“You have as much laughter as you have faith.” – Martin Luther
I like that quote. I’ve searched long and hard and have been unable to determine where it comes from, but I hope it’s genuinely from Martin Luther. For far too many people, the word “church” conjures up images of people sitting in uncomfortable clothes, in uncomfortable pews, looking like they would rather be anywhere else in the world. I hope that changes.
We gather together because the God who created everything has called us to be His children. We’ve been adopted as His sons and daughters through baptism and given incredible gifts free of charge. Mercy. Forgiveness. Eternal life. In light of those gifts alone, church should be a place filled with joy and laughter. Church should be a place where, even though at times we may grieve, we do it differently than those who have no hope, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
One Sunday afternoon not long ago, our family was sitting down to lunch following a church service in which I had preached the sermon. Jonah, our six year old, decided to give me some preaching advice.
“Next time you give the sermon,” he said, “ask the congregation to spell ‘apple.'”
It took me a second to work out in my head where he was going with that one. If you haven’t heard this joke yet, imagine yourself as a six year old, and spell “apple” out loud.
Our daughter Mackenzie obliged, and confidently called out, “A-P-P-L-E.”
Jonah immediately laughed and shouted, “Made you say Pee Pee.”
I groaned, and told Jonah that the point of the sermon wasn’t to make people laugh.
“But people laughed today,” he said.
“I know,” I told him. “It’s OK for people to laugh in church, but the point of the sermon isn’t to make people laugh. The sermon is about Jesus.”
What I wanted Jonah to understand is that there is a time and a place for everything. That also holds true in church. According to the book of Ecclesiastes there is a time for everything under the sun. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
Jonah had the wrong idea about sermons. His six-year-old self thought they were simply to make people laugh. Unfortunately there are people on the other end of the spectrum as well. They believe that there should be no laughter during church. They believe that reverence cannot coexist with laughter and silliness.
It’s understandable. Salvation is no laughing matter. We have been charged with a very serious task. We have been called to deliver the good news in Jesus to the world. And without hearing that good news, we are told that the only alternative to the eternal life God offers is eternal death.
And of course there is Ephesians 5:4 which says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” But the immediate context before and after this verse make it clear that Paul is not talking about all humor. He is talking about crude joking (and Paul would likely have put my son’s joke into this category).
What we see throughout the pages of scripture is a holy God who demands and deserves reverence, and yet who often uses humor to His advantage. From Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, asking if their god is silent because he is on the toilet (1 Kings 18:26-27), to a talking donkey (yes, DreamWorks owes God some serious royalties from the Shrek series) in Numbers 22:21-33, God is no stranger to humor.
And often God is the one with the last laugh. Remember the story of Abraham and Sarah? Check out Genesis 17:15-21. God came and told Abraham that Sarah would bear a son. But Abraham who was one hundred years old at the time and Sarah who was ninety were unable to have children. Hearing that unbelievable promise Abraham fell on his face and laughed. God didn’t strike him down for his lack of reverence. Instead God had the last laugh and commanded Abraham to name his son Isaac, which in Hebrew means “He laughs.” For the rest of his life Abraham would look at his son and know that the joke had been on him.
Laughter and humor are not inherently sinful. Although, like everything else this side of heaven, we are experts at twisting God’s good gifts to evil ends. Nor is laughter and humor inherently irreverent, although we are quick to turn it in that direction.
Echoing what Martin Luther said, Paul Tillich once asked, “Is our lack of joy due to the fact that we are Christians, or to the fact we are not sufficiently Christian?” (quote from “The New Being” p.142-143).
Here are some benefits of laughter in church:
1. Humor and Joy evangelize others by showing our hope in Christ, especially when that joy is contrasted by the darkness in the world around us.
2. Humor can shock listeners into recognizing a reality they don’t want to see.
3. Self-deprecating humor reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
4. Joy, humor, and laughter show Christian courage in the face of adversity.
5. Humor deepens our relationship with God by encouraging us to smile in prayer.
6. Humor and laughter welcome others into a group.
7. Laughter helps in the healing process.
8. Humor fosters good human relationships.
9. Laughter relaxes us.