The Rev. Dr. Jake Myers literally wrote the book on how comics can help preachers hone their homiletical humor
September 12, 2022
Those who attended the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers recent webinar learned how well humor can work, even when it’s delivered from behind the pulpit.
The Rev. Dr. Jake Myers, who teaches homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary, led a 90-minute webinar called “Preaching Jokes to Power.” The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, interim executive at Synod of the Covenant, hosts the webinars, which are open on the first Wednesday each month to people both inside and outside the bounds of the synod.
Watch Myers’ talk here.
“Standup comedy enthralls and terrifies preachers,” said Myers, who recently wrote the book “Stand-Up Preaching: Homiletical Insights from Contemporary Comedians.” Myers served congregations before joining the faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary in 2015. Yet there’s overlap between the stand-up comic and the preacher. Both are alone on a stage. Both use microphones. Both “have an end we are trying to accomplish,” Myers said.
There are differences, of course. “When I preach and I look for reactions, I don’t get the same feedback a comic gets,” Myers said. “No one ever falls out of the pew laughing at my jokes. I have never been heckled in the pulpit. In churches, the standards of decency are elevated from the way they are in the real world. Certain topics are taboo.”
Saint Augustine taught that preachers have three goals: to teach, to delight and to persuade. “I am interested in people who do all three,” Myers said.
Early on in his talk, Myers delivered this disclaimer: Sermons involve a “serious person proclaiming serious words in a serious way. Stand-up comedy seems to be the opposite,” Myers said. “Will our efforts help people think we don’t take this task as seriously as we do? A comic doesn’t have to bury someone’s mom the next day or marry someone’s kids the following weekend.”
“Whenever we’re preaching,” Myers said, “we’re never not pastoring.”
He asked webinar participants, nearly all of them preachers, if they’ve “weighed the risks of homiletical humor against your preaching context. Some congregations have a lighter spirit where certain topics are allowed. Other topics are absolutely taboo.”
“Are you willing to show your congregation who you really are?” Myers asked. It was Sigmund Freud who “linked jokes and dreams as points of revelation of who we are.”
“Extemporaneous jokes,” Myers said, “can be a risky thing.”
“Are you willing to be misunderstood?” Myers asked. People expect to laugh at a comedy club, but maybe not so much in church.
“Are you willing to do more work? It’s hard work to write good jokes,” Myers said. Preaching “is different from the work of standup comics. Once we tell a story, it’s over. The timing has to be right. A lot of us learned to preach from manuscripts,” but “people won’t laugh at a joke that’s read to them.”
Finally, “Are you willing to lose your job?” That’s not even a consideration for Myers and his colleagues. “I have a wonderful tenure track position here at Columbia Seminary,” Myers said.
Myers makes a distinction between the comical and the humorous. “Comical does humorous plus a little bit more,” Myers said. Comical “is associated with the social and political in nature.” Exemplars include Sarah Silverman and John Oliver. “It aims at laughter plus critique.”
Humorists aim for laughs. They include Jim Gaffigan, Ellen DeGeneres and Stephen Colbert, according to Myers.
Myers then asked for input — and got it.
“I often use provocative sermon titles,” said one participant, including “Shoutout to a Prostitute” and “Let’s Get Naked.”
“Knowing who you’re speaking to is huge. People expect me to be funny, and I even incorporate it into funerals,” this preacher said. “We take life so seriously. Everybody needs to laugh — even in the midst of the worst times in a person’s life.”
Myers labeled the use of humor from the pulpit “another tool for your homiletical toolbelt.”
“It helps us think about the structure of our sermons — not plopping stories into our sermons but thinking about the way our sermons move.”
“The comical,” Myers said, “can help to facilitate that work.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Comics help preachers hone their homiletical humor
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Let us pray
Loving God, help us to remember that we can grow to know and love you in the small congregation as well as the big congregation. Grant that all of us may find the joy of your Spirit as we use what we have in service to others. Amen.