5 minutes of absolute ackwardness

Justin Taylor offers analysis on the inappropriate audience laughter during Pastor John’s message at a Christian counselor’s conference.

If you feel like being very uncomfortable, listen to the first 5 minutes of this sermon.

As Pastor John delivers a gut-wrenching opening to his sermon, the audience inexplicably roars in laughter at the most unbelievable moments.  Greg Gilbert offers more analysis on the training of Christian “audiences” to be cued to laugh, especially during the opening remarks to a sermon.

After having sat under the teaching of Pastor John for many years now–most of my adult life–I can hardly think of a time where he was intentionally funny from the pulpit.  However, he has on many occasions been unintentionally funny.  For more on his unintentionally funny comments, see Jamsco’s documentation.

Yet, to my recollection, he generally has understood why what he has said is causing laughter.  I’ve never heard him so perplexed, nor felt as perplexed myself, than when listening to those first 5 minutes.  Truly bizarre.

Any thoughts on the unusual laughter?  Were they nervous?  I wonder if I would have been swayed by the contagiousness of the laughter and chuckled inappropriately myself?  Probably not, because I’m familiar with the serious nature of Pastor John’s preaching.

Ever been caught laughing at something that was *not* funny?  I’m sure I have.


13 thoughts on “5 minutes of absolute ackwardness

  1. I think Greg Gilbert is right on when he says that congregations have been trained to expect laughter during the first few minutes of a sermon or conference. I have heard many preachers use humor to “hook” the audience at the beginning of a sermon, and I grew up in churches where this was not at all uncommon. The first time I attended Bethlehem and heard the Scripture reader announce the page number of the text, I began to snicker and then was surprised that no one else was laughing. In the churches I grew up in, occasionally the pastor would announce the text and then say, “And that can be found on page . . . ” and everyone would laugh. Now, after hearing the page number for the text announced almost every Sunday for the past 6 years, it really isn’t funny anymore. When I look back and see how I’ve been trained and conditioned over my growing up and adult years, I guess how I can understand how the audience at the counselor’s conference — especially those unfamiliar with his style — would automatically assume that Piper was using the expected humor and satire to begin his sermon.

  2. Right on, Lacinda.

    Do you think the sermon humor added to/took away from or was neutral in regard to the sermon being preached?

    I tend to think humor should be used sparingly when it comes to preaching the Word.. but I also love to laugh and find that many ironic or conspicuous points are made salient with humor in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be..

    Any thoughts?

  3. Okay, Lori & I just listened to it & we think it’s not really that weird that they were laughing. I think if you haven’t heard the man preach before & know that he is extremely serious, his ultra-seriousness kind of comes off as humorous. I can think of comedians that get up on stage and start their thing with a very slow monotone voice as though they’re trying to be dull & the dullness is what makes it funny. If you don’t know Pastor Piper, I think he (at least in this case) kind of comes off that way. SO very serious that you think he’s trying to be funny.
    Then of course there is the mob mentality where if a few people laugh you just assume it was a joke even if you might not have on your own.
    My two cents.
    How awkward for him, though! I couldn’t decide if I should laugh (knowing I wasn’t supposed to) or feel really bad…

  4. I think I agree with the last comment. I listened to it too. I felt pad for Pastor John. He did reference something about the prior speaker “setting him up.”

    I appreciate the seriousness of the preaching at our church. One of my good friends in college was Jay Kesler, the college president. He was famous for his humor in his preaching and speaking. I think though that sometimes students missed some really great meat in his preaching because of his humor. Whose fault was that, his or the students?

  5. Good question Andy..

    I wonder how much of the humor in preaching is done to be liked by the audience, or worse, to be “relevant” and then has the opposite effect.

    As I said before, I love to laugh, but that’s not why I go to hear the preaching of the Word. And laughing and preaching will inevitably overlap at times. I just don’t think it should be a goal.

    And Heather, I picked up on one thing you said, that you can think of “comedians” that get up on stage and do the monotone thing.. but I guess the point is that he is a pastor, not a comedian. Which is why the whole thing was bizarre to me… why were they so prepped to laugh, it’s not like they were at the Improv?

  6. True. It does seem like they were maybe “prepped” to laugh as you said. That’s probably a reflection on our culture & what we’re used to. I think that’s probably what it comes down to – what are people used to. Clearly, this group was not used to Pastor Piper’s personality to know how to read him. I would have been at fault of that too, not having heard him more than a handful of times. If he’s your regular pastor, you obviously know what to expect. He does have a tone in his voice (or at least did in this talk) that I think could lend to this confusion, though (right or wrong).
    Maybe this would be the case with any pastor? I’m not sure. My pastor can be extremely funny at times (something I love about him), but also extremely serious (something I love even more). It’s easy for me to tell the difference between the two, but I know him well & understand his personality. Others might not pick up on his jokes or might misunderstand his sincerity.
    I suppose it’s a good lesson for all – for pastors to understand the way they come off to various types of audiences and for those of us who spend more time in an audience to be more perceptive in how we hear and then react to our speakers.

  7. To answer your question posted on the 12th, I think it’s possible for humor to add to a sermon, but I also agree with you that’s it’s often done for with wrong motives and can be distracting. When I was in settings where humor was commonly used, I liked it and felt that it helped me stay tuned to what was being said. But now that I’ve sat in a more serious environment for serveral years, I really appreciate the attitude of reverence that it creates for listening to God’s Word, and I find myself being sometimes annoyed when I’m in settings where humor is overdone. I guess I’m a classic example of one who has been “trained” on both sides of the coin!

  8. My only argument against the training argument (comedy clubs, late night tv, humorous seeker pastors) about the listeners is that these listeners were trained listeners. When a guest speaker stands up and speaks, how much intuition does it take to hear when he says he is serious or perplexed by their response? These are trained listeners.

    While I was appalled to listen to what sounded like a laugh track, I heard this pastor being vulnerable, focused, try to correct the path the listeners were taking and in the end, loving them inspite of their response and his bewilderment. Tough stuff. This at the hand of Christian brothers and sisters…Christian counselors.

    Pastor John, with God’s grace, can take care of himself, though.

  9. I read an interesting article back in January on a related topic:
    (http://abigailsleftovers.wordpress.com/2009/01/01/wit-humor-and-sarcasm-a-resolution-for-my-generation-and-me/#comments)

    One piece that seems applicable: “If it’s not witty, funny or bitingly sarcastic, keep it to yourself.”

    As a member of the audience you would have had to interpret his remarks as either “bitingly sarcastic” or sincere. What a commentary of modern preaching when, en masse, we assume the former of none other than John Piper. It kind of makes me feel dirty hearing the laughter continue after all possibility of humor dies away.

  10. Nailed it for me in that last paragraph Brad (and no need to quote that wannabe writer). Especially with your last sentence.. after all possibility of humor was gone, the laughter continued.

    And Mom, I was thinking the same thing about the audience being “trained listeners.” It’s baffling.

    The crux for me is, primed to laugh or not, since when did someone confessing sin (and sin is serious.. it damns us to hell and nailed our Savior to the cross) become funny or lighthearted to Christians? Tears would have been better.

    I don’t want to be laughing at my sin (or other people’s), I want to be killing it (even though I’m marked by failure). Sin is serious and God deals with it in serious, violent, and sweeping ways, for believers and unbelievers.

    So, I guess I’ve talked myself out of the “it’s totally understandable, they were expecting humor” side of things. While I understand that to be true on one level, it still doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is that we just don’t take sin very seriously. We laugh at it the way we laugh at everything else.

  11. Hi Abigail, Just checked in and read your post and listened to the 1st 5 min. of the talk.

    I think humor is a personal and relational thing. It’s also relative. I have only heard Pastor Piper preach once in my life. So, I am not accustom to his serious nature. I had no idea he was truly bearing his soul in the first 5 minutes of his talk. He has a “dry sense of humor” tone of voice…like Bill Cosby sort of…but Bill is usually going for a laugh.

    The first few laughs I didn’t understand what was so wrong…I thought he was being funny. I thought he was trying to do the typical “bring your crowd in slowly” intro. His tone could easily be read as a dry sense of humor for someone who does not know him…even his request for them to stop laughing could be read as more funny/sarcasm, if you didn’t know him.

    When I listened to the talk and told myself, “he’s serious, he really is bearing his soul!” I was deeply disturbed when I heard the laughter. I am sad to think of the discomfort and hurt Pastor Piper must have felt during that talk! How horrible to be bearing your soul and hear laughter.

    I think people couldn’t believe he was being so real. The only alternative was to believe he was using humor.

    He’s a much more transparent man than most!

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