Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach

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

If “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” (Proverbs 25:11) then T. David Gordon might contend that most of what he has heard from pulpits over the years bears more resemblance to the cacophony of a deconstructionist painting.

Just a few sentences into the introduction, Gordon drops this massive redpill: “I’ve always feared to state publicly that, in my opinion, less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon.” (11). Hard to swallow, but necessary.  And again a few pages later, he laments “the problem…is not that we don’t have ‘great’ preachers; in many circumstances we don’t even have mediocre preachers.” (14).  He advocates meat and potatoes preaching—not entertainment, nor that every pastor become a Chrysostom.

Gordon’s concern is not so much failure on the doctrinal level, though he does touch on that a bit.  Instead, most of the book focuses on Left Hand Kingdom aspects of good preaching: clarity, memorability, and unity around a clear theme. Thinking he was dying of cancer, Gordon penned this concise, pointed, and heart-felt treatise against what he saw as ubiquitous, sub-par preaching.

Even better though, the author suggests numerous workable remedies.  Workable, that is, after the preacher, and perhaps even his congregation, undertake deliberate, long term solutions.

Gordon writes from decades of experience as a seminary professor and pew-sitter in the Orthodox Presbyterian in America, the Presbyterian Church in America, as well as the broader conservative Evangelical world.  Nonetheless, the Lutheran preacher can find great help in this book.

As Gordon sees it, “to preach the Word of God well, one must already have cultivated…three sensibilities: the sensibility of the 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 he were utterly illiterate.” (106).

With a preface, an introduction, and five chapters, T. David Gordon diagnoses the sickness and prescribes the cure in just 108 pages.

In Chapter 1, Gordon unpacks his assertion that “Johnny can’t preach.”  In addition to personal experience as a listener, he draws on decades of anecdotal evidence, including conversations with lay people concerning preaching.  Gordon contrasts the basic public speaking expectations of Rotary Club with what passes on Sunday morning.  If any Lutherans are getting sweaty at this point, they will be comforted to know that among his criteria for a good sermon, Gordon lists “textual fidelity” and “evangelical tone,” as well as several other classical Reformed criteria.  Again, a discerning Lutheran pastor can find much to like here.

Chapter 2 takes a deeper dive down the rabbit hole, contending that “Johnny” cannot preach because he struggles even to read the Bible on the deep level needed for good preaching. Yes, he knows his phonics and might even have a master’s degree and some familiarity in the original languages, but he fails to read scripture in deliberate, disciplined manner needed for homiletics.  The preacher cannot speed read scripture for the basic content or information. He must be able to appreciate the specifics of each passage of scripture, rather than wander off into other more general Christian truths.  His sermons should not be simple paraphrases of the obvious facts.  The pastor needs to dig deep in order to bring up the treasures of God’s Word to his people.  This should be a slow, deliberate process.  Scripture itself must work on the preacher.  It should force him to think, wrestle, and stretch.  It should feed him and build him up.  Since “the text doesn’t stimulate [preachers] particularly…their sermon is not particularly stimulating to their hearers.” (47).

In Chapter 3, Gordon argues that we have allowed the way we use various electronic media to eviscerate our ability to compose meaningful communication.  Images, sounds, and videos bombard us all the time.  We take in more stimulation that a human brain can process.  When do we ever take a Sabbath rest from the constant barrage?  The modern reliance upon electronic media makes us passive, rather than active; lazy and confusing, rather than zealous and clear. Our brains are scattered and our words garbled.  If we are not careful, we allow the way we consume electronic media to hamper our ability to carefully read texts like the Bible, as well as our ability to communicate in a clear fashion.  Gordon advocates not necessarily that we go off-grid, but that we exercise discipline and also cultivate certain aptitudes.

The author discusses sermon content in Chapter 4.  The sermon should largely focus on Christ and his work of redemption.  Gordon explicitly compliments Lutherans on that point.  He also touches on four common misguided types of sermons: moralism, “how-to,” subjective spiritual introspection, and culture war/social gospel.  Lutherans would agree with him here.

Chapter 5 offers several solutions for the preacher.  First, an annual preaching review.  This is not so that the preacher can hear that he needs more jokes or needs to be more entertaining.  Instead, Gordon simply wants the sermon to be clear and memorable (he uses the word “unified”).  His suggestion is this: once each year, someone other than the preacher call several hearers at random on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and ask them what the sermon was about.  Gordon asserts “if, several days after the sermon, many or most hearers do not have any idea what it was about, or if they have different ideas, then the sermon plainly and manifestly failed at this crucial point [unity].” (98). A good Presbyterian, Gordon suggests the elders perform this task. Some Lutherans might quibble here.  Nonetheless, our tradition does assign such a role to the circuit visitor.

Gordon also suggests preachers cultivate an ability to read good literature in general, especially poetry.  The preacher must be able to read texts closely; he must be able to discern the significant and impress it upon his hearers.  This is different than a cursory reading for information.  Gordon makes several recommendations on how a pastor could start this in the parish.  He recommends An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis, as well as Poetry as a Means of Grace, by Charles Grosvenor Osgood.  Gordon also rightly disavows post-World War II poetry as “almost perversely iconoclastic.” (102).

Similarly, preachers must cultivate an ability to write well.  Hand-written letters, well written emails, as well as contributing to newspapers, theological journals, or magazines will help him work these muscles.  Gordon also commends writing prayers as a devotional practice, as well as penning pastoral notes to one’s parishioners.  Lastly, Gordon suggests public speaking classes, or joining a club like Rotary which would help the preacher hone these skills.

The congregation can also help the pastor preach better sermons by respecting his time and his calling to be in the Word.  Gordon writes, “as long as the typical congregation runs its minister ragged with clerical, administrative, and other duties…[and] 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….those sensibilities essential to effective preaching will remain uncultivated.” (106-7). One might argue specifics with Gordon, but he is basically just asserting we practice Acts 6:2.

Some Lutherans might object to T. David Gordon’s undertaking.  Gordon is not implying that we can help God, or that preaching is ultimately man’s work.  But Gordon has isolated several tendencies which he thinks get in the way of well-organized, clear, memorable preaching.  We affirm that the Word of God is living and active, that it accomplishes great things.  But if my sermon is so disorganized, dense, or cliché-ridden that my people do not fully hear me, am I not just a noisy gong?  On Pentecost, the Spirit gave men the ability to speak and hear the Gospel in their own tongues.  If it does not profit to hear the Gospel in a language I do not know, could we not go a step further and accept that poor communication means I am not as edifying a preacher as I could be?  Yes, sinful hearers will have itching ears.  But are fleshly expectations, Pietism, or the hearers always the only things to blame when the hearers do not benefit as much as they could from the sermon?

Gordon’s observations on mass media offer a profound social commentary in their own right; the book is worth reading for this alone.  We should be cautious of the way we consume social and electronic media, lest it hamper our ability to read and clearly proclaim God’s Word.  We should also take Reformed theologians on their own terms and appreciate what they might have to offer, rather than just using them as straw men.  Every preacher has room to grow.  Each can also help brother pastors improve their preaching skills.  Why Johnny Can’t Preach will invaluably assist the Lutheran preacher on all of these counts.