Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Johnny Can't Preach

Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
T. David Gordon
P & R Publishing, 2009
108 pages, $9.99

T. David Gordon has been listening to preaching, and helping to train preachers, for over 25 years. In a recent serious illness (in remission at the time of publication) he decided he must write the book he had long delayed writing. I'm glad he did. This is a fine book, and should be read by ever preacher, would-be-preacher, and those who train them in our colleges and seminaries.

The author, with degrees from Westminster Seminary and a PhD from Union in Richmond, was a pastor for nine years, a professor at Gordon-Conwell seminary for several years, and now is a professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, where he also teaches a course in "media ecology." The term media ecology was new to me, though I was somewhat familiar with the writings of Neil Postman, who is known for using this term for the analysis of how the media "environment" shapes contemporary culture. In this book, Gordon writes, "I am asking a media-ecological question: 'How has the movement from language-based media to imaged-based and electronic media altered our sensibilities, and how, in turn, has this change in sensibility shaped today's preachers.'"

Gordon shares anecdotal evidence that modern preaching is mostly very poor. "I would guess that of the sermons I've heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point...Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read. That is, no competent effort was made to persuade the hearer that God's word required a particular thing; it was simply asserted." This statement I find astonishing, all the more so because most of these sermons have been in conservative churches of Reformed heritage, where one would expect to find preaching most closely-tied to the Biblical text.

Gordon relates a conversation he had with a Presbyterian ruling elder, active in his presbytery, who had served on many pastor search committees and heard many sermons from young ministers. Gordon asked the elder why a certain minister was hired, who apparently had little skill in preaching. The elder's reply: "David, of course he can't preach, but I've served on pulpit committees off and on for thirty years, and nobody can preach." The elder goes on to say his experience in listening to public speaking at Rotary meetings is very different--he can always tell someone the point of the talk at the Rotary Club, but rarely is he able to do this after listening to sermons.

Gordon suggests that the cause of this lack of ability in our preachers is, in effect, textual illiteracy. Preachers haven't learned to interpret texts and compose language. When one is raised up on television, computers, and cell phones, one doesn't spend much time reading great literature and composing written communication. Email and text messaging, with all its spelling and grammatical mish-mash has become the norm. Many have written of the steep decline in language skills in our culture at large. Anyone of my generation who has taught at the college level is likely to bemoan the abysmal preparation of the typical college freshman, who apparently cannot compose a complete, grammatically correct paragraph. Unfortunately, even four years of college may not cure this lack, and young pastors-to-be enter seminary ill-equipped for the advanced level of textual exegesis required to become skilled communicators of Scripture.

The problem has no easy correction; there is no extra seminary course that can fix this, but Gordon ends the book with suggestions on how preachers may cultivate the sensibilities of reading texts and careful composition.

Well-written, helpful, and a delight to read, I look forward to his next work: Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns.


  1. Hi Ed,

    Thought I would check out your new blog site. It looks intriguing. I would concur why some can't preach. I would add foremost that the Lord must call the preacher. If he is divinely called he will be equipped by Jesus. True preachers have a sense of stewardship as Paul said, "Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel" (I Cor. 9:16).

    And of course, they must know the Word!

    I am finishing my next book on my great, great grandfather who was a Primitive Methodist preacher in England from 1840 -1871 who immigrated to America and preached in Wisconsin until his death in 1902. He kept a spiritual diary of his preaching, which is a treasured posssion of mine. I had the opportunity in September 2008 to retrace his preaching circuit in England, and preach in his chapel that still exists. My book is called "Retracing the Beautiful Steps" based on Romans 10:14-15, the great passage on preaching.See More

  2. Thanks for the input. I look forward to reading your book.