Book Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach

Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009.

Overview

This book is a quick read, 105 pages in all.  The author wrote it as he was going through chemo with only a 25% chance of survival.  He wanted to unburden himself of the message in the book in case he did not survive.  God spared him.  The title is a play on the Why Johnny Can’t Read (1966) and Why Johnny Can’t Write (1990) titles.  His stated thesis is “many ordained people simply can’t preach” (p. 16).  It is not a book on “how to” or preaching mechanics.  It is a book that identifies a problem and offers several solutions to the problem.   

He challenges two groups of people:

  • Pastors.  “Ministers have found it entirely too convenient and self-serving to dismiss congregational disinterest on the basis of attenuated attention spans or spiritual indifference.  “In most cases, the attentiveness in the congregation is due to poor preaching—preaching that does not reward an energetic, conscientious listening” (p. 31).
  • The contemporary and emergent churches.  He challenges them on the reasons for abandoning preaching.  He argues that preaching is not the problem, incompetent preachers are the problem.    “What the contemporaneists and emergents have not yet considered, however, is the possibility that such moribund churches are so not because they are doing the wrong things, but because they are doing them incompetently” (pp. 31-32). 

Gordon’s observations are primarily in the sphere of the Presbyterian Church in America and Orthodox Presbyterian Churches.  His basis is that a majority of sermons lack unity and structure.  He contends, however, that the shoddy mechanics are only symptoms of a deeper problem.   Moreover, the problem is not that seminaries are not teaching homiletics well.  In fact he notes that there are a number of excellent homileticians in seminaries, such as Haddon Robinson and Bryan Chappell.  Instead the paucity of good preaching can be attributed to the following three deficiencies:

The lack of ability to read texts.  By this he means not reading for information but reading for significance in what is said and how it’s expressed.  “There is profound difference between reading information and reading texts” (p. 43).  He asserts that there are few who can read secular or sacred texts closely and carefully.  This, therefore, spills over into preaching when the preacher fails to see the significance and thus communicate it to his hearers.  Why the inability to read texts?  Gordon claims, “Our inability to read texts is a direct result of the presence electronic media” (p. 50).  As a media ecologist, “a person who is concerned about how the mere presence of that medium itself alters individual consciousness, social structures, or cultural habits and sensibilities” (p. 16), he presents some compelling arguments to support his assertion.   

The lack of ability to compose.  By this he means that we simply give little thought to what we say and how we say it.  If we use a computer, we can hit delete.  If we use the telephone we do not need to think about what we say ahead of time.  For instance, the telephone has cultivated the deterioration of preparation.  “We do not compose our thoughts as frequently or carefully as we once did” (p. 63).  Incidentally, Gordon says that technology that allows communicating with people whom we cannot see leads to the atrophy of the ability to read body language (p. 63).  Manual composition forces us to think about what we are going to say because we will only have one chance to communicate our message. 

The lack of Christian content in preaching.  Gordon argues for the indispensability of Christ in Christian preaching.  “That is, the particular ‘tending’ referred to [in John 21:15-17] is the pastoral care that ensures that the flock is fed. Such nourishment and spiritual sustenance, I would argue, comes from proclaiming the fitness and competence of Christ in his mediatorial work.  When we ‘feed’ God’s flock, we feed their faith.  We nourish the part of them that has the need and capacity to rest on Christ and have confidence in his work of redemption” (p. 74).  He echoes the thrust of Bryan Chappell’s Christ Centered Preaching.  He helps set Christological preaching apart from non-Christological preaching by noting four failed paradigms (pp. 78-88):

  • Moralism. A “be good/do good” sermon.
  • How-To.  A sermon on how to “be good/do good.”
  • Introspection.  In the neo-puritan tradition.  Each sermon can be subtitled: “I Know You Think You Are a Christian, but You Are Not.”
  • Social Gospel/Culture War.  A sermon on what’s wrong with culture and how to improve it.

In his final chapter, “Teaching Johnny to Preach,” Gordon concludes by suggesting three remedies to these maladies in contemporary preaching:

  • A pastor should have an annual review.  “Most ministers will never know how bad their preaching is without an annual review” (p. 97). 
  • A pastor should cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely. “Sensibilities that are absent today could be present in a year or two if an effort were made to cultivate them” (p. 99).  This includes an immersion in English literature and poetry (pre-World War II). He points out that some of the great preachers of our day had formal training in literature, such as James Montgomery Boice and his successor Philip Graham Ryken.  John Piper, a very able preacher in my estimation, was a literature major at Wheaton College.
  • Cultivating the sensibility of composed communication.  This includes a proficiency in composition.  His suggestion is fairly straightforward here.  He recommends that pastors write.  He also recommends that pastors write hand written letters to their congregants.  “The handwritten letter requires composition: that one consider before one writes what one wishes to say and how one wishes to say it” (p. 103). 

Analysis and Critique

I found the book to be very pointed.  It is worth reading and pondering how we might become more capable preachers.  The urgency of the author was evident throughout the book.  While it was terse, it was a message that needs to be voiced.  As best as I can tell, Gordon has a sincere and earnest desire to sound the alarm of poor preaching in our day in the hopes that the warning is heeded and the problem corrected.  I admit that I grimaced on occasion as I beheld myself in the reflection of the pages.  I also found myself taking a defensive posture early on in the book.  Gordon did a good job of proving his assertions which caused me to lower my defenses.  I did, however, find myself wondering what, in practice, an able preacher looked like in his estimation.  He provided some examples to be sure, but it was difficult to nail down as I read the book.  For our current regimen of ministry preparation, it is pretty close to a paradigm shift if we are to follow some of his suggestions.  However, he has a good deal of history and preachers of generations past who serve as persuasive proof of the validity of what he is suggesting.  Augustine’s account of his conversion began by attending Ambrose’s church at the prodding of his mother.  Augustine attended to learn rhetorical skills since Ambrose was well known for this.  Over time Augustine was compelled by the content of his messages more than the way in which he delivered them, but the initial draw was Ambrose’s speaking ability.  Augustine says,

To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop, known to the whole world as among the best of men, Thy devout servant; whose eloquent discourse did then plentifully dispense unto Thy people the flour of Thy wheat, the gladness of Thy oil, and the sober inebriation of Thy wine. To him was I unknowing led by Thee, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee. That man of God received me as a father, and showed me an Episcopal kindness on my coming. Thenceforth I began to love him, at first indeed not as a teacher of the truth (which I utterly despaired of in Thy Church), but as a person kind towards myself. And I listened diligently to him preaching to the people, not with that intent I ought, but, as it were, trying his eloquence, whether it answered the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was reported; and I hung on his words attentively; but of the matter I was as a careless and scornful looker-on (Confessions, Book 5, Chapter 8).

Helpful as Gordon’s book is, I wonder if Gordon overstated his case.  Let’s assume that preachers take his advice and pursue deeper studies of the humanities.  We would likely have more capable public speakers and even more eloquent preachers, but more successful in effecting change?  Paul says that even if a man speaks loftily and lacks love, it is an indistinct sound (1 Corinthians 13:1).  Was Paul a sub-standard rhetorician (2 Corinthians 11:6)?  John Piper has recently pointed out that eloquence itself might not be a virtue but a stumbling block.  He says this in “Is There Christian Eloquence? Clear Words and the Wonder of the Cross

In the Spring of 1740, George Whitefield was in Philadelphia preaching outdoors to thousands of people. Benjamin Franklin attended most of these messages. Franklin, who did not believe what Whitefield was preaching, commented on these perfected sermons,

Here is preaching that is so eloquent you can like it without believing anything in it. In other words, the language itself—the word-selection, word-arrangement, and word-delivery was such that it was pleasurable to Franklin who cared nothing for what the language meant. Franklin loved his eloquence and rejected the cross.

His delivery…was so improved by frequent repetition, that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”  This verse is a good perspective to balance Gordon’s message.  I do affirm the need to develop our ability to communicate because of the eternity-impactingmessage we communicate.  Apollos was known as a capable and eloquent preacher (Acts 18:24), we should strive for nothing less.  Then may God empower our feeble words to bring about salvation and sanctification in the hearts of our hearers. Let us labor to competently proclaim God’s word, “whoever speaks, as one who speaks the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11).

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach

  1. Pastor Doug,

    I just ran into something from Dr. Douglas R. McLachlan’s book “Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism” that I think has something to say related to this subject.

    The section starting on page # 94 of McLachlan’s book named “Language is Powerful”, appears to echo some of what Gordon is saying.

    Here is one excerpt from the fore mentioned section titled “Language is Powerful” from the book “Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism” :

    “The relevance of all this to the task of the preacher is indisputable. Language is the “stuff” of preaching. The preacher’s instrument is speech and his agent is his tongue. If this is so, every preacher must develop a reverence for words and skill in using them. Because language is eternal and fundamental, the preacher enters his task humbly and respectfully. Because language is purposeful and powerful the preacher enters his task carefully and precisely. Every preacher is obliged to be constantly stretching in the development of this communication skills and in his ability to clothe his thoughts and ideas with precise and probing words.”

    Andrew

  2. That’s a great quote by a man who has a pretty good handle on words himself. Dr. McLachlan does seem to echo one of Gordon’s key points. Thanks for sharing it.

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