I’m a sucker for a good story, and what Disney has done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe weaving stories throughout seventeen movies and counting is nothing short of astounding. So as I sat there on opening weekend and watched Thor Ragnarok, I was blown away by one simple truth: just how funny it was. The first two Thor movies were a little darker and more somber. This one started with laughs and they just kept coming. In a world of diminishing returns, the third installment of Thor has easily outpaced its predecessors in opening weekend box office returns, and it scored the highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes. Why? In large part, because it was hilarious. That’s the one thing people at my church keep talking about when they mention the movie: just how funny it was.
Funny works. Funny can be compelling. Funny can be an integral part even of today’s sermon, even though it seems (to some) unspiritual to do so. The trend many are going with is to start their sermon intense right out of the gate and to never let up, as if God is more glorified if you can stress your audience out for thirty minutes straight. I’m not saying that a sermon needs to be stand-up comedy, but humor can and should be used strategically in a sermon to engage audiences and take them along with you on your journey that day.
Humor is a great way to start a message because humor breaks down walls. Between any speaker and audience, especially if there are guests, there are walls of skepticism and unconnectedness built up. If you start hitting them with truth right out of the gate, that truth will run straight into the defensive brick walls that the audience has built up. Something as simple as shared laughter can break down walls, build the beginning of a bond between the speaker and an audience, and can make the deeper truths you want to communicate more palatable to a skeptical audience.
One of humor’s main strategic uses in a sermon is to release the tension in the room, allowing you to build it right back up. Here’s what I mean: let’s say that the intensity of a sermon is on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lightest and 10 being the most intense. Some communicators think they need to get to 10 as quickly as possible and stay there. They’ll start the sermon intense and almost angry, and then proceed to stay there for the next 45 minutes. If you red line the intensity of a sermon for that long, you’re most likely going to exhaust and possibly lose your audience. Strategic humor releases the tension, allowing you to build it back up. If you start the intensity of your sermon at a 6 and build it up to a 9, a well-planned joke releases the tension back to a 6, gives everyone a short breather, and then allows you to build the intensity right back. At the end of the sermon you still have everyone where you want them to be, but now they don’t feel like they just ran a marathon.
Finally, good use of humor in a message is a surefire way to keep guests and audiences coming back. As spiritual as you hope they might be, the question most guests ask themselves when they decide whether or not they’ll come back is simply, “Did I enjoy myself at this church?” If people laugh, they have fun and they’re more likely to come back. If your goal is to preach at a high intensity to a gradually declining group of insiders, by all means reject any form of humor. But if you want the chance to assimilate guests into your church (meaning they’ll need to come back regularly), humor will always give you a better shot at connecting with a guest through a message. And guess what? When guests come back and people get saved, that definitely glorifies God.