Make them laugh: Using humor from the pulpit

February 27th, 2019

This article is adapted from Charley Reeb’s latest book Say Something! Simple Ways to Make Your Sermons Matter from Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

Humor is a powerful preaching tool. It can smuggle your message into the hearts of your listeners. When people laugh their defenses are down; they are relaxed, engaged and open to your sermon. There is much truth in the old adage about public speaking: “Make them think. Make them laugh. Make them cry.” Although you don’t want to manipulate listeners, you do want to move them emotionally, and humor is often the best way to their hearts.

So how do you use humor effectively in a sermon? In addition to sharing humorous personal stories, there are simple strategies to make listeners laugh. Here are four effective ways to bring humor into your sermons:

Surprise Them!

The common element in all humor is surprise. We laugh when something surprises us. One of the easiest ways to make listeners laugh through surprise is to “create an expectation and then suddenly break it”.[i] I surprised my congregation by making this statement in a farewell sermon:

Did you see the preacher in the news who asked his congregation for 75 million dollars to buy a jet? Crazy, huh? Of course, if any of you are looking for parting gift ideas for me, that would be a good one. I promise to put the name of the church on it!

My congregation was expecting me to give some critical commentary about the preacher asking for a jet (which I did later in the message!). Instead, I surprised them by joking about how it would make a wonderful parting gift.

In his TED talk, Dan Pink surprised his listeners by making this observation about his experience as a law student:

“I didn’t do very well. I, in fact, graduated from the part of my law school class that made the 90 percent…possible.” [ii]

Dan’s “set up” was creating the expectation that he graduated at the top of his class. When he broke in with the word “possible” he shattered that expectation and surprised listeners by sharing that he really graduated at the bottom of his class. This sudden surprise is what got the laugh. The other reason this line worked is because Dan was using the oldest trick in the book of humor — making fun of himself, also known as self-deprecating humor.

Use Self-Deprecating Humor

Making yourself the butt of your jokes never fails. When you’re willing to poke fun of yourself, you appear humble and on the same level as your listeners. You also come across as a fun-loving person who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. This always endears you to listeners. What’s more is that if you’re willing to poke fun at yourself, you will always have good material!

In the same TED talk Dan Pink made the following statement:

“I never practiced law a day in my life. I pretty much wasn’t allowed to.” [iii]

Here’s another example of self-deprecating humor. I once got up to preach after a liturgical dance routine and said:

“I want to thank the dancers this morning. It went exactly as we practiced it.” 

Anyone who knows me knows that liturgical dance is not one of my specialties!


Exaggerating is a form of surprise that often gets laughs. It worked for Jesus! I once got up in the middle of a Christmas concert to take up an offering and said to the big crowd:

“Thank you for coming tonight. Now we are going to take up the first of six offerings for our music ministry.” 

The idea of taking six offerings got a big laugh because it was a huge exaggeration, although who among us would not like to take up six offerings?!

Be Honest

Sometimes the easiest way to make listeners laugh is simply by being candid. When you speak the truth about something other people are reluctant to express, it often comes across as humorous. You are naming what annoys or bothers people and listeners laugh as if to say, “Yes, I feel the same way!” Obviously, you must use discretion about your level of honesty, but making frank observations about life and faith can make your listeners roar with laughter.  

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson got a big laugh when she made this observation during a sermon:

"We know a lot of people who read the Bible every day and are still jerks!" [iv]

Very true and very funny.

There are many other ways to be humorous, but I have found these four approaches to be the simplest and easiest. Obviously, telling jokes is another way to make people laugh but be careful which jokes you choose. Some are so corny you may get groans rather than laughs. Others are simply inappropriate for a sermon. If you find a good joke, by all means use it, but stretch your ability to be humorous by using surprise, self-deprecation, exaggeration or hyperbole, and honesty in your sermons.

[i] Akash Karia, How to Deliver a Great Ted Talk: Presentation Secrets of the World’s Best Speakers (Akash Karia, 2013), ebook edition, chap. 19.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Bishop Sue Haupert Johnson, Sermon, Florida Annual Conference, Lakeland, Florida, June 7th, 2018.

comments powered by Disqus