Review: “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” (Part II)

I suppose the first part of my review of T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach has turned into something more than just a review–I offered reflections on culture, my own experience, blah blah….But this is my blog, so that’s my prerogative. I hope I can be a little more interesting and helpful than most (*cough* brown-nosing *cough*) reviews you find in RBL or at

In chapter three, “Johnny Can’t Write,” Gordon outlines the changes that our society has undergone since the invention of the telegraph and, soon after, the telephone. Along with the tremendous pluses of technological advancement have come the social costs. Gordon points out two problems this has created for discourse–preaching in particular. First, long-distance communication has dulled our ability to read non-verbal cues, since we speak on the phone or read e-mails. This was still a problem for written correspondence in times past, but now a much higher percentage of communication is not conducted in-person. For the act of preaching, this means that neither the preacher nor the congregants are skilled at non-verbal interaction with one another.

Second, because “talk is cheap” now, we overindulge–we have become a society of “telephone ramblers,” unable to speak or write concisely. We have less ability to focus on that which is significant, because we up to make up for our lack of discernment with sheer quantity of communication. I thought of an analogy: when we used to take pictures with a film-roll of 24 or 36 exposures, my mom was much more careful and artistic with the photos she chose to take. With a digital camera, we now take hundreds and thousands of careless photos, and usually a few turn out OK by chance–but there’s no longer an art to it.

Well, a preacher can’t afford to ramble for seven hours on a Sunday–he needs to be able to communicate concisely and clearly in the time allotted. I myself have a tendency to ramble in my teaching, which is much more conversational in style–which is why my limited preaching has thus far been from a manuscript. My words are more thoughtfully and carefully chosen (at least more than if I were simply working from an outline). Also, a manuscript gives me the freedom to speak extemporaneously if I choose, with the assurance that I have a place to return after my excursus.

Gordon concludes this chapter:

Our seminary curricula are largely identical to what they were around the First World War, but the entering seminarian is a profoundly different person than was the seminarian of the early twentieth century. Then, the individual was well-read in poetry, and had studied nearly a decade of classical language (Latin, Greek, or both), learning by reading poetry and ancient languages to read texts carefully. He had written compositions almost weekly in many of his academic classes, and often wrote letters to friends and family. In contrast, the entering seminarian today has the faculties of a sixth- to eighth-grader sixty years ago, and the seminary curriculum cannot make this seminarian an adult by the time he graduates. (68)

Gordon is certainly correct–all you need to do if you don’t believe him is read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie and the subsequent books in the series: what she had to learn in high-school by age 16 is more than I learned in college. I wonder whether economic advances have changed the sort of students that choose seminary education. Perhaps in 1820 or 1920, pastoral ministry was one of the best professional options for intelligent and educated young men, just as teaching was the only profession open to women. After the industrial and tech revolutions of the last 60 years, smart men have a much wider range of professional options now, so the best and brightest no longer choose ministry–just as WWII and the women’s-rights movement opened up other professions to women and made the teaching profession suffer.

In his fourth chapter, “A Few Thoughts About Content,” Gordon offers some prescriptive ideas to improve preaching. Acknowledging his Reformed context and the different opinions about the content of preaching (e.g., “Christ-centered,” redemptive-historical), he offers instead four failures of content in evangelical preaching:

  1. Moralism — The great failure of Liberal Protestantism. Gordon remarks that “conservative moralism” today is really no different from the liberalism of the past, “liberal” referring in the previous era to an approach to the gospel rather than to a loose moral ethic.
  2. How-To — Like moralism, it “pushes the person and work of the redeeming Christ out of the realm of the hearer’s consideration” (82).
  3. Introspection — Sermons in this vein could all be subtitled, “I Know You Think You Are a Christian, but You Are Not,” terrorizing the believer’s conscience.
  4. Social Gospel/So-Called Culture War

“None of these false surrogates for real Christian proclamation,” Gordon writes, “nourishes the soul” (88). Gordon’s hope is that a return to careful reading of NT texts will lead to true Christian preaching rather than these four substitutes. He concludes, “Johnny could preach, though he does so rarely now. Johnny is still made in God’s image, and has latent sensibilities that can be cultivated in such a manner as to make him a competent preacher, even though our culture does not cultivate those sensibilities in its ordinary course of events.” In other works, we have to try harder to make up for what our culture has robbed from us and our congregations.

Gordon argues in his final chapter that the best way to improve preaching is not simply further training in homiletics, or books on the subject. The proper cure is the “cultivation of those pre-homiletical sensibilities that are necessary to preach well” (96): reading and writing. He encourages those entering college with an eye toward ministry to major in English literature or classics, rather than in Religion, in preparation for seminary.

Furthermore, churches can support their pastors and young ministerial aspirants in this endeavor. They churches should provide (and pastors should welcome) annual reviews through the elders, so that the pastor can receive both negative and positive feedback; also, they should carefully delimit the pastor’s responsibilities so as to allow him adequate time to read, write and prepare for his sermons. Another gem:

Churches cannot continue to exact such a toll from their ministers while expecting them to preach well, because preaching well requires more than preparing sermons; it requires preparing oneself as the kind of human who has the sensibilities prerequisite to preaching. (107)

When I began Gordon’s book, I was determined not to return to my hypercritical days in college and seminary, when I left church every Sunday feeling frustrated that something–the sermon, the music, the prayer–had not lived up to my arrogantly-conceived standard of perfection. I wonder whether he pushes his point a little too far, paints the situation as overly dire–but every author has to have a little urgency in order to convince his readers to continue reading.

Some parts of the book gave me pause. For example, Gorden recounts his confrontation of the ruling elder who hired a pastor who couldn’t preach and responded, “David, of course he can’t preach; but I’ve served on pulpit committees off and on for thirty hears, and nobody can preach. We just look for men who are gifted in other areas, and who are orthodox, but we accept from the outset of the search that we are not likely to find a person who can preach” (21). For someone like me who is fairly gifted in the areas of teaching and administration but struggles with the shepherding and compassion gifts, I consider pastors who don’t preach well but love their people well as having qualities to which I aspire. I know Gordon is not trying to minimize the other gifts. But honestly, the formative pastoral interactions in my personal and spiritual life have not occurred during a sermon; i.e., I don’t remember what they said, but what they did. All that to say: preaching ain’t everything.

But the point of this book is to sound the alarm about preaching, and provide something of a solution. It does that well. I wonder whether congregants should read this book, or just elders. Giving it to your pastor would have to be done very carefully and sensitively. Someone who has given 400 bad sermons over ten years probably knows he’s a bad preacher, and he needs encouragement, love and respect. But he also needs help, and this book has a lot of help to offer.

Congregants can also cultivate those sensibilities that make careful and attentive listeners. Also, the internet is a wonderful source for preaching and teaching in audio or video format. Keller, Ryken and Driscoll are a few of my faves. Quite a few seminaries, including Fuller, Reformed, Covenant and Westminster, have much or all of their class audio on the web for free. If you have a pastor who is gifted in other areas but is–shall we say delicately–“homiletically challenged,” you can love and appreciate him but also enjoy soul-nourishing preaching from some truly fine preachers through other venues.

Overall, I appreciated Gordon’s book, and I will strive to apply his wisdom in my teaching and preaching.

Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, by T. David Gordon
ISBN: 9781596381162
Paperback, 112 pages
P&R Publishing, 2009
$9.99 on

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review: “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” (Part II)

  1. Brian says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book Benj! I have seen it advertised in my email many times and have considered buying it. I think I will.

    I wonder if he deals with, perhaps it needs a separate book, the idea that “Johnny can’t listen to sermons”? I don’t intend to gives pastors, or myself, a free pass, but I think the question is worth asking. How many pastors can preach but the congregants are without ears to hear?

    I know that I have heard complaints about “long” sermons, “long” being defined as anything over 25 minutes. I wonder how many use power points, which I can’t say I am philosophically opposed to, because they hear the complaint, “I’m a visual learner”. This says nothing about the number who come looking for a sermon that is self-serving, to “get something out of it”, rather than to hear the Word of God and have something done to them.

    Again, I am not intending to give preachers a free pass. My own knowledge of poetry is laughable (I laugh only to keep from crying). For this and other reasons I appreciate your review and look forward to reading the book with a teachable spirit.

    One last thought for consideration…
    The 1920’s was mentioned as a turning point in education and technology which produced the current crop of preachers and congregants. I am sure that it is not a coincidence that this generally lines up with a turning away from classical education.

    Having said that I will just mention that I have begun to “un-teach” myself and to research the process of forming a Classical Christian School.

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      @Brian: Thanks for your comments. You’re welcome to borrow my copy–it’s an easy read and only 112 (short)pages.

      Gordon does address the shortcomings of the congregants as well, but believes that good sermons will prevail: “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 inattentiveness in the congregation is due to poor preaching–preaching that does not reward an energetic, conscientious listening. When attentive listeners are not rewarded for their energetic attentiveness, they eventually become inattentive” (31).

      That said, everything that would make Johnny a better preacher (reading texts and writing) would also make Johnny a better listener. One of the things that attracted me to the Reformed world was the insistence on and promotion of education: biblical and liberal.

      Re: classical schools, I’m in complete agreement–as you know. Let’s plan to start one in four years, OK?

  2. Susan Giffone says:

    What we need is another “great popularizer” like Lewis. One for the current generation, who will bridge the gap. Yes, the congregation should be better educated and more disciplined and passionate about the word of God. But, many of them simply are not. Or they have passion but lack the education and discipline.

    The ball has been dropped but it can be recovered and succeeding generations reached, if those of us with the skills and passion will undertake to do it.

    This is one reason that I, too, think we should be teaching our children to love literature and “get it”. When I reach a high schooler in the co-op, I feel a great sense of satisfaction. I have, as it were, taught a few of them to fish.

    ”Homiletically challenged”! Love it.

  3. Pingback: Read Think Speak Write

  4. Pingback: Best of 2011 | think hard, think well

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