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The clown in the pulpit

The Danish Christian theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard told the story of a festival big top that was filled with people prepared to see a circus. Unknown to the crowd, a fire broke out behind the scenes and began to spread quickly.

Robin Schumacher
Courtesy of Robin Schumacher

A circus clown was told to run out to the main arena and tell the audience about the fire so they could escape. The clown quickly raced out from backstage and began frantically telling the crowd about the fire. But instead of believing the clown, the people just began to laugh at him.

The more the clown screamed at them to leave before it was too late, the more the crowd laughed at him. In the end, most of the people died in the fire because they didn’t believe the clown.

But can you really blame them? Who takes a clown seriously?

These days, so many churches have teaching pastors whose priority seems to be making the congregation laugh at their messages. It's not uncommon for humor to be injected throughout most sermons, with jokes, amusing videos, and more being used to keep attendees chuckling.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I like to laugh as much as the next person and am not advocating a dry, soulless style of preaching. What I’m saying is that pastors need to be careful about using the pulpit as some kind of Netflix comedy special.

Humor injected at certain points in a message can serve the speaker’s purpose very well when intelligently used. The former lead pastor of the church I used to attend was a master at this. His Biblical messages almost always had some lighthearted story or appropriate joke that fit perfectly with the core theme on which he was preaching, and each one served to give the congregation a momentary pause in what was usually a serious and eternal issue he was communicating.  

The fact is, there is likely no more significant and vital job than that of the teaching pastor and no greater address given than the one in which God’s Word is proclaimed. It’s said that before a sermon, John Knox used to lock himself in a room and weep for days because he feared the seriousness of his preaching duty. I wonder how many pastors today feel that same sense of obligation?

Today’s preachers want to be liked, thought of as winsome and hip, and see the use of comedy in their messages as one way to bring about the end result they desire. That’s too bad because it’s not what they’re called to do.

As John MacArthur says, “The preacher who brings the message people most need to hear will often be the preacher they least like to hear.”  A. W. Tozer used to remark how he had preached himself out of every conference and guest pulpit in the country. Read his books, though, and you’ll find a depth and convicting bite that comes only from God’s Holy Spirit. No humor, just God’s truth.

The pastor who relies on comedy as the main meat in his messages will quickly come to resemble Kierkegaard’s clown in the minds of his congregation. Entertaining? Yes. But let him try and talk earnestly about sin, its consequences, Hell, eternal separation from God and see what happens. No one (who needs to) will be moved to act. They’ll just sit there and die in the fire they can’t see because they’ve been trained to not take him seriously.

But can you really blame them? Who takes a clown seriously?

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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