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Humor and the Gospel
Using jokes and fun in Christian communication
“The Gospel is too serious a matter to present in a serious manner”
Humor is very valuable in evangelism and Christian communication because:
- humor breaks down barriers and can smuggle ideas and challenges into people’s hearts.
- a joke or humorous situation is often very memorable.
- it shows that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, that we are not ‘holy Joes’, killjoys, or boring.
- humor has been shown to be an essential component of adult learning.
- most importantly, because we have a biblical mandate to use humor!
- “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” (Victor Borge)
- “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” (Yiddish Proverb)
- “If somebody makes me laugh, I’m his slave for life.” (Bette Midler)
- Says writer Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: “Humor allows us to approach threatening subjects in a non-threatening way... Most people find it difficult to receive information from someone who has little or no sense of humor.”
- “You cannot teach people unless you have their attention. . . by using illustrations, questions and even humor. Most people don’t like to be preached at, but most people like to be talked to.” (Firm Foundations, by Trevor McIlwain, New Tribes Mission)
- “Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.” (Vaclav Havel)
- Spurgeon’s emphasis on humor in Christian proclamation and living was so marked that it occupies a whole chapter in his autobiography. There is no doubt that his humor was a major factor in his ability to communicate clearly – he was able to "get away" with very strong statements precisely because they rode on the back of jest.
- “If you ask me, I think it is often just as sacred to laugh as it is to pray . . . or preach . . . or witness. But then – laughter is a witness in many ways. We have been misled by a twisted, unbalanced mind if we have come to think of laughter and fun as being carnal or even questionable.” (Chuck Swindoll, in his article says The Winsome Witness. [Winsome = win some?])
- “Research shows that when people laugh together, they not only enjoy themselves, but they are more receptive to new ideas,” says Outreach Comedy – a ministry which arranges comedy events for evangelism.
- Christian humorist, writer and evangelist Jim Watkins writes, “Humor is one language that everyone can understand. It breaks down barriers between people. If you can share a laugh with someone, you’ve connected with that person. The defenses come down, and there’s a desire to continue the dialog. And secondly, humor is ‘laughing gas’. You’re not going to stay in the dentist’s chair and allow him or her to drill away on a root canal unless you’re hopped up with plenty of anesthetic. So humor is the laughing gas that allows us to drill away at the abscessed areas of another person’s life.” For more of Jim’s valuable insights, see his article Using Humor to Spread the Word.
- In the old days of kings who ruled with absolute power, only the court jester could safely tell the King the truth, mediated through humor. Anyone else who attempted plain speaking was in danger of an ongoing head-loss situation.
- The word basar (preach) in, for example, Isaiah 61 carries a strong implication of, if not exactly humor, then cheerfulness. Strong’s Concordance says the word means “to be fresh, i.e. full (rosy, fig. cheerful; to annnounce (glad news) ... bear, carry, preach, tell good tidings.”
The Bible. Funny?Someone asked recently in a newspaper, “Are there any jokes in the Bible?” It is filled with humor – usually wry Jewish witticisms, hyperbole and idiom! “You can tame every animal on earth, but not the tongue,” says James. “Yeah, yeah,” says Micaiah to King Ahab, “You’ll win the battle for sure.” (I Kings 22). “I don’t want to twist your arm, but hey, you owe me on this one,” (Paul to Philemon). [Loose paraphrases] Paul amusingly quotes the ‘liar paradox’ in reference to Cretans, which children still play as the game of ‘opposites’. (Titus 1:12).
Many of the Proverbs communicate timeless wisdom with a smile and a wink. God invented humor! So surely we would expect Jesus to use it. And He does, frequently. Many of the parables are intrinsically amusing cameos. They were surely not delivered as deadpan monologues, but in the style of the story-teller with voices and gestures to match (and much two-way banter) – and with very likely from time to time the involvement of children or other listeners as props. This method of communication was very near to street theater!
Here are more thoughts from different Christian writers:
- “Full recognition of Christ’s humor has been surprisingly rare. In many of the standard efforts to write the Life of Christ there is no mention of humour at all and, when there is any, it is usually confined to a hint or two." (Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ)
- “Jesus was always had snappy oneliners ready for the occasion, such as, ‘Let the dead bury their dead,’ and ‘The poor you always have with you.’ It’s how you tell them! Try these prefaced with a heavy shrug and ‘Oy Vay’.” (Adrian Williams)
- “Jesus has a particular eye for the ironical and paradoxical. He gave His disciples nicknames:
Peter the Rock who was big on words, but a coward when it mattered; James and John, hotheads,
were ‘Sons of Thunder’. He told stories about judges who gave justice only after being pestered repeatedly,
businessmen who amassed riches only to die the next day, and about priests too precious to
help a man who had been beaten up. He talked about people who gave stones in the place of bread,
and saw the speck in the eye of another but ignored the log in their own eye. He talked
about the blind leading the blind. He called the holy men of his day
(Rev Peter Weatherby)
- “Many of His comments would have had the audience laughing incontrollably, while at the same time making a deep point.
The pictures of ‘blind Pharisees straining at a gnat but swallowing a camel’
is hilarious. Similarly
it is reckoned that sheperds were the butt of Galilean society’s jokes, and so the one about the shepherd
leaving the 99 to search for just one, would have also raised a laugh.” (George Newton)
- How often there was a twinkle in the eye of Jesus!
His humor shines through his words. For instance, Jesus once pictured the
religious legalists of his day. He said they were like a man who polished the
outside of his drinking cup, but forgot to clean the inside.
“You are like a person,” said Jesus, “who picks a fly out of his drink and then swallows a camel”
(Matthew 23:24). Jesus made his point by a humorous exaggeration. He
used the same kind of humor when he said, “It is much harder for a rich man
to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a
There must have been a twinkle in his eye when he
talked about the fault-finder: “Why do you notice the little piece of sawdust
that is in your brother’s eye, but you don’t notice the big piece of wood
that is in your own eye?”
The humor of Jesus show us the quickness of his mind and the playfulness of his outlook. Long before Mary Poppins, Jesus knew that a “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” How much we need the humor of Jesus today! We get deadly serious about his words and miss the humor in them. Jesus talked about the necessity of communicating his message. He made this point by an absurd picture: “Does anyone bring a lamp home and put it under a washtub or beneath the bed? Don’t you put it up on a table or on the mantel?” (Mark 4:21).
Jesus did not fit the pattern of what people expected a holy man to be like. Luke reported: “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently” (Luke 15:1). The religion scholars were not pleased and growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends” (Luke 15:2). Jesus’ cousin, John, had followers who fasted all the time. Jesus and his followers had a reputation for eating and drinking. Again, Jesus reached for a humorous image to portray his contemporaries. He said about them: “They’re like spoiled children complaining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk but you were always too busy.’ John the Baptist came fasting and you called him crazy. The Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite term for himself) came feasting and you called him a lush” (Luke 7:31-34). I believe that Jesus would approve this little prayer:
God, give me sympathy and common sense,(Source: Off the Church Walls)
And help me home with courage high.
God, give me calm and confidence
And please – a twinkle in my eye.”
Looking for itThere is much whimsical word-play and punning, particularly in the Old Testament in the naming of people and places. Bible footnotes often explain these meanings.
Humor is embedded into so much of the Bible, yet often we don’t notice it because we don’t expect it to be there. Modern paraphrases (e.g. The Message or The Living Bible often bring out this humor more clearly. Mark or highlight humorous verses in your Bible as you read it, and you will be surprised just how many marks you make.
Comedian Spike Milligan was tragically unable to see the humor in the New Testament which he was convinced must have been there.
“Jesus never compared the Kingdom of God to a religious experience in a temple, but with a party or celebration!”
says church growth consultant
Books and websites about communication and humorSurprisingly little has been written (either online or in print) about the use of humor in the Bible, or its value in Christian communication and evangelism. Although humor is now used much more in the church than in past times, there is still a sometimes a lack of appreciation that it is in fact a key to good communication, that we have a biblical mandate to use it, and that the Bible is full of humor. There are only a handful of books on this subject!
- Serve Him with Mirth by Leslie B Flynn, 1960
A classic, now available as a free
e-bookon this site (in PDF, DOC, RTF, MS E-book and HTML formats). It is a thorough and focused survey from a conservative evangelical viewpoint.
- 500 Clean Jokes and Humorous Stories - and How to Tell Them500 Clean Jokes and Humorous Stories: And How to Tell Them
R & L Wright, Barbour Publishers, Ohio, ISBN 1-57748-244-1
Much more than a joke book, this explains the value and purpose of humor, and how to use it in public speaking. Furthermore, although written by Christians (formerly evangelists with CCCI) it cleverly positions itself as a book for non-Christians, and only partway through the book do the authors begin to include sensitive and accessible comments about their faith. It is thus a rare example of a book using the Bridge Strategy.
- The Humor of Christ,
by Elton Trueblood, 1964
Another classic on the topic. He only covers humor in the ministry of Jesus, and from a looser theological viewpoint than Flynn; nevertheless the book offers some valuable insights. It is helpful in understanding Jesus’ use of irony: things which would otherwise be hard to interpret.
- The Humor of Jesus
by Henri Cormier, 1977
Alba House, New York, ISBN 0-8189-0356-2, $5.95
A refreshing and insightful look into the ways Jesus used humor throughout his ministry. Cormier’s background is not only a that of a French-Canadian born in 1909 – of whose generation we might expect a more formal religious viewpoint – but also a life-long Catholic priest. Yet you can count on the fingers of one hand any passing references to doctrines which might be regarded as uniquely Catholic. His gentle treatment of the subject is thoroughly biblical and a pleasure to read.
- The Humor of Jesus
by Earl F Palmer, 2001
Regent College Publishing, ISBN 1-57383-180-8
Throws further light on the types of humor which Jesus used.
- And God Created Laughter
by Conrad Hyers, 1987
John Knox Press, ISBN 0-8042-1653-3
Focuses on the essentially comic nature of much that happens in the Bible.
If you know of other books or web-pages on this subject, please write.
Using humor in online outreachHow can we incorporate humor into online evangelism?
- The Web is a young and light-hearted medium. A witty or self-deprecating style of writing is appropriate for most types of website. Pomposity and Taking Yourself Seriously no longer communicate well, if indeed they ever did, though they are not unknown in the Christian world. Even serious print publications use far more wit and irony than before. A hobby magazine that I like has recently put in place a new house-style. Gone are the reverential, sober articles. Contributors are required to be witty, conversational, and cynical: they are rising effortlessly to the style. The result? A far more readable magazine with an interesting extra benefit – the humor actually makes the facts of each article easier to remember.
- Amusing or challenging secular quotations can be used to illustrate particular subjects, and can be used in the margin of a webpage in little boxes. There are many printed sources of such quotations. The Oxford Book of Humorous Quotations by Ned Sherrin is just one of many – check your library or bookstore. There are many online sources for quotes too.
- Sites can be built around appropriate non-religious online jokes and cartoons, yet also include links to appropriate evangelistic material. Ray Comfort uses this strategy. A satirical site such as Ship of Fools can also be very accessible to non-Christians. Essay Generator uses humor in a very creative way.
- A jokes page can be added to any evangelistic website – see for example Hollywood Jesus. Humor should be a part of any children’s evangelistic site.
- We can create humor websites or email lists which offer clean humor plus sensitive Christian input, in a way which is acceptable to non-Christians. Much of Jim Watkins’ material is accessible to non-Christians.
- Ship of Fools is a side-splittingly funny Christian satire site.
- Cartoons can be used on webpages of any type and there are many sources of free cartoons (both religious and secular) which can be syndicated directly into your own pages.
More humor links
- Sermon Fodder
- Laughter: tool for preaching
- Mikey’s Funnies
- Christian humor pages
- Puns Galore
- Quotation Search
related pages within the Reach outsiders menu links
recommended books about evangelism principles, including free downloads
valuable online videos about web ministry