Monday, April 9, 2007

A Place for Humor in Church and Pulpit?

Is there a place for humor in church, especially in the pulpit? Such is the question that guest essayist Peter M. Berg wrestles with in a recent article in the Passiontide/Easter issue of Gottesdienst under the title "Ha! Ha! Among the Congregants." He observes that "cute, self-effacing humor" seems to be increasing with pastors in our time, in part, he would observe, to please the people and project themselves as "a regular guy." Even confessional pastors have fallen prey, as such humor was all too common even at chapel at the recent Symposia in Ft. Wayne this January, according to Berg.

The heart of the issue for Pastor Berg, though, is the nature of God's House as a "holy place" deserving of proper reverence. "Finally," he writes, "isn't that the root of the problem: a loss of the sense of the holy? So convinced that grace is ours and beyond our losing, we trifle with grace."

I can understand and sympathize with Pastor Berg's concerns. In my current pastorate I have endeavored in my own movement on the altar to project a sense of deliberate reverence befitting a place where holy things are received and given. But admittedly it is not easy in our current culture to maintain such reverence in all areas. Since I entered the ministry twenty years ago there seems always to have been a desire on the part of congregants for a friendlier atmosphere at the expense of reverence, if that need be. And it's not that people want to be irreverent or openly disrespectful to God. They don't see it that way. It's just that there has been a modern reaction to what others have seen as coldness and indifference in traditional churches, and of course, a driving need to make people happy enough to return the next Sunday. Pastors, unfortunately, are tied closely to these sentiments, and thus their own actions reflect what the people desire.

Confessional pastors endeavor to restore reverence where it has been compromised, but their efforts are often met with resistance from churches that see this as disrespect for their own traditions and practices. Or in the case of which Pr. Berg is specifically addressing, pastors without any projected sense of humor are interpreted as too serious and even aloof.

Is there a "happy medium" in this issue? Is a 'touch' of humor necessarily completely inappropriate, even in the pulpit? Pastor Berg observes that "you can scan the Prophets for one-liners and you'll always come up empty-handed. You'll find laments, woes, threats, rejoicing, praise, promises, and prophesy aplenty, but no jokes." Thus, his answer, is a clear no.

As I said, I sympathize with his concern. I value the reverence of God's House. By nature I am a serious person. But I am also trapped in a cultural expectation. People need to see their pastor as both a man of the people and a "called and ordained servant of the Lord." Pastor Berg would certainly agree that both can be achieved, but not, he would say, in the pulpit. There he is the servant of God. While I do not often use humor in the pulpit, it has been employed. I'll have to give this some more thought......

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