Commentary: A funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit


There have been serious debates as to whether preachers should include humorous quotes and illustrations in their sermons. Some parishioners want their preacher to be prim and proper and preach with a sense of earnestness and gravity.

Charles H. Spurgeon, pastor of the great Metropolitan Tabernacle in London in the late nineteenth century, was known as the Prince of Preachers. Nevertheless, he was quick-witted and dared to insert a humorous thought in his sermons in an era that demanded blood-earnest seriousness.

However, in addressing the craft of homiletics he once quipped, “It’s less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour’s profound slumber.”

In Jeff Robinson’s article “Should We Use Humor in Our Preaching” he recalls Spurgeon’s response to a person whose feathers were ruffled over a witty comment he made from the pulpit. The famed preacher retorted, “If you had known how many others I kept back, you would not have found fault with that one, but you would have commended me for the restraint I had exercised . . . Were I not watchful, I should become too hilarious.”

There may be readers of The Christian Index who would prefer the writers to be somber, solemn, subdued, and serious. However, in this chaotic world of uncertainty and cruelty, perhaps a word used to solicit a smile might not be too quickly condemned. If you choose to take a more critical approach, please have enough grace to pardon this column.

Permit me to report two incidences that were not funny at the time, but which continue to provoke a grin after the fact.

I was preaching in a revival at a church in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, in 1961. It was a rather small church but filled with people on a particular night. The pastor gave the congregation a warm welcome and offered a prayer of invocation. The rather ungifted and awkward minister of music proceeded to lead the congregation in two or three hymns. The pastor then recognized the people who were responsible for “packing the pews.”

There was a time when some churches would assign certain people the responsibility of filling a pew with guests, friends, co-workers, and neighbors on a certain night of the revival. The pastor would have each “pew packer” stand and report on the number of people present due to their personal invitation. Typically, a book, a 33-rpm record of Gospel music or a box of candy would be given to the person who had the most people present.

Following the recognition of the champion pew packer there was to be another hymn. This time when the minister of music approached the pulpit to announce the next hymn, he got his foot caught under the rug that was placed behind the pulpit, stumbled, and fell flat on his face. The congregation gasped. The pastor and I were frozen, fearing to move thinking that he had seriously injured himself. However, in a matter of moments he stood back up, dusted himself off, looked in the bulletin and announced the next hymn which was “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” When the members and guests realized that the minister of music was not injured there was more laughing than singing.

After relating that story to my friend, Pastor Mike Dann of Botsford Baptist Church near Waynesboro, he unraveled an interesting story about an incident he had on the way to the pulpit in a previous church. On a certain Sunday morning he stood before his congregation in sartorial elegance donned with a suit and tie and ready to preach with fervor and passion. He said, “I don’t know how it happened. I cannot remember if the tragic incident occurred when I stood up, bent over, knelt down or made a demonstrative gesture, but my pants split from my zipper in the front to my belt in the back.

“It was an embarrassing moment, and I knew I was in a dilemma that required quick and creative thinking. I immediately took off the coat to my suit, tied the sleeves of the suit into a knot in front with the coat covering practically everything on my back side from my waist down. I guess you could say I completed my sermon with my top at the bottom. Everyone knew what had happened, but no one knew the severity of the mishap.

“It taught me that a preacher must be prepared for every eventuality from the pastorium to the pulpit.”

It has been said that humor is like a needle and thread – deftly used it can patch up just about everything. There was neither time, needle nor thread to resolve Brother Dann’s crisis, but he used his own creativity to minimize the problem and proceeded to preach undaunted and undeterred by his rather consequential misfortune.


J. Gerald Harris is a retired pastor and journalist who served as editor of The Christian Index for nearly two decades.