Something that strikes one person as funny—even something heard at church—may seem inappropriate to another. How can believers strike a balance as they use humor and laughter in ministry?
Individuals need to understand the human experiences that humor tries to relate, Day Lane believes. Lane is completing an integrated doctor of philosophy degree in religious studies and sociology.
“The difficulty in one person deciding how to weed the proper from the improper is that people experience and interpret humor from different vantage points. Humor that is hilariously funny to Aunt Sally is horribly offensive to Uncle Ben,” Lane said.
That particularly applies to religious humor—hilarious to some and almost blasphemous to others.
While serving as a pastor and director of missions, cartoonist Joe McKeever has seen “Christian” humor hurt others.
“At a state convention, a speaker told an awful joke on his daughter who was ‘dumb, dumb, dumb. She is so dumb that… .’ At the end of a joke that fell flat, he said, ‘I’m just teasing,’” McKeever said.
“I found myself hurting for that pastor. He did a truly foolish thing in making his daughter the butt of his humor, and then to top it off, did a lousy job of telling the joke. Where I was sitting, everyone around me wanted to crawl under the pew, it was so embarrassing.”
How can Christians use humor, even with the possibility of being misunderstood? Follow Jesus’ example, Christian humorists recommend.
“Personally, my basic standard as a comedian is this: I am a Christian first and a comic second,” noted Chonda Pierce, a comedian for about 15 years and current president of the Christian Comedy Association. “When I put my relationship with God in the right priority, then he will convict, convince and convey to me what is improper or not.
“We are carnal creatures, navigating through a fallen world. … If we were perfectly honest, most comics would have to admit that they have used jokes, premises, punch lines and stories that came from a place of sarcasm in an effort to get back at (someone) or to express pain.”
Lane, who has taught sociology of religion courses at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, believes humor should reflect the same concerns Jesus addressed. Christians should ask themselves: Is the humor healing? Is the humor loving? Is the humor performed at the expense of vulnerable people?
“These questions are not easily answered, because in cases where humor is performed as a social critique, the humor might not appear to be loving or considerate of others,” Lane explained. “But this was part of Jesus’ concern, too, not to intentionally hurt people but to, on several occasions, articulate a scathing critique of social structures that harm the masses and benefit a select few.”
Sometimes substituting a group with which the believer associates puts the comedic intent into perspective.
“When I was a young girl … I recited a collection of Polish jokes I had heard during recess at school,” Lane related.
Her father listened politely, laughing at the appropriate places. Then, she recalled, he gently explained: “When we poke fun at people who have a different label than we do, say Polish as opposed to American, we are really poking fun at qualities we all share as humans. So, if we are going to make fun of a whole group of people, how about we make fun of a group we belong to?”
“He paused for a moment, then with a sparkle in his eye, he said, ‘I know! Let’s tell Baptist jokes!’ From that point on, most ethnic and religious jokes told around the dinner table converted easily to Baptist jokes—except for those jokes including a rabbi, a priest and a Baptist preacher.”