Deadpan, cynical, dry – whatever the words you use, they describe a way of being humorous which undercuts other people. The atmosphere is not necessarily nasty or cutting – just gently… deflating.
It’s easy enough to pull off, and there are a ton of role models out there. It’s the standard routine on panel shows and current affairs, quick-fire comedy programmes. And if you have a way with words (and most preacher do, after all), it finds an easy way into your vocabulary. Doing an interview with someone up front? Introducing a guest speaker? Gently… deflate.
It’s one of the ways in which the Atlantic is widest, I think, and US readers may not get this at all. But Brits, Aussies, Kiwis – we do it all the time. It’s standard.
Now, I’ve nothing against lightness of touch. We need to communicate in an easy way, and that usually means humour. Not telling jokes, but an easy and relaxed style.
But there are several problems with this way of doing it, for a Christian.
One is that there’s often an imbalance in power. I was pulled up on this recently, when someone noticed that I was gently teasing a member of the team, but that he, obviously, couldn’t tease me back. What I thought was a mark of a relaxed relationship was actually a mark of the fact that I felt in control, without any necessary equivalence from the other side. It wasn’t loving. It was me trying to appear clever.
Second, once I became aware of this, I started to notice how gendered an approach it is. It only really happens in male-male conversations, and that’s probably because of the power issue.
Third, it makes us hard edged rather than gentle. Cynicism is not the same as realism: Jesus was the most clear-eyed realist about the human condition, but cynicism was not in his vocabulary. ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice‘ (Is. 42:3)
But fourth, and this is the most worrying for us, is the fact that it undercuts a principal Christian ministry: encouragement.
Cynicism undercuts a principal Christian ministry: encouragement.
Like many things in the Christian life, encouragement is both a gift (Rom. 12:8) and a duty (1 Thess. 5:1), rooted in our relationship to the Lord Jesus (Phil. 2:1). The scriptures teach it (Romans 15:4), it’s central to our ministry (2 Tim. 4:2), and therefore it builds the church (2 Cor. 13:11, Col. 2:2). At root, God gives it (2 Thess. 2:16).
So an easy, but world-shaped, way of communicating will divorce us from a grace-filled and building-up ministry.
I think there are two steps to take.
First, we do need to spot how easily we fall into the sour way of communicating for the sake of a quick laugh. Being downbeat and cynical is the mood music of the quick-witted on TV, but it should be in our vocabulary. We believe in the God of all hope, not the God of all cynicism. ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 15:3).
I have a checklist I run through each through each time I’m preaching, and I have now added the question, ‘How am I encouraging people today?’
Second, we need to be proactive in being encouraging, since that is part of our ministry (2 Tim. 4:2). I have a checklist I run through each through each time I’m preaching, and I have now added the question, ‘How am I encouraging people today?’ And when I send out my weekly emails to the church with the news, I plan my opening paragraph now to be deliberately encouraging.
Step away from cynicism, and deliberately aim to encourage.
Have a go.