A question about preaching: What’s so funny?

Sunday, my pastor and I were sitting in the sacristy, listening to a visiting priest preaching on the 7th Sunday of Easter.  Evidently, he was keeping the congregation in stitches.

This priest was a goldmine of winsome stories and wry observations — a few of his jokes were threadbare, and I’d heard them before, but that didn’t seem to matter to the people in the pews — and he seemed to have the church in the palm of his hand.

My pastor shifted uncomfortably in his seat and cleared his throat. “You know what you never do in your homilies, deacon?,” he said to me.  “What?,” I replied.  He arched his eyebrow and narrowed his eyes with that “I’m-about-to-criticize-you” look I know so well.

“You never tell jokes.”

I smiled.  “There’s a reason for that.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I suck at it.”

That may not have been the answer he expected.  He nodded, as if he didn’t quite know what to say.  And we returned to listening to the side-splitting homily going on outside the sacristy door.

All of which made me wonder: how important is humor in preaching?  Or is it?  I’m generally not a big fan of preachers who turn the homily into a Tonight Show monologue — complete with everything but the band and a periodic rimshot.  But I have to admit: I admire the guys who can effortlessly toss off a funny observation or tell a story that results in hoots and thigh-slapping, all the while somehow finding a kernel of spiritual and theological truth.  (Yes, Cardinal Dolan, I’m looking at you.)

But I’m not like that.

My efforts at humor in the pulpit are usually met with the chirping of crickets.  At best, a few people might politely chortle.  But that’s about it.  So I save the yucks for my wife, who loves me anyway and thinks almost everything I say — including “Did you get your hair cut?” — is a scream.  Go figure.

But it also seems to me, and always has seemed to me, that the Word of God is serious business, that we live in a markedly serious age, and that some of the best anecdotes and stories that I use to illustrate my homilies are ones that provoke some measure of serious, sober thought.  I think we need that today.  And I think it does help keep those seven minutes in the ambo from being boring.  But maybe I overdo it.  A woman who was a leader of song in our parish recently moved to Florida and sent me an e-mail saying “I miss your homilies and having a good cry.”  And just the other week my pastor asked me before Mass, “How is your homily?  Let me guess: someone dies.”

Har har. Okay.  Point taken.

But what do you think about humor in homilies?  I’m curious to hear how often preachers out there employ it.

Pope Benedict, it should be noted, isn’t exactly Chuckles the Clown, and no one will ever confuse him with Jay Leno.  Then again, his job is a little different from mine, and a little different from anybody else who has to compel a restless congregation to stop worrying about the cell phone going off and the baby who needs changing and the strange mole on the neck of the woman sitting in front of you.  Every preacher, every speaker, has to remember his audience.

But what do you think?

  • michele

    I like a homily that teaches me something or gives me some insight. If the priest or deacon uses humor effectively, that’s great…but I guess I would appreciate a 7 minute homily, too. Haven’t heard one of those in years.

  • Deacon V

    I suppose my use of humor depends on the crowd. I’ll usually preach one weekend a month, so that’s the Saturday night, and 3 Masses on Sunday. The Saturday night folks are receptive to it, the 7AM Mass crowd isn’t awake enough to appreciate it’s use, 8:30 is a toss up, but the 10:30 is loaded with families and is our most lively and energetic Mass. Humor, where appropriate, is effective when used correctly.

    My Homily style has evolved away from a scripted, or even note-card/outline from into a more conversational tone. It’s all been rehearsed over and over and…over again but seems to be what my parishioners are most responsive to and it fits my personality as well.

  • http://Fathermichaeldenk.blogspot.com Fr. Michael Denk

    I find humor is a wonderful way to build intimacy. Think about it, you really have to be vulnerable to let out a good laugh. I think my best homilies are the ones where they laugh and they cry. Again, both laughter and tears take a great deal of trust… they are raw emotion and can really help people open up to the Spirit. I think we can’t force it, but if we can laugh above all at ourselves it can allow people to laugh too at themselves in all humility. Humor, I believe is a derivative of humility…. Of the earth. And isn’t that why God became incarnate?

    I read your blog daily! Keep it up!

  • Win Nelson

    I enjoy Father Barron’s sermons each week and listen to them before Mass. He’s rarely humorous, although this past Sunday, both Mom and I snorted when he threw in a comment that there weren’t chairs in Heaven.I don’t listen to Father Barron because he’s funny. I listen to him because he delivers the Good News in an approachable, yet heart opening way.

    Deacon Greg, please be relaxed and please be yourself. I enjoy reading your Homilies.

    Don’t worry if the others tell jokes. Sometimes, when a joke or funny story goes over well, the congregation is still thinking about the joke rather than the rest of the Homily.

  • Win Nelson

    :D It’s so early I forgot that I meant yesterday’s sermon!

  • Joe

    Fr. Barron brings an love of discovery to the way he presnts. He gives a sense of the awe of God everytime he gives a theological point he wants us to remeber. And he smiles when he shares this.

  • Fr.David

    Being authentic is what’s important. If humor is part of your personality, it should be part of your preaching. There is also a difference between using humor and telling jokes.

  • vox borealis

    I generally hate humor in homilies. But then, I am not a fan of homilies in general. While it is certainly a prescribed part of the liturgy, I tend to find the homily disruptive to the overall flow of the mass. It’s even worse when Father Wisecracker has everyone guffawing. I go to mass to worship and receive a sacrament, not to giggle or to have the priest ramble on for 25 minutes (even if he is saying good things). Keep the homilies as short as possible; stick to the readings; cut the jokes. That would make me a happy lay person.

    Of course, I am probably in the minority on this.

  • James

    Our pastor occasionally tells a joke for the sake of a laugh. English being his second/third language, he then over-explains the joke, which sounds really annoying. In fact, it is entirely endearing and funny on a number of levels.

    I appreciate homilies that run the gamut: some make me chuckle, some challenge me, some I chew on for the rest of the week. I recommended your homily prep blog-entry during a recent homiletics course, because your results are consistently solid.

  • http://breadhere.wordpress.com Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Deacon Greg, there are many gifts, but one Spirit. You use your gifts so generously, and from what I have seen in your written homilies, your gifts are apparent. Cardinal Dolan, the visiting priest and others, they use their gifts.

    For me it is about humor having meaning. I love that in a homily. Throwaway jokes, ack. So you do what you do, and let others do what they do. And may there be many smiles, laughs and also insights, in great homilies everywhere. May there be great homilies everywhere!

  • Dcn Luis

    Effective homilies can have humor IF the humor actually brings home an important point from the readings.

    Preachers who string one joke or anecdote after another may entertain the congregation but I fear the people don’t often leave with anything of value.

    Preaching is more art than science- and good preaching must rely upon the anointing of the Holy Spirit, for both the preacher and the hearers.

    What constitutes good preaching? That’s hard to answer. I would say that good preaching is when both the preacher and listeners leave the church as changed individuals ready to carry out the mandate to glorify God by their lives.

    And I have had my own homilies strike me to the heart – not in preparation but as the words came out of my mouth in the church – not often but when it happens – WOW!

    I just attended a class on Lectio Divina. While I’ve never done Lectio formally on the readings I was going to preach- I think that I must do it unconsciously. As soon as I am schedule to preach I read the readings for that day and constantly ruminate about them over the week- Ideas come and go. Often when I sent down words through the keys the place that I thought was so clever just go away. I put that down to the guidance of the Spirit. Sometimes I draw a blank but then something forms in the fog.

    DGK- my advice to you is just keep on keeping on. I for one find your homilies beneficial.

    vox borealis, regardless of the homily does the divine word of God as proclaimed at Mass affect you? Regardless of the preaching the Gospel is power in itself if we let it.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    Deacon, the point of public speaking is to draw the audience in and the beginning of the speech is critical to getting the audience to focus and be engaged. Funny stories or jokes are one method of doing that. Telling an engaging seriuos story is another. The thing not to do is start with abstractions and pure ideas. Start with the tangible, something the audience can identify with and then progress toward an idea. Don’t start from something very intellectual, for example justification by faith, and expect your audience be engaged. Start with a story that dramatises the idea, has an internal sense of conflict, and your audience will follow you toward that idea. From what I’ve seen of your sermons, you pretty much do that. Humor helps put the audience at ease. But if it’s not your thing then I wouldn’t force it. You have to be yourself.

  • anthony

    i agree with the comments that find just telling “jokes” very tedious. they can also just be an attempt to cover up a lack of preparation, or an insecurity that seeks the congregations approval.

    but real humor is something different. real humor comes from deep humility (not taking one self too seriously), from inner acceptance, (can get out of our masks or defenses), and shows a real openness (to be vulnerable).

    there is something beautiful when we can look back on our life and just laugh at our foolishness or immaturity from past situations and can be free enough to share it. and when we do share it, others are not laughing at us, but with us because they can relate to “being there, done that”.

    in this sense i think humor is a sign that the preacher is comfortable “in his own skin” and does not just hide behind a role or mask.

  • http://bazzerman.blogspot.com/ Barry Mellish

    If humour is to be used I think it best when it flows naturally as part of the story you are trying to tell, rather than the “here is a joke”. An amusing personal anecdote on how you were affected by the Gospel is great or perhaps what is more effective is the amusing story of when you did not follow the Gospel message.
    We are all different, than God, and adopt your style, not anyone elses.

  • Nate

    Interesting question. One risks sounding like the humorless Jorge of Burgos in being too down on humor in homilies. But dare I say, the old scowling librarian had a point? Ha ha.

    Dunno. Seems to me that jokes shouldn’t have a place in the Mass for the same reason that chit chattiness and clappy clappy to and fro shouldn’t either. The Mass is serious business. More than that though (and here’s Jorge again): a priest friend of mine argues that chit chattiness and such is a sign of skepticism and disbelief. I suppose he’s making a behaviorist point: if you really believed this stuff, you’d take it seriously, and it’d show in your behavior and how you conducted Mass (and how you conducted yourself in the pew). Perhaps that’s extreme, and a bit reductionist, but the argument isn’t crazy. Certainly we can see correlations, even if we admit that psychology is more complicated than this.
    I guess I agree with my priest friend, generally speaking, at the risk of sounding like a scowling librarian.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd Flowerday

    I like the distinction between jokes and humor. Bloggers and commentators often attempt one or the other and they fail or rarely succeed for the same reason they do in homilies: people have difficulty with poor humor–that related at the expense of others. I take insight over humor any day–if I had to make a choice. But in the hands of a skilled speaker, there’s nothing wrong with humor, if it is a means to a better end.

  • http://www.ironiccatholic.com Ironic Catholic

    As long as the humor is NOT THE POINT OF THE HOMILY. I like humor (I run a humor blog for goodness sakes) but a little goes a long, long way in a homily.

  • MGW

    Was there humor at Calvary?

  • deaconnecessary

    I have found over the years that there is value in effectively using humor in a homily. It can help to get a point across.
    I also am a fan of the short homily. We are a culture of the 30 second sound bite. People’s attention spans are not what they used to be. When I preach, I make my points and sit down. My homiletic rule of thumb is “Say it in 7.”
    I have found that after about seven minutes, members of the congregation begin looking at their watches, or their minds wander.

  • Deacon Steve

    I occasionally use a joke or funny story in a homily. But only if it is relevant to my point and to the readings. A joke just for the sake of telling a joke has no place because it disrupts the flow from the readings into the homily. I use a variety of things to draw into my homilies, depending on which mass at the parish that I am serving. For the Life Teen mass on Divine Mercy Sunday I started by asking the teens to Id a quote, which was from the Hunger Games. They got the quote, then I drew them into the homily and how the events in the novel were the exact opposite of what we could expect from God’s merciful love. It worked for that group, it would not have worked for the 5:00 PM Saturday vigil mass. Most of the people that attend that mass would never have heard of the Hunger Games. We have to know our audience, know the material, and know ourselves to preach effectively. If we are out of sink with any of those three things then our homilies are doomed to failure. If we are true to those three things, then the Holy Spirit can do his work in the hearts and minds of those who are listening.

  • Notgiven

    Oh yes! There is a great little book by Father Henri Cormier, CJM, titled “The Humor of Jesus” that tells all about humor in Jesus’ life, even to the end. Yes, Jesus was a man of humor, a man of joy! That said, his humor is based in truth and humility. The more steeped you are in the Word of God, the more you will find humor in it. Joy is a trademark of a true Christian.

    I can’t tell you how often I chuckle when the Word is being read. One of my favorite humorous lines is “I saw you under the fig tree!” I used that once when a lector came in early to prepare for Mass. “How did you know I was here?” she said. “I saw you under the fig tree,” I replied. We laughed and laughed and laughed.

    That said, a little humor to draw the listener in is fine with me. But, a homily that uses lots of jokes or amusing anecdotes is a real turn off. Why? Because, although I enjoy the entertainment, I rarely remember what the speaker was talking about or how it related to the gospel. What I remember are the jokes or the homilist’s personal story which turns out to be about him, him, him. That’s not in keeping with what a homily is supposed to do. A homily is supposed break open the word of God and make it present in our lives. In doing so, it cooperates with the Word by being a springboard for conversion, metanoia. For most people, homilies are the only catecheses they get in their adult lives. Preachers who waste that opportunity by filling up their homilies with catchy jokes and funny anecdotes are not doing their jobs.

    So, Deacon Greg, keep up the good work. Your homilies are excellent…and you ARE doing your job. God bless you.

  • Donna G

    You’re in a minority of two, then!

  • David J. White

    Three. One of the reasons I really love going to daily traditional Latin Low Mass, when I can, is that there generally isn’t a sermon or homily of any kind.

    That said, skillful use of humor as an ice-breaker and leavener is one thing. Lucretius commented that physicians in his time, when giving medicine to a child, would rub some honey on the edge of the cup to make the medicine go down easier. But humor, like spice, is best used sparingly, to enhance the flavor of the dish, not overwhelm it. I have heard too many homilies from priests who don’t seem to understand the difference between preaching to a congregation and open-mike night at the Improv.

  • Ty

    Deacon Greg, I enjoy your homilies. Thanks for posting them online. I’m not against some humour if it helps us remember the readings.

  • Paul Gutting

    When my youngest was confirmed, the Bishop had them write about their favorite Catholic. He read my sons letter that day. My boy named me his favorite Catholic in part because when I preached, I sounded like I believed in what I was saying. I was floored and very humbled. An occasional joke is great. I believe God has a wicked cool sense of humor, after all he created children. Even more effective is a visual aide or Show and Tell. My pet peeve is that there are 43,800 minutes in a month. I get to preach once a month. Somehow 7 minutes just doesn’t seem enough time to impart everything the Spirit packed into my heart for that once a month trip to the ambo. I believe it was St. Francis de Sales who, instructing a new priest on the art of giving a homily, advised him that a good homily is never too long and to start at 30 minutes and work up from there. I cannot imagine Rolex the Archangel pulling the watch out on Jesus. I don’t like hearing myself talk nor do I think I am a gifted homilist. Be authentic, it works so much better than cerebral. Have you noticed after tackling a sensitive and difficult subject, abortion, HHS Ruling, Our Culture and the like, parishioners seem to resonate with the homily?

  • Midwestlady

    I actually don’t like it much, especially golf jokes.

    I used to live in a parish where the priest used to preach about little woodland animals, as if we were toddlers. There were lots of jokes and the point to every homily was somebody loves somebody, no matter how short or long the story was.

    The laugh lines were there to keep people from getting too bored. I think that’s the only reason. You can only listen to so many squirrel stories before you tune out or start to sneak reading literature into church to keep from losing your mind.

  • Midwestlady

    I’m going to admit something publicly and you all are probably going to jump all over me for it, but here goes. I can do it in here, because a) what I’m going to say is true, and b) I’m not attacking anyone personally, heaven forbid. I revere priests because they bring us the Eucharist.

    But I’ve heard so many really, really bad homilies that I’m a tough sell after all these years. By bad, I mean repetitive, trite, squirrelly, homilies with forest woodland creature jokes and golf jokes. (Literally, see my post above about the fluffy little squirrell homilies in my old parish.)

    I have to work to listen to them. I used to be a high school teacher and I can tell almost immediately if the priest is “winging it.” This makes it even harder for me to be attentive. Please don’t do that to people. Don’t do it to me!

  • Midwestlady

    Yes, and he always really has something to say. I’ve seen his video series. You listen so you don’t miss it.

  • jplacette

    I have been involved in correctional ministry for about 10 years. Your post reminded me of a story:

    A new inmate arrives in prison. As he enters a dining hall, one inmate stands and says, “25″ and the room explodes in laughter. Another inmate stands and says, “87″ and again the laughter erupts.

    The new inmate asked an old inmate what was happening. The old inmate relates that most of the inmates had been there so long that they numbered the jokes and rather than tell each one over and over they just used the numbers.

    The next week the new inmate stands and shouts “34″. No one laughed. He asked the old inmate what had happened. The old inmate looked at him, shrugged and said, “You know, some people can tell a joke and some can’t.”

    God bless.

  • Timmay

    Like with all comedy, when done by somebody with a “knack”, humor can be an effective communication tool. As for the Homily in general, I love ‘em, but only when given by a good public speaker. I think all Priests and Deacons need to join their local chapter of Toastmasters. :)

  • anonymous

    The best homilies authentically preach the Word of God! (and I am partial to the ones that have enough depth to move to tears.)

  • Steph

    Really? A sermon should be the result of one month of reflection? That is bad. Shouldn’t you have other way to express your faith maybe in a bible sharing group in the parish? Short and to the point! Use stories or anecdote but do not use the congregation as your sounding board of your reflections. Convey the Holy Spirit’s message in the most sincere way.


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