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Humor* — The Unrecognized Spiritual Gift

Comedy and joke-telling are not the only elements of humor. These are skills, craftily created to speak to the human condition, and create a spiritual impact.

You won’t see it listed on a spiritual gifts survey, as there’s not really an empirical way to measure it. But just as sure as administration, mercy, intercession and the other traits that a questionnaire may reveal, humor could be the most essential part of His image that God has bestowed on us.

Humor relieves stress, increases productivity, and resolves conflicts.

Consider humor a spiritual gift. One with an asterisk.

We often hear questions such as, “Does God have a sense of humor?”, “Did Jesus laugh?” and “Is it all right to laugh in church?” Each of these questions may be asked with a sense of guilt, or cynicism. Perhaps earnest awe.

After all, if Jesus was fully human, He had to laugh, didn’t He? And if He laughed, and Jesus is Lord God, then God must have a sense of humor. And if God has a sense of humor, then it must be just fine to laugh in church.

So, the answer to all three questions: Yes.

However, there are guidelines behind those three yeses, and understanding the guidelines is the key to developing a healthy sense of humor, effectively making disciples, and encouraging others to follow Christ.

Even atheists recognize God’s craftmanship in our ability to laugh. Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, who was also an atheist, marveled in his statement, “Humor is the only divine quality of man.”

Questions relating to humor come up, in part, because Christian faith is more known for being dour and restrictive, versus for its having compassion and joy.

On the other hand, churches which increasingly employ humor in sermons or utilize humorous videos as part of teaching, run the risk of being criticized – by congregants and fellow clergy – of being inauthentic, heretical, and caving to the culture.

More than Jokes

To be sure, comedy and joke-telling are not the only elements of humor. These are skills, craftily created to speak to the human condition, and create a spiritual impact. A growing number of pastors, especially church planters, have been honing their comedic skills, studying improvisation at The Second City, the venerable comedy club in Chicago, that has spawned generations of performers on “Saturday Night Live.” They are doing such work, not to present stand-up comedy in the pulpit, but to employ the tenets of improvisation into team building and creative planning.

LEARN MORE: “The ‘Yes, And…’ of Ministry

However, the sense of humor is more comprehensive.

Aside from comedy and improvisation, its components include laughter and joy. Essential to employing humor in ministry modeling uses and teaching balance: knowing when to engage; when to say when.

“The right kind of humor at the right time, can harmonize people,” said Steve Wilson, founder of the World Laughter Tour, an organization that trains Certified Laughter Leaders to share the physical and emotional benefits of humor, adding, “It’s about balance.”

Employing humor is also about knowing what humor is. According to Joel Goodman, founder of The Humor Project and a colleague of Wilson, the sense of humor is “one’s ability to recognize the nonserious element in a serious situation.”

To Wilson, who recognizes April as National Humor Month, this perspective employs practical applications of Ecclesiastes: “a time to weep, and a time to laugh;” represented by the comedy-tragedy masks of Purim, which have some attributes to Greek theater.

A Time To Laugh

“A situation has many sides: social, spiritual,” said Wilson. “What’s difficult is your trying to see all sides of a situation. You have to practice looking at the different sides. If you’re able to look at different sides, things are less difficult. It’s a crucial skill that allows us to access the absurd.”

And diffuse the dangerous.

An illustration: “Norman Cousins is on a cultural exchange with the Russians,” Wilson recalled. Cousins, the late editor of the Saturday Review magazine, is considered the father of research on therapeutic humor. Cousins was an unofficial U.S. diplomat to the Soviet Union, serving Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and found himself in the middle of the negotiations that were surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

“Negotiations were very tense. Finally, one of the Russians said, 'Do you know the difference between capitalism and communism?'” The Russian then added in response, “'In capitalism, people exploit people. In communism, it's the other way around.’”

From that comment, he explained, “Immediately, the tension was broken. It’s the same in ministry.”

HUMOR CHECK: What tensions exist in your ministry? What’s absurd about the positions? Even yours? How might exaggerating those positions, without getting personal, improve the atmosphere?

Stress Relief, Problem Solving

Humor relieves stress, increases productivity, and resolves conflicts. “Creativity is the key to problem solving,” noted Wilson.

Seeing the nonserious in serious situations is also an attractive Christian witness. Denomination squabbles, political perspectives, public policy debates from churches tend to drive away people from hearing the gospel of Christ.

Although not a religious organization, Wilson’s World Wide Laughter tour has interacted with numerous faith-based agencies and individuals across the globe.

Laughter Leaders learn specific techniques to improve communication and relationships. Through shared humor experiences, participants discover more about the beliefs of others, and find deeper applications of their own faith.

Wilson is not surprised, therefore, by observations that one of his practical how-to-use-humor processes, “Good-Hearted Living,” strongly resembles tenets within what is known as “The Fruit of the Spirit” in Christendom, that Paul outlined to the church at Galatia. The second of the Fruits of the Spirit, joy, strikes a special chord with Wilson, who brands himself as a “joyologist,” summarizing his life’s work in psychology and humor.

“I study three things: humor, laughter and certain attitudes,” he said. And the greatest of these attitudes is joy. “Joy” and its variations, is mentioned 203 times in the Scriptures, and its use in Psalms and Proverbs merit their own bible studies.

“Part of harmonizing is practicing what you preach,” Wilson noted. “Not all people are given the same responsibility. You have to educate and establish how to use humor.”

With that in mind, here are some do’s and don’ts for ministry leaders, that are wishing to employ humor as part of their discipleship process:

Humor Do’s

  1. Start board meetings with an ice-breaker (that’s where funny books, improv resources, cartoons, jokes, videos, etc., come in handy). Don’t rely on yourself to come up with the ice-breaker. Ask others to be responsible.
  2. Look for humor in the Scriptures. Grab a concordance and see how “laugh” is used. Make it a study. Jesus used irony. Why is this funny: “"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
  3. Collect humor: Create a Pinterest board of church humor and invite your congregation to add pins to it. You’ll be surprised how far you reach people outside your congregation with such a project.
  4. Employ humor in church culture: Do a sermon series about comic strips. Devote a section of your bulletin to Christian comic strips, jokes or external signs. Need help? Scour the internet, starting with A Joyful Noiseletter or The Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH).
  5. Make fun of yourself. Others do. Disarm them. People against “organized religion” have problems with Christians, but not with Christ. Acknowledge our faults; show Him as faultless.

Humor Don’t’s

  1. Don’t allow sarcasm, especially among children and children’s leaders. Proper sarcasm is a sign of maturity, for it enhances critical thinking. Children take sarcasm literally, may be victims of it at home, or endure it at school. Sarcasm is bullying. Make church safe from the aspects of sarcasm.
  2. Don’t allow negative jokes or teasing in ministry, especially in student ministries, especially among student workers, especially about gender, ethnicity, physical or emotional differences.
  3. Don’t make fun of other denominations, leaders, or people of other beliefs or lifestyles. Remember, “all have sinned” and many secretly hope Christ is the answer.
  4. Don’t allow gossip. Bathroom stalls have closed doors, but voices travel over the traverse. Private social media posts aren’t. Remind parishioners of the impact of their social witness on kingdom witness.

“People have to see that it’s a leadership style, and not a gimmick,” said Wilson. “It starts with the pastor. Pastors are in serious roles – tending to the flock, helping people in grief -- but can’t take things too seriously, or they’ll burn out. You have to give yourself permission to do things, that will spark joy.”

For as Bildad told Job: “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.”

That’s divine comedy.



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