I performed the first of my 2000-ish comedy gigs back in 2005. Back then, the aim was never to preach the Gospel – I had neither the gifting nor the desire nor the requisite checked shirt.
Now in 2018, my primary calling and remit is as a preacher. It turns out that, for me, the only thing more exhilarating than making people laugh is making people laugh and telling them about Jesus at the same time.
Naturally there are some key differences between performing stand-up and preaching the gospel. For one, comedy is self-elevating (it’s supposed to be about you) whereas preaching should be, at least in some way, self-denying. But I’m aware of at least six things where my experience in comedy has helped me preach more effectively….
1. Don’t be afraid to be funny
There’s a cynicism about people trying to get laughs during a preach – as though it somehow trivialises the Gospel. St Augustine said: “Eloquent speakers give pleasure, wise ones salvation,” but that just seems like a false dichotomy to me – can’t you be wise enough to speak eloquently?
Instead of seeing humour in preaching as trivialising the gospel, what if we saw it as redeeming one of God’s greatest gifts: laughter.
Laughter is just a release of tension; when you laugh, all the anxiety and stress in your body is cast out, exorcised, not allowed to stay. I think that’s a pretty amazing spiritual tool. And certainly, it’s the truth not the jokes that set people free, but it’s perfectly acceptable to have a good time listening to the Good News.
2. Don’t try too hard to be funny
Humour is organic. You never see Tim Vine setting off on long, circuitous storylines, or Louis C.K. gunning audiences down with a barrage of puns. That sort of graunching gear-shift would undermine the continuity of the performance. In comedy, the humour always flows organically out of the persona on stage, so preachers shouldn’t worry about trying to fit in jokes. I laugh at my daughters more than I laugh at my comrades on the comedy circuit.
Be who you are. Be naturally, vulnerably, honestly yourself, and see what happens. The key is to….
3. Find common ground
Some preaching within our shores still assumes, and relies upon, the Christ-hauntedness of the listener – the idea that we know we’re guilty and in need of help. That might still work in the United States and parts of Northern Ireland, but here most people wouldn’t self-evaluate in that way. So a sermon along those lines can come across as: “Here’s a problem you don’t believe you have…and now immediately here’s the solution – tada! Who wants to get saved?”
Rather than bundling people into the back of a conceptual truck, driving them out into waste ground and hoping they’ll be scared enough to agree with you, comedy is about finding common ground. You can’t laugh at something you don’t recognise from your own life, so there’s something to be said in preaching for addressing what people currently believe to be true, what they struggle with, what they desire and hope for, and then showing that Christ is the fulfilment of, or response to, that component of their existence.
Jesus is the answer, but let’s offer him in response to questions people are actually asking.
4. Be fearless
The best preachers and comedians share one commodity – fearlessness: they don’t care whether you like them or not.
This seeming ambivalence towards approval is surprisingly reassuring and helps an audience relax. But if I may break the fourth wall here…with comedy, it’s a lie. While comedians may not experience nerves in the way people expect, no gag merchant is without fear of widespread disdain or disinterest. The performers deepest fear is always that they are a fraud, and in the hours, days and weeks after a bad gig those fears seem to be vindicated. We are the mole inside the comedy circus, and we’ve been rumbled and unmasked.
This is where preachers have a huge advantage. Because if you’re preaching the gospel, your identity really is hidden with Christ in God, not cowering at Teddington services after a hen-do said you looked like Voldemort after a nose-job.
You are not a fraud; you are a child of God, loved unconditionally. The thing I know most deeply from over a decade in comedy is this: if you live for other people’s affirmation, you’ll die by their condemnation. So remember that there’s no condemnation in Christ Jesus, and do not be afraid!
5. Death is not the end
Every comedian dies on stage. No matter how good you are, or how long you’ve been going, nobody is immune from a bad gig every so often. That’s because comedy is about context, and not a rigidly binary structure whereby you’re either funny or you’re not. The same set of jokes can kill an audience with laughter one night and see them try to kill you the next. Back in 2015, my best gig and worst gig of the year both happened within five hours of each other!
Comedians understand that they are not defined by any one gig. So if you deem a preach unsuccessful, don’t let the sun go down on your self-pity. If you think you got it wrong, fuggedaboudit. Your identity and ability are not gauged by one oratory outing. And you probably only had a week to write it – some people hate stuff I’ve been perfecting for seven years! Each foray back into the pulpit is a resurrection in miniature.
6. Be a speaker not a reader
The only time I read aloud is when I’m doing my daughters’ bedtime story – and before long they tend to nod off. The result can be the same when preachers try to narrate something they’ve written, no matter how well-crafted it may be. Even the best dramatic actors can’t totally nail speech the first time they see it on a page.
Obviously, time restrictions might prevent full memorisation of a talk, but the more we know something, the more we can own it. Performing is not the same as pretending, and our ability to trust people comes mainly through eye-contact, so we should look at the people more than we look at the paper.
Hopefully some of that is helpful. It’s psychologically impossible to hate someone you’ve laughed with and empathised with, and that’s not a bad start for evangelism. And when the mouth is open for laughter, you can often shove in a little food for thought.
Andy Kind is a comedian, author and preacher