Ministry of Laughter
What place does humour have in our work with young people? Becca Dean explores the links between spirituality and laughter, and draws on her own research in this area to present practical tips on how to ensure humour builds relationships – not barriers – among teenagers.
Have you ever got the giggles in a prayer meeting? Laughed in a church service when you really didn’t want to? Struggled to keep it together in a church meeting when someone says something unintentionally hilarious? If, like me, you’ve wrestled with these things, then maybe this article has got something for you.
A couple of years ago I spent quite a lot of time thinking about my use of humour within youth work. As someone who tends to play the fool as a bit of a coping mechanism, and my sense of humour is something I tend to fall back on, I got to a point of trying to work out where this sat within the youth work I did, and where it sat within my faith.
I went on to do some research around humour; what my young people thought about humour and faith; where I observed humour; what the expectations of linking humour in with faith were within the adults within my church, and what some experts (comedians and clowns) had to say about it.
What’s good about humour?
Laughing can be healing and good for us
The film Patch Adams is based on a movement within clowning that recognises the potential that laughter has on our physical health. Laughter can be hugely cathartic; a release of emotions or tension. Ever been in that situation where things are getting heavy and then someone manages to break the tension with a joke?
Within the charismatic church, laughter may even be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit in healing or releasing a person during prayer ministry.
Humour can offer new perspectives and enlighten us
Humour works within our expectations. Things that are bizarre or incongruous often make us laugh because they surprise us; they present us with something funny because we’re not expecting it. Take Bill Bailey’s God inspired joke from his Bewilderness tour;
‘Three blokes go into a pub, and it’s… God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And it’s a themed pub, and the theme is uncertainty.
Nobody knows how much anything costs, what they do when they leave, or what they’re doing there in the first place. It’s basically like an ordinary pub.
God goes up to the bar and says, “A couple of large ales, and some dry roasts.”
The barman says, “Anything for the Holy Spirit?”
And God says, “No! He’s ineffable! He’s a manifestation of a conceptual entity!”
So the barman says, “What, orange juice then?’
This is funny because it surprises us, but it also cleverly reflects to us certain ideas about God and the Trinity.
As humour is dependent on a person’s background and what they’ve been exposed to, humour reveals our worldviews. Take Christian humour; because of a shared understanding of Christian subculture we make jokes about Graham Kendrick songs of the 80s, Christian dating etiquette and how incredibly funny it is when someone passes wind in church, because we get it. For more reflections on Christian humour take a look at www.stuffchristianculturelikes.com.
As people make jokes, we begin to build up a picture not only of their personality but of how they see the world. For example, if a young person makes a joke about what you’re wearing, you may be receiving a lot more than just a cheeky comment on your style. You will also take in information on how they see you and their relationship with you.
Humour is a great tool in relationships
Humour is great at helping us break down barriers. As we laugh with people we make ourselves more accessible and approachable. So often, comedians get away with saying hugely political statements, which are tolerated because they’ve been packaged in a palatable way.
Maybe this is why so many vicars start with a joke as they preach their sermon; by making you laugh, they’re literally making themselves more interesting.
Separating humour from spirituality
Something I found throughout my research was that we, as Christians, seem to have difficulty in linking our humour to our spiritual experience. Maybe this is because there is little precedent or maybe it because humour is seen as naughty? Take laughing in a prayer meeting; sometimes it feels funnier because you know you’re not really meant to be doing it.
I asked some Christian adults to tell me how helpful they found it to connect humour with different ‘spiritual activities’. They put the activities in this order, from least helpful to most helpful;
8 - Prayer 7 - Worship 6 - Listening to God 5 -Intimacy with God 4 - Learning from the Bible 3 - Reading Christian Teaching 2 - Hearing Christian Teaching 1 - Christian fellowship
We understand easily the place for humour within fellowship - it’s a relational tool. We may also ‘get’ how humour used in a sermon or talk, or book that we’re reading will better engage us. However, where it comes to using humour in worship or within directly relating to God we become more stumped.
My thoughts are that humour has got so much to offer this area of our lives and our youth work, but we need to do a few things to bridge the gap. Firstly, understanding why we may separate humour from our spirituality is incredibly helpful; awareness of how and why we operate always better informs our youth work practice.
Once we have done this, there’s some more practical things we may want to do to start using humour as an aid to our youth work and faith, rather than missing out on all it can offer.
Humour and Christianity
Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that ‘there is a time for laughter’, which recognises that laughter has a place and a value. It also tells us that there is a time for many other things; weeping, mourning, dancing, silence, war. Thus we are introduced to balance; humour is part of a whole spectrum of emotions/reactions.
The cross is another example of this balance. With sobriety we see the sacrifice of Jesus death. We repent and we are moved by this act of redemption. However, Jesus didn’t stay on the cross; the other side to this act is the resurrection.
Our salvation, liberation, restoration, and the value placed on us through this act of grace can gives us huge cause for joy. In Galatians 5:22 we learn that one of the by-products of having the Holy Spirit in us is joy. Take Paul in Philippians 4, who says ‘I have learned to be content in all circumstances.’ Operating out of the ‘joy of salvation’ so deeply rooted within us will change us.
If we live fully acknowledging this joy, we’d perhaps be much more liberated in our humour. Where we may pick up church etiquette on a Sunday morning, church may become more of a place where we are liberated and able to laugh loudly and unashamedly.
In my research, one of my young people claimed, ‘I see [God] as a man in a suit, not someone that goes around in jeans and T-shirt.’ The image we have of God changes our expectations of him. Take the nonconforming image we are presented with in The Shack; God as a black woman with a huge warmth and sense of humour. She enables us to begin to grasp how God may be able to relate to our humanness, which includes our senses of humour.
Again, when asking the group of Christian adults about the connection between humour and spirituality their answers enabled me to make a list of what types of humour they saw as most connected with their faith; in this order from most to least connected:
Joyfulness Playfulness Silliness Irony Black humour Jokes Teasing Slapstick Outrageous Sarcasm Scatological (toilet) humour
To me it seems it’s probably us that have the problem in relating some of those to God; in working with us, God has to deal with lots of mess and copes with it. By disconnecting humour that is authentic to how we are and how we see life, from our relationship with God, we are holding back our whole selves.
There is the issue of morality and humour; where does humour become unhelpful within a Christian context? Where are the lines drawn around smutty humour or laughing about Christianity?
For me, I think the answer lies in where our sense of humour comes from. Where our sense of humour is inappropriate, is this a context issue, or something out of us that is expressed through our humour? Maybe as we base our humour and joy more in the hope and liberation of salvation, we begin to see this boundary issue become easier to manage.
Humour and youth ministry
Take time to enjoy your young people
So often it’s easy to get weighed down by our programmes and what we need to do next. It’s really refreshing to make sure we have time with our young people where we can really enjoy their company and enjoy all that their diverse senses of humour can bring.
This builds community, relationships, and trust, so while it may feel like wasting time and doing youth work without purpose, the benefits of slowing down are great. For more thinking along these lines pick up Mark Yaconelli’s Growing Souls.
Learn from your young people’s humour
If our humour gives away our thoughts and feelings, then what our young people share in their humour should really be valued and respected. What they say may make us uncomfortable, but instead of putting a lid on it, reflecting and learning from what they say is a really helpful process.
Get more comfortable with humour spanning across both the ‘spiritual’ and ‘mundane’ in your youth work
Recently in a youth group session, two of my young people could not stop giggling during a prayer time. I’m sure that I was more uncomfortable about this than God was. By reducing the taboo of laughing when you’re not meant to and creating situations where it’s safe to laugh, I think we’ll begin to see more and more the place humour has in our spiritual experience.
Young people will know whether you’re disapproving of their laughter. In this last case I was able to smile but carry on, and the laughter ran its course during the prayer time, rather than building up and becoming a distraction.
Work on your own awareness where it comes to humour
Maybe we need to reflect on our own use of humour. I know I have a tendency to go into ‘entertainer mode’ in uncomfortable situations, which can make either a positive or a negative impact, depending on the context. Take a look at this personal checklist and reflect on your own use of humour:
Is my sense of humour integrated well in my faith? When am I more likely to engage my sense of humour in my youth work? Why? Do I ever feel under pressure to be funny? Do I ever feel under pressure to stop my young people from laughing when they’re not meant to? Why? Do I celebrate the humour of the young people I interact with? Can I learn from them?
Use humour in balance
Balance is so important. Humour is so beneficial when we get the balance right. A lot of my ideas are in a reaction to a balance which I feel has been traditionally biased against an integrated use of humour. However, we also need to recognise that there are times and places where we don’t need to push humour.
As we work on our depth of understanding humour, ourselves and our young people, we’ll manage this balance better, and it will begin to feel more comfortable.
Continue having this conversation
For me, beginning to analyse humour and reflecting on it has been so interesting. I recommend continuing to work this out, talk about it with young people and other youth workers. Engage with comedy material and think about why it’s funny. Reflecting and continuing to learn will be an important part of this process as we begin to put these ideas into practice, and continue to learn from them.
Becca Dean is the youth minister at Carpenters Christian Fellowship in Chorleywood.