Why you should care

Because good jokes and belly laughs might be the answer to getting more people into church.

Inspired by actor Rowan Atkinson’s hilarious vicar role, comedian Bentley Browning is teaching the art of stand-up comedy … to preachers. Don’t laugh — using entertainment to put bums back on pews could be a game changer: by gathering fractured communities in church for the simple pleasure of being entertained.

The Comedy for Clergy workshop at London’s Festival Hall is no joke. Browning, a priest’s son himself, knows what makes a preacher charismatic — or boring enough to dramatically shrink a congregation. For upward of $130, attendees submit to voice and body language evaluations, plus having their sermons savaged by the knife of a self-appointed critic who grew up in the business.

Those [priests of my youth] weren’t modern, but they were raconteurs who knew how to work a crowd. I try to pass on the essence of their ability to entertain.

- Bentley Browning

Today’s clergy desperately want to connect, and Browning helps them liven up their delivery: “I’ll loosen them up with exercises, then get them to listen to my own act, which mirrors their attitudes.” By this, he means he invokes his own alter ego, the rapping Reverend Rupert Williams, who was born on the comedy club circuit and now makes appearances in the classroom.

“There are so many priests striving to be modern today — I see them in class with their Sex Pistols T-shirts and the odd tattoo — and they’re very different from the priests who crowded into our house when I was growing up,” says Browning. “Those men weren’t modern, but they were raconteurs who knew how to work a crowd. I try to pass on the essence of their ability to entertain.”

Man in priest outfit with mic on red backdrop

Bentley Browning

Browning’s success, more than 60 graduates to date, is doubtless sparked by declining church attendance in the U.K. Fewer than a million attend a Church of England Sunday service — less than half the congregation sizes of 50 years ago — making it harder to scratch a living ministering to an ever-shrinking flock.And he’s packing them in. Several dozen British priests, stirred by watching funny TV clergy in shows like The Vicar of Dibley, have signed up for Browning’s comedy workshop. Others in India and the U.S. have begged him to bring it to their doors.

Teaching was the last thing the 44-year-old, who grew up in Sheffield, England, aspired to. But after studying neurolinguistic programming — mirroring the mannerisms of those to whom you strive to relate — and applying its principles, Browning realized his true vocation. “I held comedy workshops for a general audience, and a priest in one of my groups got me to set one up for the Diocese of London. The Church Times covered it, and the interest snowballed.”

As well as getting priests to embrace improv — “essential to get them out of their comfort zone” — Browning helps them develop a three-minute routine they can take into the wider world. Some, like Ravi Holy (“I’m a former pastor — a form o’pasta — geddit?”) have been brave enough to stand up in clubs. “I know it went down well because they laughed — an immediate expression of success you don’t get trying to elicit a smile during a sermon,” he explains.

I know it went down well because they laughed — an immediate expression of success you don’t get trying to elicit a smile during a sermon.

- Bentley Browning

There are critics. Theologian Robin Schumacher has serious concerns about bringing comedy into church. “Beware the clown in the pulpit,” he writes on Blogos, a religion-focused blog. “I like to laugh as much as the next person, and humor injected at certain points in a Sunday message can serve the speaker’s purpose very well,” he concedes, but warns against treating the pulpit as a stage.

His point is that however much a joke engages a crowd, no one takes a clown seriously. But Browning says the modern clergy don’t agree: “Most priests seem to want to hone their humor skills, as it’s not something they’ve trained in, and they realize its importance in communicating with people. In that sense, humor is a spiritual tool; a church that laughs together grows faster.”

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