Matt Coker | @MatthewSCoker
The Back Row is kind of in a league of its own when it comes to ministering to Christians. Our slogan is "Humor & Healing for the Saved but Still Human." To us, that means that we put just as much (or sometimes more) emphasis on making people laugh as we do on encouraging people in their daily walks.
And a lot of folks don't understand it. They don't see how the two really go together.
But to me, I don't see how it could be done any differently.
"I AM CHRIS FARLEY"
A wonderful documentary recently came out about the life of Chris Farley, featuring heart-felt interviews with his SNL cast mates and many other comedians and some regular people who were close to him.
For those of you too young to remember, Chris Farley was the king of comedy on Saturday Night Live for a stretch of several years in the early 90s. He was a large man with incredible abilities that he used to make people laugh.
In these interviews, we learn some things that maybe most didn't know about Chris. We've all heard that he had a drug problem, which sent him into rehab multiple times and would eventually take his life. But what we didn't see when he was on the television was how much he struggled on the inside.
He was a clown, but it was often a mask to cover his insecurities, his low self-esteem, his feelings that he was not good enough, even when everyone was telling him he was the best.
One of the interviews in this documentary was with his hometown Pastor, Matt Foley (which Chris would immortalize, at least in name, with a "motivational speaker" character on SNL). Rev. Foley would tell stories about how Chris had dreams of marriage, kids, living in a small town like he grew up in, taking his family to church, etc.
But that never came to fruition, and though he grew up in church and seemed to have a desire in his heart to cling to that, it is unclear if he was a believer. But I'm not going to speculate.
One thing that was clear was that he was me, at least, in a sense.
He struggled with life, struggled with himself, struggled with self-esteem, struggled with addiction, but when he was making people laugh, he was a different person. Never did Chris feel more alive and never was he more loved than when he was making someone laugh.
We all know this rush, the high of making someone bust out laughing. There are few greater joys in the world than that. And best of all, it's a Godly trait.
God is the ultimate bringer of joy, of happiness. Even Jesus told jokes to the people when he preached.
"And why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own?" -Matthew 7:3 NLT
I know, I know, you were probably taught that Jesus said this as some kind of spiritual "wax on, wax off" object lesson with a serious face, but seriously think about someone saying that. Actually picture the image of a log sticking out of someone's face.
Ladies and gentlemen, that's a joke, circa 30 A.D. or so.
As for me, I love to make people laugh. Throughout my entire life, any time I've made someone laugh, I've felt like I was accomplishing something. And when others were making ME laugh, I forgot about my problems, my worries, my low self-esteem for a minute too. Whether I was causing it or expelling it, if laughter was involved in my life, I was happy.
"People spell their names however they want, it has nothing to do with phonics or nothing... I met this woman, her name was, ah, Amy, you know, so I go 'Oh, A-M-Y?' She goes 'No, A-Y-M-I-E.' 'Ughhh... I have to take a nap! I'm Brian, B-R-I-V-O-L-B-N, the number 7, the letter Q, --'Brennemenahgah!!!' Look at my name tag, it's... it's big!"
-Brian Regan, "Live"
Brian Regan is my favorite all-time comedian. He's clean, but don't let that fool you, because he is also the funniest person on the planet. Brian Regan is also my wife's favorite comedian. We share a lot of interests, but this one just might be the one we enjoy with the exact same level of enthusiasm.
Back when my addiction had finally caught up to me, there came a point where I was told I was going to be arrested, but I wasn't told when. About two months later, in the middle of the day, while my lunch was cooking in the microwave, I saw half a dozen people shuffle past my front window followed by a pounding on my front door.
I had never been more terrified in my life when six officers, guns drawn, were cuffing me. Now, since I wasn't a threat, the situation soon calmed down, because apparently that initial show of force was just to make sure I was intimidated enough not to try anything stupid. It worked.
My wife quickly came back from her college class to say goodbye to me, and I was put in the back of an ICE vehicle and driven to a jail five hours away.
About three hours into the drive, I was scared out of my mind, I was ashamed of myself, racked with guilt and paralyzed with fear, not knowing what was going to come next or how long I would be in jail - or if I'd even survive... when Brian Regan came on the radio in the ICE vehicle (it had an XM radio).
It was this very segment, the name spelling segment, and in that moment, even when I was living the worst moment of my life so far, I smiled. I chuckled.
For that brief moment, I was uplifted. I was reminded of my loving wife who never minced words when she made it clear she was going to stick with me no matter what happened. I was reminded of all the support I had from my church family. I was reminded that God loved me, and that even though I might have to suffer for my sins here on Earth, Jesus has paid the price for my sins in light of eternity.
Never before in my life had I been more convinced that there was a God and that He loved me than in that moment.
Ultimately, I spent six months in prison. And I used that time to grow closer to God, to read the Bible cover-to-cover and read as many Bible studies as I could get my hands on. And I made it my goal to laugh every day. I checked out humor books, I had my wife send me newspapers with comics in them, I told every joke I knew to as many people who would listen.
To kill time while I was in there, one of the things I did was join the prison's branch of Toastmaster's, an organization that helps people with public speaking. I was active in it for four months, and I asked to be the main speaker for my last week before release.
As a thank you to everyone there and also as a celebration for myself, I kept hidden what I was going to talk about until the very last minute, when I stood up and gave a 20-minute stand up routine using some of my favorite Brian Regan jokes.
It was flawless. I hit every punch line perfectly, had everyone cracking up in their seats, and didn't hear the end of it until the day I was gone about how much I made them laugh that day.
For that 20-minute period, none of us were in prison. None of us were sad, addicted, lost, alone, afraid. None of us had a care in the world. For that 20-minute period, we were all happy to be exactly who and where we were.
"I AM BACK ROW BELIEVER"
I've often said that I started my original humorous Christian Twitter account because I was bored, but that's only part of it. You see, I had just recently been allowed to get back online. I hadn't been on a computer in almost 5 years.
I had missed everyone switching from MySpace to Facebook. I missed the golden years of YouTube. I missed the rise of Twitter.
I had just finally been released from probation and was a fully free man again, ready to put the past behind me and continue growing into a better man. We moved back to our hometown, returned to our home church, and I began looking for a job.
But I was terrified.
When we lived in Albuquerque, I had finally found a job that I enjoyed, we had a church home who were mostly unaware of my past, and I didn't feel much pressure or fear.
But moving back home, surrounded by people who were there when I made my biggest mistake, and having to start over in the job hunt, I was suddenly feeling very uneasy.
About a year later, I found an outlet: Twitter. And I found out that I was funny all on my own, as I quickly rose to low-level popularity online, racking up over 10 thousand followers in my first year.
I would spend a small portion of my day writing jokes and scheduling them, then I would do my best to interact with anyone who replied to my jokes. It was an escape that made me enjoy myself and not worry about my problems, but one that didn't risk my health or my freedom.
And I was surprised at how often people would message me for help or prayer, despite the fact that all I ever did was tell jokes. I wasn't a serious account, I wasn't a prayer account. But I was striking a cord with people's hearts. I was taking them out of their despair, even if it was only for the few seconds it took to read 140 characters.
That made people trust me, even before I revealed my identity.
And it confirmed in my mind the tugging that God had been doing on my heart for a long time: It's time to use my gifts to help people.
Fast forward a couple years, and we're here, The Back Row, a group of writers and funny people doing their best to make you laugh and encourage you to be better.
"WE'RE THE SKIT GUYS"
If you've been a Christian for any length of time over the past decade, you've likely run across a video by the Skit Guys, two hilarious men from Saddleback church, the birthplace of Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based 12-step program that has spread all over the globe.
Every year, Saddleback Church in California is host to the CR Summit, an event where representatives of CR from all over the country come to take classes, to become better leaders, and to worship our God as a giant family.
And usually every year, the Skit Guys are there too. They perform several times over the course of the event, interspersed with all the testimonies and worship and classes. They always bring down the house. Eddie, the bald Skit Guy, has actually gone through the program himself, so CR holds a place close to his heart.
But they don't show up at these events as just comic relief to break up the serious stuff. They are involved because humor is powerful. Laughter heals us. Laughter brings us together, it unites us. Laughter is one of God's greatest gifts.
Light-heartedness should never be taken lightly. The power of humor is no joke.
At my home church's CR program, which I have been involved with in one way or another for about three years now, we've often used a Skit Guys video as our main message every now and then, and those nights have been no less powerful than any other.
Humor is important to me and to this ministry because I know what it can do. I've lived it. I've seen it. I've felt it. I've been changed forever because of it.
Recovery and laughter go hand-in-hand.
"I'M A CLOWN"
The very last segment of the Chris Farley documentary was a friend reading a prayer that Farley kept in his wallet at all times and would often read to himself or out loud to others before a show. It's known as "The Clown's Prayer", but the author is unknown.
Here's what it says:
As I stumble through this life,
help me to create more laughter than tears,
dispense more cheer than gloom,
spread more joy than despair.
Never let me become so indifferent
that I will fail to see the wonders in the eyes of a child,
or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged.
Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people,
make them happy, and forget momentarily,
all the unpleasantness in their lives.
And in my final moment,
may I hear You whisper:
"When you made My people smile,
you made Me smile."
In the Christian faith, there are people who build churches in Africa, people who risk their lives in China or the Middle East, people who Pastor churches, lead Bible Studies, organize Vacation Bible Schools, run the sound board, and clean the church toilets. Not every job jumps out as an amazing occupation, but all are important.
And it is my belief that the Clown is just as important to ministry as anyone else and that laughter is a gift from God.
"He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting." -Job 8:21 ESV
"Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, 'The Lord has done great things for them.' " -Psalm 126:2 ESV
God has filled my mouth with laughter in my darkest, hardest times. Without it, I doubt I would have survived my recovery process, and most people I've talked to feel the exact same way.
This is why we do things the way we do it. This is why we try to touch every form of social media, spreading photos and jokes and memes and funny lists and videos and comics and tweets. We do it so that, if you're going through a tough time or having a bad day, you might get to smile, chuckle, and forget about that stuff for a few moments.
But at the same time, we're here to encourage you with devotionals, advice, prayer, guidance, and anything else we can possibly give if you need it. And of course, you can contact us for specific prayer requests or guidance too.
God put people in place in our lives to do all this for us and now we ask Him to put us in the paths of others to do the same.
"WE ARE THE BACK ROW"
Matt Coker is the Ministry Director of The Back Row. He is married to a beautiful woman he met when they were both in youth group and they have one mischievous son together. Matt collects Funko Pop figures, loves time travel movies, and enjoys exotic jerky meats. You can contact Matt via the contact page or on Twitter at @MatthewSCoker.