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Comedian Swanberg encourages Christians to ‘lighten up,’ be happy about salvation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Dennis Swanberg, whose humor is accented by his impersonations of Billy Graham and other luminaries, is a steady reflection of Proverbs 17:22, that “a merry heart does good like medicine.”

“I realize that folks don’t always need the whole bottle, but they need a spoonful at least.”

He reminds people that Jesus came to give them not just life but life more abundantly.

“As God’s people, we ought be some of the happiest people out there,” Swanberg, also known as “The Swan,” told Baptist Press. “We’re saved, we’re going to heaven, we’re joint heirs with the King.”

Swanberg grew up in Austin, Texas, and after graduating from Baylor University in Waco, he earned both the master of divinity and the doctor of ministry degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. After 23 years as a pastor, he stepped into what he calls the fulltime ministry of encouragement in 1995.

Swanberg said he has imitated Billy Graham “since I was a kid.”

“I’d see him on television, and at the end of the crusade in front of that camera on TV, he’d say, ‘And some of you are watching by way of television. Maybe you’re at your own home or sitting in a bar, but I want you to write me: Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minn.,'” Swanberg said, imitating Graham’s voice. “So I’ve always loved Billy Graham.”

As a child, he also spent hours watching “The Andy Griffith Show,” so he learned to imitate Don Knotts as Barney Fife. Throughout school, he was the class clown, often tapped as the master of ceremonies at talent shows. He said as a pastor he sort of had a sideline of entertaining. Along the way, he learned to imitate other personalities such as Muhammed Ali, Howard Cosell, Walter Brennan, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Once he made the decision to leave the pastorate, FamilyNet, the television network of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, booked him for about 75 episodes of a weekly variety show called “Swan’s Place,” and in 2002, Trinity Broadcast Network tapped him for another variety show called “The Dennis Swanberg Show.”

Swanberg has worked with Focus on the Family for 15 years as a motivational speaker and comedian. He has spoken at Southern Baptist Conventions and pastor’s conferences and has written two books, “Is Your Love Tank Full?” and “Swan’s Soup and Salad.” He noted that a project with the International Mission Board is being planned, in which he’ll join Bible study authors Henry Blackaby and Avery Willis in promoting international missions.

“As a humorous impressionist, humor doesn’t authenticate the gospel. The gospel helps authenticate our use of humor,” Swanberg said. “When you’re a Christian humorist, there’s a method to the madness: to lead people to Christ.”

There’s a time and place for humor, and it can be used to touch lives and knock down barriers, Swanberg said, noting that Jesus knew how to take the edge off. Jesus always told a story, knowing that through a story of real life, he could get his point across.

“Jesus knew how to penetrate people,” Swanberg continued. “He used satire and irony. Sometimes it would seem like a story was a little bit embellished, all to make a point and get people to see the twinkle in his eye.”

Swanberg mentioned as an example Jesus and the woman who came to him with a demon-possessed daughter in Matthew 15. As she cried out to Jesus for help, he did not speak to her. The disciples wanted Jesus to send the woman away because her crying bothered them. Jesus then said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she pleaded with him again, he said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”

Then the woman said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus answered, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And the daughter was healed.

“When you first read Jesus’ answer about the dogs, you think, ‘How rude,'” Swanberg said. “But she must have seen the twinkle in his eye, his smile. He was saying something that had been heard [in the culture], and she caught it, and she responded. Jesus looked at her and said, ‘You know what, honey? You’ve got it together. You know more than all these other folks know. You’re way ahead of the game.”

That’s how Jesus handled a difficult situation, Swanberg said. But the important thing with humor is that the person must get it; he or she must understand.

Swanberg recounted a time when it was especially important that someone understand his humor. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association asked him to entertain at a dinner for the staff and their families, providing Swanberg the chance to meet his longtime hero.

“My dream had come true. I met Billy Graham, and I did my Billy impression for him,” Swanberg said. “When I was finished, he leaned over and said, ‘Now you can take over.'”

Swanberg has deferred to Franklin Graham for that role, while continuing his variety shows and speaking engagements, all with his stated goal of being “America’s Minister of Encouragement.” He resides in West Monroe, La., with his wife, Lauree, and his two sons, Chad and Dusty.

The Dennis Swanberg Show airs Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Central on Trinity Broadcast Network. More information about The Swan may be obtained at his website, www.dennisswanberg.com.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: DENNIS SWANBERG and THE SWAN’S MANY FACES.

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  • Erin Curry