Communication: I’m Not Just Kidding
Using Humor Effectively in Teaching Teens and Young Adults
(Appears in the May/June 2008 issue of The Journal of Student Ministries, by Titus)
As a seventh grader in youth group, I was always the first one to volunteer to be a part of an object lesson. It was my time to shine, my chance to take center stage--my opportunity to impress the cute girl at my church. Yes, I was that kid. I went to a small church with a small youth ministry, and our junior high and high school groups met together for Bible Study on Thursday nights. But those upper classmen didn't scare me.
One night our leader asked for a volunteer. True to form, my hand shot up. She called on me and I took my place in front of the group where I was adorned in plastic vines. We were talking about how Jesus was the vine and we were the branches. My body was an illustration of the stability of Christ and my artificial foliage was an appropriate depiction of Christ's followers. Our leader asked me if I liked my branches. Desperate to impress those juniors and seniors, (and the super-fine eighth grade “hottie” in the front row) I searched my vocabulary for the biggest word I knew. My heart filled with courage and my mouth moved faster than it should have.
I intended to say, "I love my tentacles."
Instead, I proclaimed boldly, like a mighty warrior, "I love my testicles!"
The room erupted in laughter. My face turned crimson, but even I couldn't help but to awkwardly laugh. It was one of those moments. It was just funny. Their jeering didn't cause long-term damage to my psyche and my faux pas was eventually forgotten by most (I hope). It was simply humorous.
Humor has a powerful sway over our minds, but it can also have a great deal of influence over our hearts. Though a slip of the tongue can provide limitless fodder for teasing, well-used humor in teaching can be a powerful tool for the teacher. I would suggest that if you can get a person to laugh you can get them to listen--and change. Humor can amuse, certainly, but it can also engage, enlighten, and inspire students.
Humor as a Tool to Capture Attention
Humor has been huge as an attention-getting device since Adam told Eve the first knock-knock joke. Marketing gurus, movie and television writers, and yes, teachers, have been aware of the power of laughter for centuries. The sermon outline cliché of a joke, three points, and a poem is indicative of this timeless philosophy. Think about it. If you had a nickel for every sermon you heard that started with, “Did you hear the one about the...” you could buy a tank of gas. However, just because it is cliché doesn’t make the strategy bad. There is something to the practice of capturing an audience’s imagination with a humorous introduction.
These funny introductions certainly do not have to be jokes. In fact, telling jokes can come off as corny, poorly motivated, and—most dangerous of all—not funny. Students especially aren’t huge joke tellers. If you ask, “Did you hear the one about the…” chances are they haven’t. They do love a funny story, though.
When I was in college, I traveled for my school to various church camps in our region. It was when we first arrived that I would tell all my funniest stories—the time when I wet my pants playing left field, the time I burped in a girl’s mouth when trying to give her a kiss, the time when I was in first grade and accidentally wore my pajama pants to school under my jeans. I wasn’t doing it so that the kids would like me; I was doing it so they would listen to me. Humor has the power to engage people.
It demonstrates that the teacher is at ease. It helps break down those initial barriers that exist in the seconds just before the message begins. Students come into our classes with heavy hearts. They are distracted, discouraged, and in some cases, depressed. It levels the playing field when the speaker demonstrates that he or she doesn't take him or herself too seriously. When people are listening in those very first moments, we have the opportunity to speak truth into their lives.
It should be noted that humor should never be the end, but instead a means to that end. It has never been the goal of teaching to be funny. The goal of teaching is life transformation through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. For that kind of change to take place, however, you have to have an engaged audience. You only get one chance to make a good first impression.
When I first met my eventual wife and realized that I wanted her to be my wife, I tried to make her laugh every chance I could get. I wanted her to like me, certainly, but my motives were simpler than that—I wanted her to pay attention to me (it must have worked). In teaching, there is nothing wrong with wanting people to pay attention to what you have to say. You’re teaching the Good News of Jesus, after all.
Humor as a Tool to Keep Attention
Back in the day, Sunday school teachers would stand at the front of the class and orate for hours concerning the truth of the Scripture. In a time when people were starved for the Word of God, this was an effective methodology. Revealing God’s words was enough to keep them on the edge of their seats (though I’m sure there were plenty of head-bobbers back then, too). Some wish that no-frills style still worked today, but the truth is it doesn’t. I can count the number of teachers who venture beyond an hour on one hand—maybe even one finger. It’s not common practice, for sure.
The issue is not the attention span of students. Some speculate that a middle school student cannot effectively take in a lecture that lasts more than twenty minutes. I’ve heard some say that the attention span of a person is the same amount of minutes as they are years old. Television, music videos, and the Internet have diminished our student’s ability to pay attention, they claim. I simply disagree. It’s not about how long you teach; it’s about how well.
Humor can increase exponentially the effectiveness of our teaching because it builds in breaks for the listener. It illustrates the message, and our audience is reminded of where we’re going. If our students don’t come with us, what’s the point of continuing to talk? I’m not suggesting that we replace the truth of the gospel with jokes and entertainment—I’m simply pointing out that humor can reel the listener back in. I’ve heard the example given of a great roller coaster. The twists, loops, and surprising descents are the substance of the roller coaster, but even the most extreme ride has points where you slow down slightly, flatten out for a second, and get a chance to digest what you’ve just experienced. In our teaching, it’s rarely the humorous moments that will carry the most meaning, but that doesn’t make them bad. Instead, we can learn to use them effectively as a short pause, a regrouping, a setting the stage for the next tough truth.
I have found that this is best done through the telling of a funny story. Story telling is an ancient craft. From the orally-inclined Old Testament to the parables of Jesus, stories are magnificent attention-keepers. Humorous stories go a step farther in recapturing the minds of the listener.
The only thing that is harder than getting the attention of a student is keeping it. Of the contemporary long-winded teachers that come to mind, I have found that they all integrate humor in every case. I heard a teacher drop an hour on a bunch of junior high students at a camp I was dean of, and they were with him just as much in minute sixty as they were in minute one. During the sixty minutes, they must not have gone five at any point without laughing, and there were numerous decisions for Christ made afterwards. That’s not bad for a bunch of junior high sudents with fifteen-minute attention spans.
Humor as a Tool to Challenge
While humor can capture and keep attention, we should not discount its actual power to inspire change. As was asserted above, if you can make a person laugh you can also get them to consider what you’re saying. If the point of teaching is to challenge a person, we should not overlook humor as a tool in your toolbox of teaching.
Jesus seems to serve as a prime example of this methodology. When he employed humor it was not only illustrative, it also packed a punch. Humorous notions about a camel passing through the eye of a needle, (the author recognizes there are multiple views of what he meant by this) was not just a funny image—it was a statement concerning salvation, no laughing matter. It has been said that the best joke is the one that makes you laugh and think. When we employ humor for a purpose, it can have rewarding benefits.
I was once teaching a sermon on rejection: a serious subject. Even more somber was my text—the woman with the issue of blood. Instead of trudging through what can be construed as a dismal narrative (although everything I said centered on the text), I told a parable about a credit card. I invited students to pretend they were a credit card and we pondered what it would be like to be stuffed in a wallet near someone’s you-know-what or in the bottom of a jam-packed purse. I talked about how much we would enjoy the “tickle machine” through which we were routinely swiped. It may sound corny to you, but it brought laughter to the listener as they considered the silly notion. My point in doing all of this was to challenge them to remember when they had felt rejected. In our pretend existence as credit cards, we imagined what it must feel like to hear those words, “I’m sorry, but your card has been rejected.” Comparing that to our human emotions proved powerful despite the frivolous parable that preceded it.
Do you remember in John 5 when Jesus asked the lame man if he wanted to get well? That strikes me as a question with equal parts humor and prodding. We would assume that, of course, the man wanted healing, but Jesus wasn’t kidding around. He wanted to know if the man had the faith to believe in his healing touch. We’re really doing nothing different when we teach using humor. Our motivation is two-fold--we want to be funny enough to have the attention of the listener and serious enough that they consider the challenge of the gospel.
Some would read these words and reject them wholesale. Some say there is no place for sarcasm, irony, or joking during the classroom experience. Critics would claim that humor is always motivated by self-centeredness, the desire to be likeable and in the spotlight, and ultimately, pretty ineffective as a communication tool.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Yes, teachers can get caught up in the act of teaching and forget to actually say anything substantive. Laughter from hundreds of people can pad the ego and lead to greater problems. However, these are the internal issues of the communicator, not an indictment on the technique itself. As for the claim that humor is ineffective in aiding the communication process, experience has taught us all otherwise. Just as lines from our favorite sitcoms are unforgettably quotable, a funny lecture can make a huge impression.
Potential dangers should not disqualify us from employing humor. The old adage says, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Many don’t realize those are the words of inspired Scripture, from Proverbs 17:22. While those words are certainly not talking about teaching in particular, it’s hard to ignore their over-arching truth.
Humor can most definitely engage, enlighten, and inspire students. So start laughing, keep laughing, and laugh for a change, and when you say “testicles” instead of “tentacles,” don’t forget to laugh at yourself.