T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach is about two years old now and has been recommended to me several times. I’m on holiday and wasn’t planning to do any “pastoral” reading on this trip, but (1) I love reading about preaching and (2) once I had this book in my hand I couldn’t resist the subtitle: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Gordon begins by running through R.L. Dabney’s “Seven Cardinal Requisites of Preaching”. These seven essentials are as follows:
• Textual Fidelity
• Evangelical Tone
The bottom line, as Gordon notes, is that the vast majority of today’s preachers—most modern preacher, in fact—are rarely able to meet more than one or two of these requisites in their preaching, the reason being that the modern media culture has left moderns (and not just preachers) unable to effectively read a text for its meaning and unable properly to compose and write.
As Gordon points out in Chapter 2, “Johnny Can’t Read (Texts)”, our modern media-based culture has left us all with the ability to read for information, but unable to read a text in the literary sense. It’s no wonder then that preachers have trouble with exposition when they can’t even fully understand the biblical texts on which their sermons are based. He also points out that thanks to our bombardment by T.V. with trivial and inconsequential information, we are no longer able to readily discern between the significant and the insignificant. This not only affects our ability to discern such things in a text, but negatively impacts the preacher’s ability to compose a sermon.
In Chapter 3, “ Johnny Can’t Write”, Gordon goes on to address the preacher’s inability to compose and write thanks to modern methods of communication. In the day of telephones and other methods of instantaneous communication, moderns have lost the art of composition.
Before concluding, Gordon addresses the content of preaching. He stresses that the content of preaching needs to be the person, character, and work of Christ. This is in contrast to four “failures” he addresses: moralistic preaching, how-to preaching, introspective preaching, and social gospel/culture-war preaching. I’ll let you read the details for yourself, but if there’s a problem with Gordon’s book I think it lies here. Gordon seems to condemn all these “failures” of content, and yet it does seem to me that if one is faithfully letting the biblical text guide the content of his preaching, any or all of these sorts of contents will crop up from time to time. Gordon is correct in stressing the need for the content of our preaching to be focused on Christ, but I think it’s also true that a man’s sermon content needs to be judged on a larger scale than just one sermon.
Gordon, at this point, left me rather despondent. On the one hand I was thankful for my education and upbringing that offset so many of the problems he notes in the book. I can read and I can write (in the sense he uses these terms), but I am not completely unaffected by the culture. Over and over I saw myself in this book. Gordon doesn’t want to leave the reader with no hope and so he does conclude with some final recommendations: preachers need to take the time to read great literature—especially poetry—to cultivate their ability to read well, and preachers need to actively work on their composition skills by writing letters, reviews, articles, etc. Finally, he stresses that churches need to offer their preachers an annual review. As he notes, such reviews are unpopular today. Congregations don’t like offering negative comments and preachers don’t like hearing criticism, but such constructive criticism is necessary.
I’ll conclude by saying that every preacher needs to read this book. In fact, I’ve told my wife—a homeschooling mom—that she needs to read this book, because the problems it describes affect not only preachers, but everyone in our media-saturated culture. As I’ve noted above, I saw myself repeatedly in the book, but as unpleasant as such glimpses are, they do encourage change. I’m thankful that I grew up reading Shakespeare and Sophocles, but I also realise now that I need to keep reading such things. I’m thankful for teachers who encouraged excellence in writing, but I realise that I need to pay more attention to serious writing and composition today than I have typically tended to as an adult. So go get yourself a copy of Why Johnny Can’t Preach. It may leave you feeling a bit like Goliath, with David’s rock lodged between your eyes, but take advantage of the painful criticism and let it drive you to exercises that will enrich your preaching.