.” Thankfully, the example of men I’d grown up listening to, such as Adrian Rogers and my family’s pastor, spared me from finding his advice compelling. Humor should accentuate our communication, not dominate it.
Humor should accentuate our communication, not dominate it.
Both the no-nonsense Lloyd-Jones (who did have a humorous side) and the lively Spurgeon agreed that a preacher should never solicit laughter for the sake of lightness. Humor in the pulpit should never equal frivolity. Listen to Spurgeon:
God’s servants have no right to become mere entertainers of the public, pouring out a number of stale jokes and idle tales without a practical point. . . . To make religious teaching interesting is one thing, but to make silly mirth, without aim or purpose, is quite another.
Lloyd-Jones too is wise:
I would not dare to say that there is not place for humor in preaching; but I do suggest that it should not be a very big place because of the nature of the work, and because of the character of the truth with which we are dealing.
4. Never allow humor to distract from the seriousness of God’s Word.
Well used, humor offers listeners’ minds something of a breather—but it can also provide further light for the truth, particularly as it applies to daily living. It must be handled with care, though. I would never use humor if I were preaching on hell. Nor would I use it at certain junctures of the sermon, such as when expounding God’s holiness, driving home the deadliness of sin, or calling for repentance.
I once heard a sermon on hell in which the preacher basically told numerous jokes. It so distracted from the solemnity of the subject that it undermined the whole sermon. Death is not funny. Nor is God’s wrath against sin.
Every use of humor, then, should be properly timed and carefully expressed.
Squibs and Caricatures
In his day, Lloyd-Jones heard preachers criticized for making people laugh. Yet the possible abuse of mirth, he insisted, is no reason to forbid it:
[Be] careful not to overcorrect [the abuse of humor] to such an extent as to become dull, colorless, and lifeless. As long as we forget ourselves, and remember the devil, we shall never go wrong.
And while Spurgeon’s ebullient personality bled through in his sermons, it was never the dominant note. Reflecting on church history, he observed that God has used humor to bring light to gloom and to caricature to the absurd—for example, through Martin Luther:
Sometimes [laughter] is the brightest weapon of righteousness, lancing both gloom and sin. . . . I do believe in my heart that there may be as much holiness in a laugh as a cry. . . . I do not know why ridicule is to be given up to Satan as a weapon against him. I will venture to affirm that the Reformation owed almost as much to the sense of the ridiculous in humans as to anything else, and that those humorous squibs and caricatures, that were issued by the friends of Luther, did more to open the eyes of Germany to the abominations of the priesthood than the more solid and ponderous arguments against Romanism.
Amen. We serve a sovereign—and yes, a happy—God. Let’s be quick to laugh at ourselves, and at the days to come (Prov. 31:25).