I want to take a preaching seminar under the tutelage of Jerry Seinfeld. I’m sure that won’t fly with accreditation, and I doubt Jerry would be interested, but I’m convinced if such a seminar existed my preaching would benefit.
I’ve been watching the Netflix show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and I got more than I bargained for. I love cars and coffee, and I like most comedians, so I thought I would be entertained during lunch breaks. It was not long before I started taking mental notes and applying what I was learning to preaching. You see, these short episodes have less to do with being comical and more to do with discussing what it takes to arrange and execute comedy. Jerry takes time to discuss style, technique, failures, and desires with each episode’s guest, and I found myself resonating with and correlating their experiences on stage to my own experiences behind a pulpit.
We do similar work, comedians and preachers. Always have. Don’t tell me people didn’t laugh when Jeremiah cut his hair or when Isaiah preached naked. Francis of Assisi surely got some laughs when he incorporated his street performance background into his preaching, or when he decided to preach to the birds because at least they were paying attention. Comedians and preachers both stand in front of a skeptical audience, demand attention, and attempt to perform in such a way that the people leave in a different frame of mind than when they came. And I wonder if comedians have a higher success rate.
So, when Jerry asks his peers about the use of impressions, the moving of lines in a skit for better effect, the role of narrative, and so on, I began to realize that he was talking to preachers as much as comedians. I was a preacher with some comedians in cars getting coffee. I was relieved to share the burden of a tough audience with these performers (not that my current audience is tough, but that the task of preaching is increasingly pressured to produce results and entertain in general). And I was encouraged by the reminder to interject joy and hope into the lives of those who listen to me weekly. But mostly, I was left with a longing to sit at the feet of these comedic geniuses and let them teach me rhetoric. The rhetorical training I received was in no way unsatisfactory—far from it—but I think that these comedic rhetoricians have a unique perspective and ability to turn negatives into humor, and as a preacher I have a similar task of turning trouble into grace.
Cornelius Plantinga Jr., in his stellar book Reading for Preaching asserts that for preachers to maximize their ability as wordsmiths they need to take in a wide variety and large quantity of words from other wordsmiths. I would suggest that we also spend time learning from comedians and finding a strange but useful partnership with them. My suggestions:
- Read Plantinga’s book about reading more; you’ll be better for it.
- Watch Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and take some notes.
- Sit at the rhetorical feet of standup comedians and expand your techniques.
I am not telling you to use more humor or jokes in your sermons, but I am suggesting that we could learn from the popular rhetoricians of our day. I have.
 Plantinga, Cornelius Jr., Reading for Preaching: the preacher in conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).
Chess serves as the pulpit minister at Gateway Church of Christ in Queen Creek, Arizona. A born and raised Texan, Chess earned a B.A., M.Div., and M.A. in New Testament from Abilene Christian University. He is passionate about God and his family, and deeply desires to help others fall in love with God so that they may imitate the life and love of Christ. Chess loves to read, learn, and have deeper conversations about God. He also enjoys Formula One racing, playing golf, working on and rebuilding cars, and translating and studying dead languages.