AnchorManThe TV network Comedy Central connects with young men. Sixty five percent of its viewing audience is male, with a median age of 29. Its ratings are up ten percent this year among men 18-34.

According to an article in the New York Times, “More than music, more than sports, more than ‘personal style,’ comedy has become essential to how young men view themselves and others, the research showed.” Sixty-three percent of young men said they’d prefer to be stuck in an elevator with comedian Jon Stewart, while only 15 percent mentioned a sports hero such as Eli Manning.

“Eighty-eight percent of respondents said their sense of humor was crucial to their self-definition, and 74 percent said funny people are more popular.” Tanya Gales, executive VP for research at MTV networks calls the new generation of men comedy natives. “Comedy is so central to who the are, the way they connect with other people, the way they get ahead in the world.” She says that unlike previous generations, humor, not music, is their No. 1 form of self-expression.

This is obvious any time the Murrow clan gathers at our home for dinner. My three kids, age 24, 22 and 17, do little else than exchange one-liners from comedy films they’ve seen over the years. These zingers are a shared idiom that everyone their age knows. Well-known lines from comedies such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Anchorman, and Dumb and Dumber are the lingua franca of today’s youth.

Here’s the lesson for the church:

Humor is essential. I advise pastors to sprinkle their messages with humorous anecdotes, stories and jokes, particularly toward the beginning of their messages. When a man laughs, he drops his guard, which makes it easier for him to hear the serious truth of the Gospel.

Humor does not “dumb down” the Word. Why do we equate humor with a lightweight Gospel presentation? Many scholars believe Jesus used direct humor in his teaching, and he repeatedly used irony. The Apostle Paul was certainly joking when he suggested the Judaizers castrate themselves (Gal 5:11-12). A humor-free sermon is no more “serious” than one that makes you laugh.

It’s not about making church into entertainment. Reality check: church is already about entertainment. The pastors who are the most gifted, entertaining speakers grow the biggest churches. They hire the best musicians to warm up the crowd. They produce custom videos to visually stimulate the audience. Yet these “entertainment churches” see the most converts, the most mission and the fastest growth rates. Entertainment is not the enemy of the Gospel, it is its servant.

Humor makes the Gospel’s offensive truths easier to swallow. If you haven’t seen Eric Metaxas’ speech at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, click here (it starts 35 minutes in). It is absolutely hilarious! By putting the audience at ease with humor, Metaxas is able to gently chide head table guests President Obama and Nancy Pelosi for their support of abortion. The message was delivered without the vitriol so often associated with Christians today.

Men will gravitate to the church that makes them laugh. A few years ago, a comedian in California got a speeding ticket. So he attended Traffic School, and was appalled at how boring it was. He took all the information he’d learned and jazzed it up with comedy. A few months later he opened Comedy Traffic School, and quickly put many of his competitors out of business.

Here’s the truth about men: a lot of them regard church like traffic school. It’s something they have to do, but they’d rather not. And like those California motorists, if we give men a choice, they’ll go to the church that makes them laugh.

Comedy may someday replace music as the “warm up” for the sermon. If I were planting a church in 2012, I’d be looking for a comedian instead of a worship leader. People are getting really sick of the whole “stand for 15 minutes in the dark singing love songs to Jesus.” In many churches, fewer than 20 percent of churchgoers sing any more. Perhaps there’s a different way to offer praise to the Lord, and comedy might be a part of this.

Prediction: the next Billy Graham will be a comedian. There’s a big, fat opportunity waiting for the pastor who brands himself as The Comic Preacher. He has the opportunity to reach millions because men will share his clips on the Internet. If we get young men quoting funny sermons in the same way they quote funny movies, we’ll bring the Good News into their culture.

For additional study, read Jesus Laughed by Robert Darden.