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Delivering the goods.
The sage advice preachers can learn from Mike Birbiglia.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Mike Birbiglia isn’t a preacher by trade, but as perhaps one of the great rhetoricians of our day, he’s got more than a few insights for those whose job it is to prepare and deliver a weekly sermon or two. Birbiglia, whose comedic milieu is definitely of a certain type, has come to consider himself much more of a storyteller than your prototypical joke-teller. Watching Birbiglia’s “standup” routine on Netflix is almost unlike anything else in the genre. His specials almost have more in common with Bo Burnham, sans the crazed existential crisis and Jeffrey Bezos shoutouts. Case in point, it’s not often that a standup comedian has a show with a Broadway playbill. But that’s Birbiglia. His understated humor belies his comedic wit, with many of the laughs coming from what one writer describes as his “deceptively sleepy” cadence.
While doing press for his newest show, The Old Man and the Pool, which was on Broadway from October 2022 through January 2023, Birbiglia made an appearance on the Bill Simmons Podcast. During the Simmons interview, Birbiglia detailed what made his show different than perhaps any other standup special — namely, his inability to mess around with his material. Not that he’s incapable of doing so, mind you, but that his material is such that he is happily confined to certain marks and beats night-in and night-out. Without the freedom to ad lib or riff, how could any comedian thrive? The real kicker is realizing that these conditions are self-imposed. Simmons, naturally, asks if Birbiglia feels trapped by such constraints — to which he replies:
No, because I ultimately have to deliver . . . like, in one way, I think about the show as this thing that I can hold in my hands. “I have this thing and I need to convey it to these people who are gathered here.” And I know that there’s, like, ten aspects of the show that really have to land in a certain way. And if they don’t, then I won’t have delivered the thing.
For Birbiglia, the supposed constraints aren’t enslaving, they’re liberating — for within them, he understands his role, his calling, if you will, is to “deliver the goods,” which, in this case, is a string of moderately funny stories that also lead his audience somewhere. He understands that there is a particular message that he has to get across to whatever assemblage of people in front of him. No matter what night it is, whether it’s night one or forty-one on Broadway, he has to deliver. Birbiglia and his PR team have spent countless hours and dollars promoting and selling tickets for this show, promising a particular brand of comedy. The upshot of which is now Birbiglia is on the hook, so to speak, to deliver that precise comedic pastiche. Otherwise he hasn’t fulfilled his obligation to the patrons who’ve forked over their hard-earned money to laugh at his expense.
Birbiglia has come to realize that there’s this “thing” that he has to convey to those who are sitting in front of him. Similarly, those whose job it is to prepare and deliver weekly sermons would do well to imitate Birbiglia’s resolve for a message that can’t be modified or made better through ad-libbed lines. Preachers are obliged to deliver a particular message to a particular assembly of people: the reverberating announcement of the embodied Savior whose body was broken for precisely those who’ve gathered bodily. Notwithstanding the stench of sin that accompanies those who cross the sanctuary threshold, Christ’s offer of reconciliation is extended through the Word and the sacraments as an indefatigable reminder that it truly is finished.
The job of the preacher, then, is to deliver that message, week-in and week-out. “Preach the word,” the apostle Paul pointedly wrote, “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). Preachers are more like mail-carriers than anything else. The postal worker’s role isn’t to amend, edit, or inspect the envelope as he slides it into your mailbox; his only responsibility is to deliver it. Those precious parcels he conveys to their final homes are not his to open, tinker with, and re-seal. The mail carrier’s packages aren’t really even his. They were given to him by someone else in order that he might distribute them accordingly. Whether he likes it or not, his job is to deliver. C. S. Lewis spoke to this in an essay called “Christian Apologetics,” found in God in the Dock:
The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said … forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact — not gas about ideals and points of view. (90–91)
There are, perhaps, a myriad of variables which can more or less make a preacher’s sermon “successful” or not. The delivery, wit, prose, cadence, dynamism, and whether or not the jokes land all have their place. But however needful those ingredients may be, neither their presence nor their absence can eclipse a preacher’s commitment in proclaiming Christ for you. Whatever rhetorical polish a preacher possesses, God’s Word of grace remains the exclusive revelatory element in any gathering of God’s people. It needs none of your improvisation or fine tuning.
To parrot the words of Lothlórien’s Lady Galadriel, the preaching event “stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all” (Tolkien, 372). This sage counsel goes unheeded far too often, I’m afraid, with pastors and preachers playing fast-and-loose with that which they’re obliged to deliver. Like mail carriers opening up your parcels before placing them on your doorstep or scientists fudging the data to get the results they want, preachers leave their parishioners spiritually bankrupt when they take it upon themselves to append gimmicks to the proclamation of the good news. In “Hot Takes Don’t Belong in Church,” an article for Christianity Today published last July, Chris Nye articulates what makes a pastor’s role different from, say, your favorite celebrity or podcaster, and it all comes down to the fact that preachers have been delegated a specific message to deliver:
Pastors do not get to “say what we think” about any given thing or present a new idea we’ve been contemplating. We declare something we have heard (1 Cor 15:1–4). We communicate an idea that did not originate in our brains or online but on the highways of Judea. That is, the primary mode of a pastor is “delivery” or “witness” (1 Cor 11:23; Acts 1:6–8). The PR firm massages their message to make it palatable. The pastor takes the message and hands it over with as few blemishes as possible.
When preachers stand to preach, they are assuming their role as kerygmatic mail carriers, heralds of a message that’s not their own but are obliged to deliver with as few blemishes and distractions as possible. “The preacher,” Todd Brewer wrote recently, “bears the word of God and declares it as God’s word for you.” It is a particular Word for a particular people who are all, in ways known and unknown, reeling from the effects of sin and strife that are inescapably present in the world. And whether they know it or not, the only balm worth its salt is the one Christ has entrusted his church to deliver. Preaching, then, is medicine for sin-sick souls, not mere information which enables us to straighten up and fly right. “Preaching, rightly understood,” writes Brad East, “is nothing other than the weekly heralding of this very offer: the offer of freedom to sinners.”
Delivering the goods for Birbiglia means repeating a very specific and very calculated series of anecdotes in a way that feels fresh, as if he’s telling those tales for the first time. For the preacher, delivering the goods means announcing the good news that sinners, of whatever sort, have been reconciled to God the Father through the death-defeating, sin-trouncing passion and death of the Christ of God.
C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970).
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).