[ 5 minutes to read ]Haaaaaw! is a word. [Y]ou may not know it to look at me, but I love humor, love to laugh. To this day, Jerry Clower is my favorite comedian. My Dad introduced me to Jerry Clower via cassette tape when I was pretty young. I immediately loved the southern humorist and listened to those tapes in such a manner that if he had managed to be paid per play, I would’ve been a top contributor to his estate. With that southern drawl and southwest Miss’ssippi brogue, you would think he could make the instruction manual for the cassette player I used to listen on sound interesting.
What was it that made him so successful? During different shows, he told about his breaking into show business. Any sort of success on that level requires some right-place-right-time breaks, but that is not the whole story. He still had to have something that enough people wanted they were willing to pay for it to succeed. Without that something, all the breaks in the world wouldn’t be enough. Just think about why we talk about one hit wonders.
Secret of Success
Some of his trademark charm was owing to being a somewhat stereotypical southern man. He was also a quintessential southern man of a bygone era. He was born in the rural Deep South almost half a century after Reconstruction. He was born before the stock market crash, lived through the Great Depression, and served in the Navy during World War II. By the time he began entertaining in live shows on stage in the early 70s, he was a bridge to a world that no longer existed. He delivered homespun humor and wit from a simpler time with authenticity.
But the greatest contributor to his success was that he was funny. If you had asked him if he was funny or if his stories were funny, he would’ve answered he was funny. I’ve read that he once said something like, he didn’t tell funny stories, but rather he told stories funny. While he certainly embellished his stories, he also said he thought the funniest things actually happened. The core of his humor was real life.
Jerry and the Pulpit
Several of his bits involved churches and preachers. I recall a short bit that told of a church that got a new pastor and all of his sermons for the first few months were on baptism. After a while, the deacons had a meeting with him about his preaching. The preacher suggested they select the next text he would preach. They settled on Matthew 3:10 and he agreed. Come Sunday morning, the preacher read the text and quickly got to his point. He said the only reason anyone would lay the ax to the root of the trees was to cut down the trees to dam up the creek to have a hole deep enough for baptizing. He proceeded to preach yet another message on baptism.
That story is funny because it is true to life. I don’t know if it really happened as told, mostly happened with added embellishment, or if that particular scenario never occurred. It was true to life because we have probably all known preachers who were about like that. They have their favorite subjects and can pivot from any verse in the Bible to talk about those subjects. I once heard a message that started from a text about the Ark of the Covenant, but became a message about the hellish public school system. So, it happens.
This old Jerry Clower bit gives us an opportunity to think about something else. Preachers who aren’t committed to the sequential exposition of the whole Bible tend to preach repeatedly on a handful of subjects. They use the same verses, same illustrations, and same jokes again and again. They can find their pet topics in Bible verses the Holy Spirit didn’t even know was there. Even long term pastors can become not much better than traveling evangelists who have five sermons and a thousand different titles.
Reconstruction of Another Kind
Let’s conduct a thought experiment for young preachers. Let’s think about reverse engineering the Bible. Let’s say there was a group of people who had no access to a Bible. All they had was a library archive of your preaching for twenty or thirty years. After listening to the whole archive of your sermons, what would they think the Bible was about? What would they think were the most important themes and messages of the Bible? What would they think was of first importance, like what Paul wrote about the gospel to the church at Corinth? What proportion of subject mentions would they deduce?
If they had an archive of Jerry Clower’s preacher, they would think baptism was the most important message of the Bible. If they listened to some preachers, they would think public schools, clothes, and the hellivision were written about on every page of the Bible. From some, they might not even suspect the Old Testament existed. From others, they would think the church was mentioned more often than the kingdom by far.
There is another way to think about this too. From listening to your sermon archive, how much of the Bible could they actually reconstruct? Some have said you could reconstruct nearly the whole Bible from the writings of the church fathers. That claim is a stretch, but they did reference much of the Bible. It is not a stretch, though, to say that of John Gill, who pastored the same church in London for over 50 years and preached verse-by-verse through the entire Bible. I don’t agree with all of Gill’s conclusions and views, but it’s hard to argue with the comprehensiveness of his ministry.
I’m not suggesting that you have to preach every verse of the Bible or your ministry is a failure. Even Spurgeon did not do that. This thought experiment is an opportunity to think about ministry from a larger perspective. We sometimes think too much about the next sermon and not enough about the next five, ten, or twenty years of sermons. I’m also not suggesting that you plan out twenty years of sermons and stick doggedly to your schedule. If you commit to sequential exposition of the Bible and preach from the different genres of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, you will preach the word, preach the whole counsel, and fulfill the ministry you have been given (2 Timothy 4:1; Acts 20:27; Colossians 4:17). You will preach the subjects the Bible actually addresses and in the balance the Bible presents them. You will probably still hear complaints about something though. Sorry, I don’t know what to do about that.