Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Preacher or Jester?

from the Telegraph:

According to new research, churchgoers would far rather clergy stick to serious topics and leave the jokes to the comedians.

A survey of Christians found that they ranked weighty explanations of the Bible as 27 times as important in a sermon as humour and “practical application”, 42 times more highly than personal anecdote.

The findings come from research commission by the Christian resources Exhibition, a trade fair for all things clerical taking place at the ExCel centre in London next week. For the first time, organisers are running a “sermon of the year competition”.

A poll of almost 1,400 regular churchgoers commissioned for the event found a perhaps surprising appetite for longer sermons, with less than one per cent favouring a talk of under five minutes but 36 per cent favouring a monologue of between 20 and 30 minutes.

When asked to choose the most important element in a sermon from a list of choices, 44.3 per cent favoured “Biblical exposition” and only 1.6 per cent opted for a “sense of humour”.

Similarly, “practical application” was the second most popular choice – garnering 40 per cent of support – compared with just under one per cent for “personal anecdotes”.

There's nothing at the moment on the Christian Resources Exhibition website - it would be interesting to see the full survey results. The poll is heartening on one level - unpacking the Bible and applying it to everyday life would be my top two aims in a sermon. However there's a danger that 'people who like this sort of thing will find this sort of thing is what they like' - there may be very different results from people who have left the church.

There's also the question of whether delivering the sermon that people want is the best thing anyway. Jesus used a range of teaching styles: Q&A, storytelling, sermons, settling arguments, commenting on everyday things. If the goal of Sunday teaching is that people grow in Christian discipleship, in character, understanding and lifestyle, then the sermon is but one means to that end.

And sometimes the best points are made by a joke, rather than a monologue. For example:
Freely I confess my sins
for God has poured his grace in
But when another points them out
I want to smash his face in (Adrian Plass)

Which makes a point about taking criticism better than any exposition. A big piece of research on church growth found that the factor which most correlated with a growing church was 'we laugh a lot'. Last year the CRE press release before the event flagged up a 'comedy for clergy' workshop. What last year and this have in common is a desire to promote good communication - whether as preachers we tell jokes, tell stories, ask questions, or whatever, we just need to be really good at it, and continually learning our craft.

Update: Giles Fraser thinks vicars should stop telling jokes full stop, because church is a serious place. I disagree - there are several standup comics who can deal seriously with a serious subject and have the audience on the floor at the same time: Adam Hills current tour is about death and cancer, and Mark Steele, Marcus Brigstocke, Stewart Lee, Jeremy Hardy etc. etc. there are plenty of comics out there who, because they are one of the few people that the rest of us will listen to for more than 30 seconds, actually have the chance to develop an argument at length. Sure, a rubbish joke, badly delivered, for the sake of it, has no place in sermons, or indeed any form of communication. But that doesn't mean none at all.

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