This fall, when the people of New England Bible Church wanted to have a really good time, they got together at the start of Sunday worship to memorize Bible verses.
Part of the fun was the game-show atmosphere, as "contestants" filled in the blanks of a verse. But part of it was also the mood of levity that invades a realm once known more for hard pews than hard laughs. One recent Sunday, a good-natured quiz pitting elders against deacons connected with congregants partly because of its tongue-in-cheek tone. "This is all for show," Pastor Tyler Thompson assured the flock. "These people up here really don't like each other all that much." Everyone laughed.
From here to Hollywood, somber services where smiles are frowned upon have in many churches gone the way of sky-high pulpits and knuckle-rapping ushers. In its place is an effort to tap the nation's culture of humor to promote spiritual gain:
• In Texas and southern California, church outreach ministries now include Christian comedy shows that draw upwards of 300 people.
• A forthcoming book on "The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching" (Zondervan, 2005) dedicates an entire chapter to humor as a homiletic device.
• Preachers in congregations large and small are building laughter into their worship plans.
Example: The Rev. Paul Sangree of Bethany Congregational Church in Foxboro, Mass., pokes fun at himself every week because he finds "it loosens people up."
To be sure, certain areas of church life remain no joking matter. A preacher who once joked with bread and wine while serving the Lord's Supper earned the scorn of his congregation for "demeaning those in some way," according to The Rev. John Beukema, who wrote the humor chapter in the new book on preaching.
Still, observers say what's happened has been a shift to speak the laugh-getting language of a casual culture that values entertainment. Some do voice concerns about a loss of reverence, but many see the lighter side as a vital tactic for touching souls.
"It is going to be impossible to preach without using humor," says Joseph Webb, author of "Comedy and Preaching" (Chalice Press, 1998) and dean of the communications program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. "You will not be able to stand up and hold the people if you cannot work the stage."
With faith that there's much to gain from cutting loose, religious leaders increasingly work laughs into announcements, sermons, and dramatizations of scripture.
While the goal is to connect to today's flock, the trend draws on tradition. Seminary students are mining the sermons of yesteryear's preachers who had a flair for making the faithful chuckle. And some pastors regard the Bible itself as seasoned with more than a few funny stories.
Others see a theological dimension involving the demand for redemption. "We need to laugh at ourselves because that's the whole basis of our belief, is that we're not worthy," says Beukema, associate editor at www.preachingtoday.com and teaching pastor of the Village Church in Western Springs, Ill. "It's by His grace alone that we are saved."
Some material is quite safe. When telling the Bible story of Jonah, spared from the fish's mouth but then pouting on a hillside because God wouldn't squash his enemies, a dramatist can play up the prophet's unwitting folly without much risk. Likewise the tale of Balaam's donkey, who verbally rebukes his master for missing the Lord's direction, may have missed the mark if no one cracks a smile.
Knowing what's fair game and what's not, however, can be as crucial as timing when it comes to blending humor and holiness. A generation ago, the norm was to save laughter for coffee hour because, Webb says, church sanctuaries held a loftier status, and God was thought to reign above the humorous minutiae of ordinary life. Today, he says, God is one who "walks with me, and talks with me" - so laughing together isn't far behind. But now leaders face a challenge to determine case by case when laughter is appropriate, and when it still might defile the sacred.
Leaders seem to agree on this rule of thumb: Poke fun at yourself or at universal human foibles, but never mock God, holy things or particular people. Prayer and sacraments are no times to laugh, they say. And beware of actual joke telling during worship, which Beukema deems "high risk humor because if the punch line misses, everybody loses."
Despite cautions, humor is now part of the clerical playbook. At this year's Rosh Hashana service at Temple Micah in Philadelphia, Rabbi Bob Alper in a sermon on joy laughed at the impulse to annoy thy neighbor. Drawing on his trade as a professional comedian, he recalled a childhood neighbor who never liked Alper's family and gave their Jewish household a Christmas tree. "If MasterCards had been around then, they could have produced this ad," he told the congregation. "A desk-size Douglas fir Christmas tree: $5.00. A small box of ornaments: $2.75. The chance to wreak havoc with the religious identity of the children of your despised neighbor: Priceless."
Folklorist Bill Ellis of Pennsylvania State University in Hazelton says laughter is "hard-wired" in human nature, something that often helps people resist despair. In folklore, he says, "we laugh at the devil because the devil relishes pride and can't stand to be laughed at.... Sometimes a little subversiveness in religion is just what we need."