Stand-up preaching

January 10th, 2018

On occasion, a person who has just heard me preach will say something along the lines of, “I just don’t know how you do it, speaking in front of people every week.” Public speaking regularly tops the list of phobias, beating out even death, spiders, and heights. While it’s something I take for granted as part of my vocation, it is a skill and a craft that frightens and intimidates many people. Having been comfortable on-stage since I was a kid, preaching from the pulpit only occasionally fazes me.

The downside to preaching weekly, however, is that I only rarely get to hear other preachers or speakers. Outside of the pulpit on Sunday mornings, there are not a lot of regular occasions where someone gets up and speaks for a good chunk of time. In the secular world, besides TED Talks, the other opportunity to hear people speaking solo to an audience comes in the form of stand-up comedy.

Log on to your Netflix account, and you’ll be inundated with comedy specials from names that might not be very familiar to you. Usually clocking in at about an hour, unwinding with a comedy special became a welcome addition to my evening routine a couple years ago. Though they are rarely explicitly Christian (and sometimes not particularly family-friendly in either language or content), watching stand-up comedy has made me a better, more deliberate preacher.

Certainly, the goals of stand-up comedy and preaching are different. As a preacher, my intention is not to entertain or to make the congregation laugh; my aim is to preach the good news of the gospel. Some of this relies on the preacher’s preparation, but there’s always a heaping dose of the Holy Spirit to bridge the gap between what I am trying to communicate and how the listeners connect it to their own lives.

Coming from a denomination that a) is not known for its strength in preaching and b) celebrates communion every Sunday, my sermons tend to be on the shorter side compared to my colleagues from denominations where the preaching moment is the main event. So it’s hard for me to imagine holding someone’s attention or listening to a preacher for an hour, and yet I am routinely enraptured by a comedian for an hour, talking on-stage by himself or herself.

The overlapping part of preaching and stand-up comedy comes in observation. To me, the best comics are not just making me laugh but are also saying something true about human nature, relationships, and the way we interact with our surroundings. Both preachers and comics are required to diagnose what is going on in the world, though for preachers that task is usually grounded in particular people and communities.

In Patton Oswalt’s recent special Annihilation, he tackles the difficult subject of grief in the wake of his wife’s sudden death, and it is both heartbreakingly vulnerable and laugh-inducing. I found myself wishing we talked about grief and loss in the church with half as much honesty. Other comedians tackle issues of sexism, racism, and mental illness with heart and humor in ways that get their point across without moralizing.

After watching numerous comedians, I have also come to recognize the craft in comedy, in the same way I attempt to craft sermons. Different comedians have different styles, just as preachers do, so it may take a little bit to find a style that connects with you. Some of the language or content might be rough or offensive at times, depending on the comedian, but as with anything we consume, you can take what is useful and leave the rest.

For me, a large part of preaching, writing, and communicating is observing and absorbing things around me — from an encounter with a sales clerk to movies I watch. I never know just how and where God will use something to make the gospel come alive in a new and exciting way for me. While you won’t likely find me cracking one-liners at an open mic night, learning sharp observation and story-telling skills from watching stand-up comedians has influenced my preaching for the better.

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