Using humor effectively

Michael J. Brooks / Columnist

This is an opinion column.

A lady remarked a few months ago how much she enjoyed the pastor’s good humor in the pulpit. I remembered  how someone else in a different place responded to a worship survey: “The pulpit is no place for levity. The pastor should refrain from joking.”

I’m sure there’s truth in both observations. The pulpit is not a place for stand-up comedy. The responsibility of sharing God’s word is a heavy weight indeed. The ancient prophet Malachi called it the “burden” of God’s word. Many of us older pastors, now wiser, have apologized to our families that we’d often been preoccupied on weekends as the task of preaching loomed before us. Pastors are generally more relaxed on Saturday when guest preachers are scheduled on Sunday!

On the other hand, Solomon insisted laughter is good medicine (Proverbs 17:22). Medical professionals agree we need a daily dose of laughter to counter the anxieties of our age. And we have a notable example. Theologian Elton Trueblood wrote “The Humor of Christ” in 1975. He insisted many of the sayings of Jesus were actually Aramaic “punch lines” provoking laughter as a teaching tool. Public speakers know that humor and stories, or anecdotes, are what people most often “take away” from presentations; thus linking these to scriptural principles can make a speaker more effective.

But a good lesson to remember about humor is it can be misinterpreted and can be hurtful.

Many of us in public service are expected to be conversational and in good spirit as we meet and greet others during the week. Familiarity means we might have a shared dialogue with those we know well, such as restaurant servers. For example, I know several bank tellers by name. When they ask how they can help me, I sometimes say, “Turn off the cameras and give me all your money.” We laugh, but I wouldn’t dare say this to an employee I don’t know and risk arrest! New people we meet or those we don’t know well may be offended by banter they interpret as rude or insensitive when we’re simply trying to be light-hearted.

Wit to one may be insult to another, so public figures need to be swift to offer apology as needed.

Perhaps the safest kind of humor is self-deprecating, or humor at our own expense. First lady Barbara Bush was masterful at this. When the Bushes came to the White House in 1989, reporters asked Mrs. Bush how she was different from former first lady Nancy Reagan.

“Well,” she said, “Nancy is a size 4 and I’m a size 44!”

Self-deprecating humor is generally safe, and if used wisely, can be appropriate and effective in our presentations and conversations.

Reflections is a weekly devotional column written by Michael J. Brooks, pastor of the Siluria Baptist Church in Alabaster, Ala. The church’s website is siluriabaptist.com.