Religion Magazine

A Funny Thing Happened…

By Richardl @richardlittleda

… on the way to the pulpit

When I was first taught to preach, I was told that illustrations should be like ‘the windows’ on a sermon. The trouble is, to quote the patter of a magician friend, they can be like old windows:

  • hard to see though
  • difficult to shut up
  • always a pane

Illustrations can illustrate the wrong thing – such as the preacher’s particular preferences or peccadilloes.  They can be too interesting – absorbing the mind of the listener so much that they are led far away from the topic in hand and cannot find their way back. They can be too dull – simply unworthy of the listener’s attention. Humorous illustrations can occasionally be the last resort of the desperate preacher, hooked on the reassuring sound of other people’s laughter. Not only that, but so much humor relies, albeit unintentionally, on the mocking or belittling of the ‘other’, whoever that other may be.

Research published today has revealed that congregations have more of an appetite for Biblical instruction and practical application than poor humor or personal anecdote. This, surely, is not unexpected?  When people gather in a religious setting whose core includes Bible reading, it would be more surprising if they were looking for humor. This survey may be in danger of illustrating its own point about scratching where people are not itching. There is s joke in there somewhere about a man walking into a comedy club and looking for a sermon…

Writing about the survey in a national newspaper, the columnist talks about the faint titter of polite congregations laughing at an un-funny joke being “a sound as familiar in British churches as organ music or an echoing cough from the back row.”  It seems to me there are an awful lot of churches where neither echoes nor organ music are familiar sounds anyway. There is a joke in there somewhere about a religious correspondent walking into a church…

In 2009 a comedian tripped over  a tweet of mine about the Natwivity, fell into my Twitter feed,  and became a good friend.  I have seen her perform her ‘sorry to the Lady’ routine live and read her account of the gruelling stand-up trail. On one occasion I unwittingly contributed to her Easter newspaper column, and she kindly added to my wordle biography with the following descriptions:

#Teddingtonsrockin’vicar #theacceptablefaceoftrendyvicardom #priestlyuberconnector #TheTwitterVicar #socialmediasermoniser

Like another comedian, now rightly mourned, hers is a kind humor – born of keen observation. The golden thread to communication, whether from political orators, stand-up comedians or preachers is connection.  Time invested in understanding your audience will repay dividends long after the sound of laughter has died away. Preachers should spend more time getting to know their audience than practicing their gags, I think.

Years ago Boy George described church as ‘God’s theater on earth’ and said he should be ‘packing them in’.  If he is not, then it is as likely to be because of what goes on Monday to Saturday as it is with ‘performance’ on a Sunday.


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