Another glorious glimpse into The Mockingbird’s newest issue on Humor, this one from the Rev. Aaron Zimmerman. Copies can be ordered here, subscriptions here

“It’s a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.” — Young Life saying

“The comedian always doubles down.” — Pete Holmes

The Church Is No Laughing Matter (Sadly)

Quick, grab a pencil and paper. Now, write down whatever words your mind conjures when you hear the word “church.”

I’ll wait.

What’d you come up with? High-strung hymn-singing hypocrites? Boring Baptist blowhards? Happy Hillsong hipsters? Purity-preaching pedantic Presbyterians? Long-winded Lutherans? Effete Episcopalian elitists? Gold chalices, silver hair, and stained glass?

I bet you didn’t write hilarious. The church—low, high, and in between—is dying for a laugh.

We got trouble, right here in River City. Trouble starts with T, which rhymes with B, which stands for: Boring.

It’s no secret the American church is, in many places, on life support. Oh, we Americans are still a pretty religious bunch. Ninety percent of us believe in God.[1] It’s just that we don’t go to church. In a recent survey, while 75 percent of respondents said they prayed in the last week, only 35 percent said they actually went to church in the same period. About half of the country admitted to not having gone to church in the previous six months. Survey after survey shows fewer people identify as having any religious identity, with 48 percent of Americans now classified as post-Christian. Thousands of churches close every year. In my own denomination, the Episcopal Church, we have lost 400,000 members over the last 10 years (going from 2.3 million to 1.9 million). The Southern Baptists (the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.) lost over 200,000 people in 2015 alone. Whether your church-of-choice has pews, folding chairs, or theater seats with cup holders, Team Jesus is struggling to fill seats.

Christian bloggers, religion writers, and theological pundits all have advice on what to do about the church’s malaise: more biblical teaching, more exegetical preaching, more justice-oriented preaching, more accessible music, more liturgy (or less liturgy), more evangelism (or better “missional” evangelism), better children’s ministry, and don’t forget fair-trade coffee in the church lobby. As a pastor, I get heaps of promotional mail (digital and paper) every week telling me how to grow the church I lead. Recent messages hyped the need for more effective social media marketing, an upgrade in our member database software, and better lighting in our announcement videos.

Better lighting?

I smell manure, so let’s cut the crap. The church needs an intervention.

Welcome, Church. Take a seat.

[Church looks around nervously and coughs.]

I bet you’re a little surprised to see us all here. First, we love you. But we have to tell you something. [Pause]. You’re boring. And lame. And just so…sanctimonious! It’s insufferable! Remember when you were young and how wild and crazy you were? Remember when they thought Peter was drunk at nine in the morning ’cause his preaching was so wild?

[Church sits in stunned silence.]

And when I say the church needs to tell jokes, I don’t mean those sermon-openers, as corny as they are perfunctory.

In this article, I want to advocate that the church intentionally embrace humor. I’m talking to you, Senior Pastor and Associate! And to you, Christian Education Director! (Not talking to you, Youth Minister. You are already pretty funny.) In our context—an increasingly secular America in the early 21st century—humor is life-and-death. To grow, the church must preach, serve, comfort, challenge…and laugh. For heaven’s sake, laugh.

Humor Is an Antidote to Terror

As a pastor, I hear the stories of returners: those who come back to church after a long vacation from religion. Something these people tell me over and over is how scared they were to return. Not just nervous or mildly anxious about not knowing the hymns. Really scared. A woman told me how she had to leave the Roman Catholic church after her divorce: a painful, shaming experience. When I asked her how she felt the first time she visited the Episcopal parish where I served, she answered, “Terrified.” Another man told me that because of his history of addiction and his failures (as he saw them), he literally feared lightning would strike when he crossed the threshold into church.

So many clergy either grossly underestimate or are completely unaware of how terrifying it is for many people to come to church. I’m talking heart-pounding, sweaty palms, deep-breath-at-the-door-before-entering, first-date, cortisol-flood kind of terror.

This fear is heightened by the formality of churches. Some think this is most prevalent in liturgical churches, ones with highly ritualized ceremonies. But even in so-called casual churches, there can be an unwritten but just as formal (and thus more anxiety-producing) code of allowable words, gestures, and modes of dialogue.

An example: like most fellow Texans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I was glued to the news coverage. In one segment on CNN, Anderson Cooper was interviewing a Houston resident who had evacuated. As the evacuee spoke, I could tell he was an evangelical Christian merely by a certain kind of breathless intonation he used; that, and the number of times he used “Anderson” in his comments. He was speaking to Cooper in the same breezy and familiar way many evangelicals speak to God—using the divine name (“Father God”) in every sentence. The Houstonian wasn’t even aware he was doing it.

So when church people have their own patois, and are unaware of it, it makes it hard for the church returners. Not knowing the language only increases the already -high fear of sticking out.

Here’s where humor is so important: it breaks the tension. It signals to the congregation that humanity is allowed. In what can feel like a stilted religious cotillion, telling a joke lets normalcy in.

Rob Bell described this with acute precision. Bell is a former pastor, now writer and speaker and California-living surfer. He appeared on the podcast of his friend Pete Holmes, a spiritually curious, burned out, evangelical-turned-comedian (recently seen in his semi-autobiographical HBO series Crashing). On Holmes’ You Made It Weird podcast, Bell talked about what it was like for him when he spoke in church communities: “There is a weird religious pretension. It’s like glass you have to shatter, or ice that has to break, so that we can actually be present with one another.” Humor is the hammer that shatters the pretension.

Here’s what this can look like in practice. In many churches, it’s common to invite the children forward for a short prayer before they are dismissed to Sunday School (this is a clever way of getting them out of the service before the sermon). So you’ll see a bunch of them come thundering down the aisles. I once saw a pastor give a play-by-play of the stampede like the announcer at the Kentucky Derby: “Dixon taking an early lead out of the gate! But look at this: McKenzie is coming in fast on the outside! Can Dixon hold his lead? And now Charlie bringing it up from the back of the pack. No one saw that coming!”

According to Pete Holmes, one of the functions of comedy is “benign violation.” That is, violating some social taboo—not out of cruelty or malice, but to break the veneer of politeness, the “everybody behave” tension we always feel. This is why comedians are the only ones who can talk about heavy matters in this country. (And why The Office was so funny.) Whether it’s Dave Chapelle on race or Amy Schumer on men or Tig Notaro on cancer (or Steve Carell just being Michael Scott), comedians do and say things we’re not supposed to do or say. To watch them do it—at some remove from ourselves—allows a certain kind of release for viewers.

My phrase for “benign violation” in church is “playful irreverence.” An example: a few months ago I referenced a song by the Four Tops in a sermon. Maybe because it was at our 7:30 service and I wasn’t all there—or because the crowd was small (again: 7:30 in the morning) and I felt the risk was low—I quite spontaneously (and to my own surprise) paused and did a 360-degree spin (you know, Motown style). This was absurd. I was vested in cassock, surplice, and stole. Standing in a marble pulpit in a gothic church. But the people laughed. And woke up. And could then hear what I had to say.

Humor Tells the Truth

Homer Simpson once said while explaining a joke: “It’s funny because it’s true.”

Humor is a vehicle to share hard, unpalatable truths. It’s a way of talking about the uncomfortable. When used to simply acknowledge the fear and awkwardness people feel in church, it’s a welcome salve.

Take funerals. Funerals (a.k.a. “Memorial Services,” or the increasingly common and cringe-inducing “Celebrations of Life”) are ground zero for all kinds of discomfort.

For one, we’re all a little on edge when it comes to death. (That’s why people say someone “passed away” instead of “died.”) And then, to make it worse, the funeral makes us go to a place where we never go: church. Lots of people at funerals have not been to church for a long time, and being there just heaps anxiety on top of the grief like gravy on biscuits. So, your average funeral-goer is facing mortality and then has to worry about finding the right hymn to sing (and singing in public is not in their comfort zone) while also trying to keep their toddler from destroying the pew.

Finally, if it’s a Protestant church (like mine) and there’s going to be Holy Communion, that cranks up the weirdness factor even higher for all the atheists, Roman Catholics, backsliders, Baptists, agnostics and failed Christians (Nick Lowe). Do I kneel? Do I go to the altar? Side aisle or center? Is the priest going to try to put the cracker in my mouth? And if he hands it to me, do I just take it or is there a proper religious way to do it? And once I have it, do I dip it or eat it? Is it going to be real wine? What if I spill it? Maybe I’ll just stay in my pew. But then will people think I’m not a team player?

In short, I can hear the objections: FUNERALS ARE NOT FUNNY. People say the same thing about church. And that’s exactly why humor is needed.

I’m not suggesting some sort of vulgar comedy roast at the casket. But with a light touch, humor can name the elephant in the room. Churches who do this well will take a moment at the midpoint of the service, during the welcome and announcements, and will invite people to come forward for Communion and explain their particular brand of choreography. The minister can even say something like, “By the look of sheer terror on some of your faces, I’m guessing not all of you are Episcopalians. Despite what you may have heard, God will not hurl lightning bolts at those guilty of improper hand placement when taking Communion. The One who said ‘Do not worry’ wants this to be an anxiety-free zone.”

Thus the pastor acknowledges the emotions, uses a little irony, and injects a bit of human warmth into a situation that is by nature rigid. And it makes all the difference. You can almost hear heart rates going down.

The same principle is at work in a different way for sermons. If in a funeral humor releases tension and allows people to grieve, in a regular Sunday sermon, humor allows people to lower their defenses so that they can hear the preacher.

So many preachers make an enormous mistake before they climb into the pulpit (or step up to the Lucite podium): they naïvely assume their congregation is open to what they have to say. In reality, however, when faced with a preacher, most people instinctively raise the drawbridge and drop the portcullis. “Shields up!” The reason: most people know that sermons are all Law—criticism, judgment, and moralistic lecturing gilded with scripture passages. A friend just told me at lunch, “I’ve stopped going to church. I just don’t want to be preached at anymore.”

Using humor—gentle, wry, ironic, truthful observations about the absurdity and frustrations of life—causes laughter. Laughter physically and neurologically changes people. Endorphins flood the bloodstream. People who were closed are now open.

A preacher friend of mine once said, “If I can be funny, people’s defenses come down. Then I can slip the stiletto in.” That is, the word of penetrating grace can get past the ego to the suffering person within.

I know many preachers who think they are not funny. And here I am, burdening them with another command. Just like a few years ago the command came from Pastor HQ on high: “Thou shalt wear skinny jeans. Ixnay on the ockersday.” Then it was: “No backlit crosses on the stage. We’re all moving to distressed wood. Preferably from old pallets. Also, how about some old-timey lightbulbs?” And now I’m saying: “Be funny too!”

A word to the preachers who think they are not funny: Ask yourself, what makes you laugh? Sermon preparation still requires exegesis and scripture commentaries and lots of prayer. Wendell Berry quotes are good, too. But make sure you’re imbibing regularly at the comedic fountain. Read The Onion (or its Christian counterpart, The Babylon Bee). Watch Netflix comedy specials. Listen to the comedy playlists on Spotify or YouTube. Your best homiletics continuing education is going to come from Chris Rock and Whitney Cummings, Jessi Klein and Sasheer Zamata, Jim Gaffigan and John Mulaney. Watch the legends too: Sam Kinison was a Pentecostal preacher before he went into comedy. Watch and listen. Suspend judgment and park your “I’m offended” reaction. Realize that thousands of people are paying good money to hear these people talk about life and truth, which is more than can be said for most pastors.

And for extra credit: watch Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (with Rachel Brosnahan). The show tackles broken marriages, frustrated housewives, lost young husbands, religion, parenting, and the drive to look accomplished. The show is one of the best illustrations of how being funny is often just a matter of telling the truth. And truth-telling heals, my friends.

God Is Funny

The final reason the church needs to tell more jokes is because the Gospel itself is a joke—a Divine Comedy, a True and Holy Farce. Our main message is the ridiculously amusing story of God becoming man through a pregnant virgin, so that bad guys can have all their charges dropped. This means God likes to play. He likes to surprise people. He likes to delight sinners with his grace. And if that doesn’t make us giggle, if we refuse to crack a smile, we’ve missed the main point. We’re like a Scrooge who refuses to hear the message of the three Christmas spirits and then goes back to his tight-fisted iron-hearted ways.

In his book on the parables of Jesus, Robert Capon, writing about the kingdom of God, says,

The Gospel is not a tragedy; it’s precisely a hilariously salty story—so flavorful it’s in positively bad taste—in which schoolteachers, crane operators, models, bad ladies, arbitrageurs, tennis pros, drug addicts, bankers, lawyers, lechers, and pimps all get away with murder just by dropping dead.

Sadly, Capon observes, people in the church “can’t recognize a joke when they hear one.”

If the church can again realize its job is not to fix people but to announce freedom for the captive and sight to the blind, it may again be able to see the truth that God is, well, funny. They may get to know the Divine Presence who inspired a text brimming with stories of the ridiculous and absurd. Like the sleepy congregant who falls out the window. The Messiah who drafts fishermen on his team. The Spirit-filled apostles who seemed drunk. The Old Testament ne’er-do-well who duped his father using a Sasquatch costume and was later the victim of a wedding-night bride switcheroo (i.e. Leah-gate). David deftly cutting off a corner of Saul’s robe while the latter relieved himself. Noah’s drunken stupor. The comparison of Israel’s lust for idols to a harlot’s lust for well-endowed lovers. The story of the blind man who, partially healed, sees people like trees walking around. And the pièce de résistance, that hilarious story of a tomb breaking open and a dead man rising, looking like a gardener and hungry for fish.

God is funny. He invented platypuses and waddling ducks and the connections in our brain that make us groan with delight at a bad pun. And if the church can glimpse God’s sense of humor, then preachers and Sunday School teachers might start to have a little fun themselves. When that happens, people might actually start wanting to go to church.

Order some Humor Issues for the waddling ducks and stiff-necked church friends here.

[1] Barna surveyed over 5,000 Americans in 2016 and found that 57 percent believed that God is “the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today.” Thirty-three percent had some other view of God. Only 10 percent believed God doesn’t exist.