When I was a kid, I wanted to be a standup comedian. I became a preacher instead, and it turns out that those two professions are more similar than you might think.
It’s not just about being funny (although being funny is never a bad idea); it’s about the art of the spoken word. It’s about using only your voice to make a connection with a group of people.
A couple years ago, I became convinced that preachers could improve their communication skills by learning what standup comedians already know. I spent months listening to hundreds of hours of interviews with comedians, reading books about great standup comics, and listening to comedy albums. I wanted to learn how to do standup comedy because I was convinced that it would make me a better preacher.
At one point, I even went to Open Mic Night at a local comedy club and put my name on the list. Open Mic Night is typically where working comedians go to work out new material, but literally anybody can put their name on the list and get a five-minute timeslot. So that’s what I did.
During my five minutes onstage in the dimly lit comedy club, I told two stories and received exactly three laughs from the room. My first laugh didn’t happen until nearly two minutes into my time. I can tell you that those first two laughless minutes were long and excruciating. When the whole point is to make someone laugh and you are unable to do it (and everybody in the room is watching you), it feels pretty terrifying. When I did get those three laughs, I felt a huge rush of joy and relief.
I didn’t go to Open Mic Night because I want to start a career as a standup comic. I’m not funny enough, and I hate staying up late. So I’m automatically disqualified from that particular line of work. No, I went to Open Mic Night because I wanted to know first hand how it feels to do what comedians do and to feel the fear and pressure that comedians feel.
Most preachers have it too easy. They forget how nervous they felt the first time they ever delivered a sermon or spoke to a roomful of strangers. They forget how hard it is to win over a reluctant crowd. Comedians never forget what this feels like because they have to do it every night. Preachers get lazy because they become convinced that they’re good enough. People show up to church on Sunday mornings regardless of how hard they work on their sermons, which leads preachers to believe that they are great at preaching.
I once read a survey stating that 85% of pastors believe they are above average at preaching. How could that even be possible? By the sheer laws of mathematics, at least 35% of those pastors are delusional. Most comedians have no such delusions. If people are laughing, the comedian is succeeding; if people are not laughing, the comedian is failing. If you spent twenty minutes trying to be funny and nobody laughed at all, you probably wouldn’t tell anybody that you were “above average” at standup comedy.
When it comes to preaching, this comparison with standup comedians is not about needing to be funny. Like I said before, it’s about connecting with a group of people using only your voice. Preachers (and all public speakers, for that matter) have the power to evoke some kind of mental/emotional response from their listeners—laughter is one of those possible responses, but it isn’t the only one. We also can make people feel things like wonder, curiosity, hope, joy, relief, or catharsis. But we must be willing to do the work and to employ some of the same tools that comedians naturally know how to use.
Here are three things preachers can do to think like standup comedians:
1. Understand the Art Form
Let’s not kid ourselves: Preaching is an art form. There may be a few pastors out there who bristle at this language and would argue that there is nothing “artistic” about preaching because it’s our responsibility to convey Truth and that thinking about it in terms of art reduces it in some kind of way. However, every time someone stands in front of other people and speaks with some kind of goal or agenda, that person is engaged in performance art.
In his excellent book Born Standing Up, legendary comedian Steve Martin says this (specifically speaking about school teachers): “Teaching is, after all, a form of show business.”
Steve Martin is pointing out that standing in front of people with something to say is, whether we like it or not, an act of performance. In other words, it is art.
The best preachers I know understand this. They understand that they are attempting to use their allotted time to engage people’s imaginations and that if we want to make people use their imaginations, we need to use our own. We need to be adequately prepared; we need to understand when to go fast and when to go slow; we need to understand when to be funny and when to be serious; we need to understand to overall structure of what we are talking about. It’s not just standing in front of people reading Bible verses—it is using your voice to engage the minds of others. That is what art does, and it takes a lot of work.
2. Don’t Take Your Listeners for Granted
In my opinion, one of the worst things a preacher can do is be boring.
Most preachers I know who are not aware that they need improvement seem to think that their listeners will keep showing up regardless of how good the sermon is. I know lots of pastors who don’t start preparing until the Friday or Saturday before they are scheduled to preach. They don’t think it matters. Why? Because people keep showing up, and even one or two of them will tell the pastor “Great job” after the sermon. So as people keep attending church, and the pastor spends less and less time thinking about the sermon every week, that pastor will begin to feel like everything he does is excellent. He doesn’t even have to try, and people keep coming back. Some of the worst sermons I have ever heard were delivered by preachers who have been in the same church for twenty years. Conversely, some of the best sermons I have ever heard were also delivered by preachers who have been in the same church for twenty years. The difference is in how the preacher thinks about his or her listeners.
3. Get Better
The best preachers I know are always trying to get better. They are not satisfied with preaching the same sermons over and over again, and they are constantly looking for new ways to engage very old ideas.
This is a practice that the best standup comedians are fully engaged in. In the documentary Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld is trying to write all new material after his long-running sitcom (Seinfeld) has gone off the air. This is fascinating to watch. Throughout the documentary, Seinfeld—one of the world’s most successful standup comedians—spends weeks agonizing over every word in every joke. This guy could stop working right now, and he’d never have to worry about money or fame ever again. He has nothing left to prove to anybody, and yet he goes to Open Mic Nights and tries to deliver new jokes. He keeps going back, reworking each joke over and over again, never convinced that he’s done getting better. And that is why Jerry Seinfeld is a legend—he’s never convinced that he is already as good as he could possibly be. He’s always getting better.
As a preacher, I spend part of every day trying to make sure I’m doing each of these three things. I know that I have a long way to go and that I have a lot to learn, and I never want to be the kind of preacher who stops trying to be better.
If you are a public communicator—preacher, teacher, or otherwise—I hope you understand how powerful your art form can be. I hope you use your talent and platform to do something beautiful and that you will keep getting better.
I’ll revisit this topic a few more times in the next few weeks. There’s a lot more to talk about here.