Every preacher wants to be funny.
Some preachers are naturally funny, and that humor gets in the way of providing deeper content for the congregations. Some preachers are naturally boring, and that boredom gets in the way of the congregation paying attention to the deeper content.
Humor is one of the most powerful weapons in the preacher’s arsenal. Used correctly, it is the perfect spice to keep congregants on the crest of their attention while you take them deeper into the texts, ideas, and stories that your sermon utilizes to educate, encourage, and inspire them.
Here, we’re going to look at seven insider secrets that are dominating the world of stand-up comedy that will help you to keep your audience engaged.
1. Cut the fat.
People lose focus fast. That’s why the idea of sitting through an hour-long lecture seems mind-numbing, but millions of people will pay hundreds of dollars to see a famous stand-up comedian do a 90-minute set live. Stand-up comedy, to some degree, guarantees a level of filtering work in the creative process that eliminates bad and boring material.
If a stand-up comic tells a joke that multiple audiences don’t think is funny, it gets cut.
While pastors don’t have the luxury of workshopping the same sermon every week, they do have the opportunity to think with the fat-cutting mindset as they construct their weekly sermon material.
Cut out as much fat as possible. The primary place that pastors get bogged down with useless content is that they showcase all of their research rather than only showcasing research data that illustrates, informs, or applies to the direct and practical point that they are making in their sermon.
The sermon isn’t a chance to show off your research skills. The sermon is a chance to connect with the hearts of your members and visitors. Consequently, you should hold your sermon content to that standard—what doesn’t connect with the heart or heighten that connection gets cut. Consider your sermon preparation process, and what tools might help you stay lean and sharp.
2. Start or join a preaching lab.
This is the secret weapon in every comedian’s back pocket: a like-minded community of other professionals giving feedback on their material.
Pro-tip: For a great video on preaching feedback, check out this amazing video from our Modern Church Leader podcast.
After doing a stand-up set at a comedy club, comedians will gather in the greenroom and give feedback on each other’s material.
- “Slow down your pacing.”
- “Give that punchline 3 extra seconds of breathing room before you tell it.”
- “You made a weird face when you told that joke, which is why it didn’t land.”
You get real feedback from real people. That’s gold for you. Because preaching is just as much about performance as it is about the words themselves, it’s important to get more than feedback on your manuscript—you need feedback from people watching the real thing. Each week, their feedback will embed in your development as a preacher and you’ll learn to overcome your weaknesses with skill and strengthen your gifts with practice.
If there’s not a local preaching lab of pastors who get together and give their Sunday sermons together in your area, start one! Other pastors will be thankful. You don’t need more than 3 or 4 other church professionals to practice together once per week—or even once per month—to produce a great benefit for your preaching skill in the long-term.
If you rely only on your congregation for feedback, you are limiting yourself. Surround yourself with other professionals in the preaching space and your growth as a preacher will increase exponentially.
3. Nonverbal tools are your most powerful tools.
This leads us to a really important point—just as comedy is as much about the nonverbal as it is the words themselves, so also preaching is a craft of managing your body, your face, your energy, and your timing.
You must learn how to use silence to make a point dramatic.
You must learn how people respond to and receive your unique facial expressions.
You must learn how people hear certain tones of your voice.
One great way to improve your skills in this area is to take an improv class at a local comedy club. You might be terrible at improv, but taking your skills from a 1/10 to a 2/10 will add exponentially more value, not only to the delivery of the words in your sermon but also to how you manage the overall economy of your delivery, from your physical body to the sermon manuscript’s body.
4. Remember the rule of three.
On average, people can track 3 elements in any given story.
This is the maximum amount of complexity to which people can give immediate buy-in and follow the narrative. Anything more is too confusing.
Anything less is boring because there aren’t enough elements to realistically create conflict, a third-eye point of view, objectivity, the felt experience of the problem, and an emotionally compelling resolution.
5. The punchline is just the setup.
If you can make people laugh, you can make them cry. Use jokes as a segue into heartfelt stories, points, and appeals. It’s easier to make people feel something when you’ve just made them laugh, compared with if they’re feeling bored.
It’s notoriously difficult to elicit deep emotion in someone who is feeling bored. They are in autopilot mode. You’re holding onto their attention for dear life. But when you’ve just made them laugh, their engine is running, they trust your perspective, and they’re ready for you to take them on whatever ride you want.
6. Practice performing spontaneous moments.
When people feel they are watching spontaneity, they are hooked.
They want to watch something interesting—but more interesting than something interesting is something spontaneous and interesting. It’s a real experience, compared with planned content, which can create a sense of detachment from the audience.
Such moments become memorable and help the depth and content of your sermon remain longer in the minds of your congregation throughout the week.
7. Close with the visceral.
Stand-up comedians are notorious for closing their acts with crass humor because it ends their set on a big and easy laugh. I won’t commend crass humor to you, but I will commend its underlying principle—after several dozen minutes, the only thing that can hold on to peoples’ attention is viscerality.
Find a story, idea, anecdote, or metaphor that is close to the ground—it is physical, showcases how emotional pain is resolved, or helps people really feel the need that the truth of the text addresses.
Don’t merely close with a statement. No one will remember it.
Close with an angle they aren’t expecting, haven’t heard before, or resolves the tension you’ve built throughout the sermon.
Understanding this principle is the difference between preaching forgettable sermons and preaching the word of God in such a way that changes lives forever.
This is not just some hack. It is a way for the preacher to craft a moment of encounter with God that congregants have been waiting for all week.
One common element between stand-up comedy and preaching is that they are both performative.
And like all performative skills, both take practice. Remember these 7 ways to ensure that your sermon prep and delivery have the highest impact on the hearts of your people:
- Cut the fat.
- Start or join a preaching lab.
- Nonverbal tools are your most powerful tools.
- Remember the rule of three.
- The punchline is just the setup.
- Practice performing spontaneous moments.
- Close with the visceral.