Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
by T. David Gordon (P & R Publishing, 2009), pb, 112pp,
“… I wrote this book in 2004, while I was undergoing eleven months of treatment for cancer. … I had stage III colorectal cancer, and the various cancer Web sites at the time gave me a 25 percent chance of survival. … Having been concerned about the state of preaching for three decades, I believed that it would be irresponsible to leave the world without expressing my thoughts about the matter, in the hope that better preaching might be the result.” (p.9)
“… in my opinion, less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon … what I say about preaching is generally true of preaching in North America in the twenty-first century; it is not merely peculiar to my own experience in the particular individual churches of which I’ve been a member..” (pp.11-12)
“… it is the conservative evangelical churches and conservative Reformed churches with which I am primarily acquainted.” (p.12)
“As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel or spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there.” (p.17)
“Nor am I alone here. At a faculty meeting at Gordon-Conwell once, someone reported that a study had disclosed that one-half of ordained ministers leave the profession before retiring. Most of the faculty gasped at this, but my good colleague Doug Stuart remarked: ‘I wish the number were higher; only about one in five can preach.'” (p.18)
“I’ve really desired something fairly simple for my family: to be able to talk intelligently about the sermon on Sunday afternoon or throughout the week. And to do this, all I really desire is the ability to answer three questions: What was the point or thrust of the sermon? Was this point adequately established in the text that was read? Were the applications legitimate applications of the point, from which we can have further fruitful conversation about other possible applications?” (p.19)
“… while I’m delighted to hear that ministers are faithful in visitation, compassionate in caring for the sick, efficient in administration, or winsome toward the youth or the lost, I’d be even more delighted to hear someone say the opposite: ‘Well, he’s a little awkward at visitation, but he is outstanding in the pulpit; and the preaching is so good, and so nourishing, that we put up with the other minor defects in other areas.'” (p.23)
“… a minister is an ambassador, who represents another, declaring the will of that Other. Therefore, he is not entitled to preach his own insights, his own opinions, or even his own settled convictions; he is entitled only to declare the mind of God revealed in Holy Scripture.” (p.24)
“Is the text merely a pretext for the minister’s own idea? … If ten people are asked after the sermon what the sermon was about, will at least eight of them give the same (or similar) answer? … Do hearers get the impression that the minister is for them (eager to see them richly blessed by a gracious God), or against them (eager to put them in their place, scold them, or reprimand them, or punish them)? … Does the sermon significantly engage the mind, or is the sermon full of commonplace cliches, slogans, and general truths? … Do the earlier parts of the sermon contribute to the latter parts’ full effect? … Is the effect of the sermon, on those who believe it, similar? … Could the hearers compare notes and reproduce the outline of the sermon … [or] could they state how it progressed from one part to another? … ” (pp.24,25,26,27)
“… sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers (assuming he ever kindled it in the first place). 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.” (p.31)
“Several of the more incompetent preachers I’ve heard have jumped on the emergent bandwagon, and their ministerial careers are undergoing a resurgence now, as people flock to hear their enthusiastic worship leaders and to ogle their PowerPoint presentations. Their churches are no longer moribund, but then the annual carnival isn’t, either – it, too, is full of enthusiasm, activity, and lively entertainment. But I’m not sure these emergent activities have any more spiritual effect than the pig races at the carnival.” (p.32)
“Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. I’ve never seen such a church. The moribund churches I’ve seen have been malpreached to death. But the fact that large segments of the church are abandoning anything like traditional preaching altogether establishes my point: that Johnny can’t preach. He preaches so poorly that even believers have come to disbelieve that God has chosen through the folly of preaching to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21).” (p.33)
“… we have an embarrassment of riches among homileticians at seminaries today. The problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary. … The average adult reads fewer than nine books annually, and spends seventeen times as much time watching television as reading (including all reading – magazines, newspapers, etc.). … In two decades alone, from 1982 to 2002, there was a 10 percent decline in literary reading among adults in the United States. … As a consequence of this cultural shift, those human sensibilities (one’s capacities to know, understand, experience, or appreciate certain realities) essential to expository preaching have largely disappeared, so that a theological seminary attempting to teach a person who is not comfortable with texts or with writing organized prose is analogous to a theological seminary attempting to teach a dachshund to speak French.” (pp.35-36)
“While our culture has not yet become entirely illiterate, it has become almost illiterate regarding the close reading of texts. Further, our culture has become increasingly aliterate. … the phenomenon of people who can read but do not read.” (p.37)
“Those who write compose their thoughts more successfully than those who do not; they commit fewer of what I inelegantly call ‘sentence farts,’ in which one begins a sentence, partway through realizes that it cannot be successfully completed, and therefore begins again.” (p.39)
“[Ministers] … read for information or amusement, but they do not read because they cherish the aesthetic pleasure taken in something that is well written. They notice only the content of what they read, but do not notice the subtler semi-miracle of language well-employed. How does this phenomenon affect them as preachers? Well, they read the Bible the same way they read everything else: virtually speed-reading, scanning it for its most overt content. ‘What is this passage about?’ they ask as they read, but they don’t raise questions about how the passage is constructed. It’s almost as though a version of Microsoft Word were built into their brains that causes them to see some of the words in a biblical paragraph in boldface, as the theologically, spiritually, or morally important words that stand out in bold from the rest of the paragraph.” (p.46)
“Culturally … we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular. … We don’t really read texts to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point; we read texts to see how they confirm what we already believe about reality. Texts are mirrors that reflect ourselves; they are not pictures that appreciated in themselves. This explains, in part, the phenomenon that many Christians will read their Bibles daily for fifty years, and not have one opinion that changes in the entire fifty-year span. … [we] ‘use’ texts but do not ‘receive’ them.” (pp.49-50)
“Our inability to read texts is a direct result of the presence of electronic media. The sheer pace of an electronic media-dominated culture is entirely too fast. … We become acclimated to distraction, to multitasking, to giving part of our attention to many things at once, while almost never devoting the entire attention of the entire soul to anything. The close reading of texts would be an antidote to such a pace because such reading is time-consuming and requires the concentration of the entire person.” (p.50)
“… few important matters can even be adequately introduced in ten minutes. A culture that reads can consider what is significant because reading takes time, and that which is significant ordinarily takes time to apprehend. But a culture that is accustomed to commercial interruptions every six or seven minutes loses its ability to discuss significant matters because it has lost the patience necessary to consider them.” (pp.53-54)
“As a medium, reading cultivates a patient, lengthy attention span, whereas television as a medium is impatient. One is therefore suited to what is significant; the other merely to what is insignificant.” (pp.54-55)
“We are swamped by the inconsequential, bombarded by images and sounds that rob us of the opportunity for reflection and contemplation that are necessary to reacquaint ourselves with what is significant. ‘According to a widely cited 1989 study by Kiku Adatto, the average weekday network news sound bite from a presidential candidate shrank from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 9.8 in 1988 (with only 1 percent of the bites lasting as long as 40 seconds that year). By 2000, the average was 7.8 seconds. What kind of ministers does such a culture produce? Ministers who are not at home with what is significant; ministers whose attention span is less than that of a four-year old in the 1940’s, who race around like the rest of us, constantly distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty. It is not surprising that their sermons, and the alleged worship that surrounds them, are often trifling, thoughtless, uninspiring, and mundane. It is not surprising that their sermons are mindlessly practical, in the ‘how-to’ sense.’ … The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternity – realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermon – have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another.” (pp.58-59)
“The telephone has radically and profoundly altered the shape of society and of individual consciousness. … But this lack of visual response in conversation makes us literalists, whose capacity to see and interpret body language, gestures, and the language of the eyes atrophies because of comparatively infrequent use. … Now, the obvious point for this for preaching is this: If we become less practiced (and therefore less skilled) at reading people’s visible reactions to our speech, we will become less skilled at reading those reactions when speaking publicly. … As a medium, the telephone also robs us of composition skills. … we become accustomed to noncomposed thought and speech, and unaccustomed to composed thought and speech. … The consequences of this for preaching should be very obvious. Telephone conversations rarely have unity, order, or movement … [and many] sermons reflect the babbling, rambling quality of a typical telephone conversation.” (pp.63,64,65,66)
“A once common sensibility (close reading of texts) is now uncommon, and a once-common activity (composition) is now comparatively rare. A once-common daily occurrence (face-to-face communication allowing us to ‘read’ the unstated feelings of another) has been replaced by telephone conversation in which visual feedback is absent. A once common sensibility, the capacity to distinguish the significant from the insignificant, is becoming rare. For a minister today to preach a basic average sermon by early twentieth-century standards would require a lifestyle that is significantly countercultural.” (pp.67-68)
“… the entering seminarian today has the faculties of a sixth- to eight-grader sixty years ago, and the seminary curriculum cannot make this seminarian an adult by the time he graduates.” (p.68)
“… I also believe that preaching today fails almost entirely in its content. … the content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ. … What is offered to the congregation, in rightly ordered Christian worship, is nothing less than Christ himself.” (pp.69,70)
“Faith is not built by preaching introspectively (constantly challenging people to question whether they have faith); faith is not built by preaching moralistically (which has exactly the opposite effect of focusing attention on the self rather than on Christ, in whom our faith is placed); faith is not built by joining the culture wars and taking potshots at what is wrong with our culture. Faith is built by careful, thorough exposition of the person, character, and work of Christ.” (pp.75-76)
“To clarify what I think Christological preaching is, it may help to contrast it with several common alternatives … moralism, how-to, introspection, and social gospel/culture war. … None of these false surrogates for real Christian proclamation nourishes the soul. They may inform or instruct about some aspects of religion, but they do not nourish faith; they do not feed faith. We feed on Christ himself …” (pp.78-79,88)
“Haven’t we already had a historical experiment that is precisely what the culture warriors want? Wasn’t ancient Israel a nation whose constitution demanded obedience to the revealed laws of God, and didn’t its executive branch use coercion to attain such obedience? Did Israel not, effectively, have the Ten Commandments in its courthouse? Yet which prophet ever had anything good to say about the nation? Indeed, as Jesus and the prophets more bluntly put it, which of the prophets did they not kill? If theocracy didn’t work in Israel, where God divinely instituted it, why do people insist on believing it will work in places where God manifestly has not instituted it?” (p.88)
“… there is a relation between what predominates in our preaching and what we deem to be of greatest importance. … I would suggest that nothing is more important for Christian proclamation than the central realities of the person, character, and work of Christ. When anything else predominates, the necessary inference of our hearers is that morality, or cultural improvement, or introspecting about our own spiritual health, is a more important consideration.” (p.91)
“… the solution is not more books on homiletics … nor is it to require more classes on homiletics at seminary. The solution is to cultivate those pre-homiletical sensibilities that are necessary to preach well. … learn to read. How can he preach the Word of God is he cannot read the Word of God?” (p.96)
“Most ministers will never know how bad their preaching really is without an annual review.” (p.97)
“Just as a middle-aged man doesn’t wish to ask his physician about his chest pains, for fear of what he might learn, the typical minister doesn’t ask about his preaching competence for fear he will discover that his preaching is not edifying to his hearers.” (p.99)
“… make efforts to cultivate the sensibilities requisite to preaching well. Perhaps the most straightforward way to do this is to … pursue a degree in English literature.” (p.101)
“Formal study of English literature, however, is not necessary. Informally, one can learn to read poetry by reading books about how to read poetry, and by reading classic defenses of verse (such as those by Spenser and Shelley, or the life-changing An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis) or essays on poetic theory and criticism, while also reading anthologies of poetry. I do not recommend, ordinarily, that one devote the majority of his attention to post-World War II poetry; from then on, poetry took on an almost perversely iconoclastic character, as though the severest obscurity were the highest attainment.” (p.102)
“I still tell every oncoming freshman at Grove City College who plans to major in religion (the department in which I teach) that if he intends to go to divinity school and become a minister, he should not major in religion but in English literature. None of them listen to me, of course, and I get the most puzzled looks from them (and looks of consternation from my departmental colleagues), but I continue to make the effort …” (pp.101-102)
“Those who are preparing for the ministry should also write handwritten letters whenever there is justification for doing so … The handwritten letter requires composition: that one considers before one writes what one wishes to say, and how one wishes to say it. … keep some personal letterhead on hand when one prays for his congregation throughout the week. … thoughtful composition … will ultimately spill over into sermons. … compose other material: articles for theological, religious or denominational periodicals; editorials for magazines or newspapers; journal entries; anything. And note that I think it doesn’t matter at all whether any of these ever get published. The value resides in the shaping of one’s sensibilities and abilities (especially that of composition) that comes from organizing one’s thoughts into writing.” (pp.103-104)
“Most pre-ministerial candidates, and most ministers, would be well served by taking a nonreligious course on public speaking. … In a nonreligious setting ,,, once can learn the important distinctions between poor organization, clarity versus obscurity, specific language versus general language, and so on One might even consider joining Rotary International.” (pp.104-105)
“Some ministers work on the technical aspects of their sermon preparation by developing a homiletical partner: another minister with whom they meet once or twice a month to discuss their recent sermons, and why they constructed them as they did. The feedback of another set of eyes can be helpful …” (p.105)
“To preach the word of God well, one must already have cultivated, at a minimum, three sensibilities: the sensibility of close reading of texts, the sensibility of composed communication, and the sensibility of the significant. Without these, a person simply cannot preach, any more than he could if his larynx were removed or were utterly illiterate.” (p.106)
“While most of my thoughts are addressed to ministers and pre-ministerial candidates, congregations should not overlook their responsibility in the matter. As long as the typical congregation runs its minister ragged with clerical, administrative, and other duties; and as long as such a congregation expects the minister to be out five or six nights a week visiting or at meetings, the minister will not have time in his schedule to read, write, or reflect. In short, those sensibilities essential to effective preaching will remain uncultivated. … preaching well requires more than preparing sermons; it requires preparing oneself as the kind of human who has the sensibilities prerequisite to preaching. An individual without time to read broadly and intensely, without time to reflect on life, without time to compose (even if merely in a personal journal), is not likely to be an individual who can preach.” (p.107)
Though I was just a pup when the ads first aired on television, I can still remember some of the old Mennen Skin Bracer after shave commercials. “… wakes you up like a cold slap in the face!” They were the first commercials I recall looking forward to seeing again. Why? Because they were shocking, to the point, hilarious, and, obviously, memorable.
And while it is anything but hilarious, T. David Gordon’s work Why Johnny Can’t Preach is a bit of Skin Bracer for preachers. To be sure, it stings, but the one who delivers this much needed slap can be trusted. He’s our friend; a friend we almost lost to cancer.
That’s right. What prompted this Greek and religion professor to pen this book was his diagnosis in 2004 with stage 3 colorectal cancer. When he learned that his chances of survival were only 25%, he became fearful that he might die without having said what he believed we truly needed to hear. And so, Gordon spent his eleven, grueling months of cancer treatment writing Why Johnny Can’t Preach.
Can you say “grit?”
And what is it exactly that we need to hear? What is his diagnosis for us? Quite simply, most preachers can’t preach. He believes over 70% of us have no business preaching. And the reason we can’t preach is either because we have never cultivated, or have lost, our literary sensibilities. That is, we have no real appetite for close reading of texts, having nurtured in its place a hunger for constant distraction and noncomposed thought and speech.
Ha! If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Gordon was talking straight to us “Church of Christ preachers,” masters of improv that many of us are.
This book leaps out of the gate strong.
“Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor. … As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel or spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there.” (p.17)
And this book finishes strong, hardly having worked up a sweat.
“… the minister is expected to work about seventy-five hours a week, and also to be a good example of a family man! 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. An individual without time to read broadly and intensely, without time to reflect on life, without time to compose (even if merely in a personal journal), is not likely to be an individual who can preach.” (p.107)
Let the church say, “Amen!”
And there is not one weak page in between. No not one. I’m telling you:
“The slap of a friend can be trusted to help you …” (Proverbs 27:6 NCV)
Gordon has without a doubt put his finger on a huge factor influencing preaching (and the hearing of preaching) today. His cold-slap-in-the-face approach to writing is refreshing and needed. This book’s economy and clarity with words make it a quick read. In fact, I’d encourage you to read it twice. The first time through, read it in one sitting without pause. Intentionally feel the slap and sting. Then work through it a second time, this time thoughtfully and reflectively, at a simple pace of one brief chapter per day over the course of a week. Block out as much time to think about what you read each day as you do to read. For the real power of this book becomes even more clear as you deliberately ruminate its contents. The book utilizes footnotes and they are every bit as clear and biting, as well as helpful, as the primary text. Don’t skip them.
There’s precious little about this book for me to beef about. There are no indexes; a brief, combined subject and author index would have been helpful. My only other complaint is not with the author or the book, but with the publisher and Amazon.com for not enabling a preview feature on Amazon. Unless you’re unusually fortunate enough to find a copy in a bookstore, there is no way to peruse a bit of this book before you purchase it.
In recent e-mail correspondence with the author, Dr. Gordon informed me that:
“… the sequel on hymns [Why Johnny Can’t Sing] is now completed, and I hope to have it in the hands of the publishers by the end of the month.”
He also recommended three books, penned by other authors, that deal with some of the matters he discussed in Why Johnny Can’t Preach (i.e. – diminishing attention span, inability to closely read texts, etc.). Those three works are: (1) Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson (2008), (2) The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein (2008), and (3) Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher (2009).
And – praise God! – Dr. Gordon mentioned in passing that he had “been in New Hampshire for some hiking for ten days” recently. Five years post diagnosis and ten days of hiking. Sounds like a 25 percenter to me!
Make no mistake about it: Why Johnny Can’t Preach is required reading. Right now. It’s a keeper for life; the perfect 10. Take a copy of it with you to the next area preachers’ meeting you attend and talk it up. Get the word out. It could well be the best cold slap in the face you’ll ever pay for.
To Dr. Gordon I can only say: “Thanks. I needed that!”