Book Review- “Why Johnny Can’t Preach”

Patterned after the “Why Johnny Can’t Read” and “Why Johnny Can’t Write”, T. David Gordon’s new book caught my attention in the blogosphere and on the bookshelf.  As someone who not only enjoys listening to good preaching and who is constantly seeking to improve his communication skills, anything critiquing the communication skills of the current age and seeking a way forward is in my opinion worth a read-over.

Gordon’s work succeeds largely because of its brevity.  It is not his work to provide a “How-To” book on preaching or even a Biblical defense of preaching, especially in light of its postmodern critics.  He simply aims to get at the root of why so much preaching is simply terrible these days.  His thesis is simply this: “-societal changes reflected in a decline in the ability to read (texts) and write- have led to the natural cultural consequence that people cannot preach expositorily.” (15)  Gordon considers himself a “media ecologist” (prompting my memory of Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about men giving themselves fancy-sounding job titles simply to impress women).  Media ecology is simply “how changes in a dominant media alter the human and social environment.

Gordon writes, “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 of spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there.” (17)   In the simplest analysis of preaching, Gordon asks three questions: “What was the main 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?” (19)  I don’t think it takes an MIT grad to understand or ask such questions when analyzing a sermon, and yet few ever do.

The chapter layout is simple:

1. Johnny Can’t Preach.

2.  Why Johnny Can’t Preach, Part 1: Johnny Can’t Read (Texts).

3. Why Johnny Can’t Preach, Part 2: Johnny Can’t Write.

4.  A Few Thoughts about Content.

5. Teaching Johnny to Preach.

In chapter 2, Gordon discusses the problem of reading “texts.”  Gordon makes a point to distinguish between simple “reading” for content, that works well with popular fiction, biography, self-help books, etc. However, the skill in seeing how texts are constructed is largely ignored, a skill which is highly necessary in reading verse, for example.  This has caused us to over-indulge in speed-reading, even things like Scripture.  He gives the example of a minister seeing Romans 5:8 and John 3:16 and noting that the content of both is “God’s love”, thereby producing a similar sermon from both verses.  However, what each of these verses says about God’s love is very different!  (Content reading would especially have trouble with reading the 4 Gospels as uniquely relevant both in some content but especially in construction.)  The 8-minute “in-depth” research of important topics on nightly news programs is also indicative of this.  We have become obsessed with “trivial” knowledge and this shows in preaching as well, he concludes.

In chapter 3, it is writing skills that are examined.  Here, he discusses the changes in communication between letter-writing and talking on the telephone or internet.  While we often communicate “more” words in the latter media, we communicate more important things through the former, simply because of the time and effort involved in the communication.  A letter forces one to eliminate the unnecessary “chatter” and focus on the important things like flow of thought.  In preaching, we no longer have sermons focused like written documents on flow, structure, and content, but disconnected “observations” much like a telephone conversation.

In chapter 4, Gordon gives 4 alternatives to “Christ-centered” preaching that are prevalent—namely, moralism, How-to, Introspection, and Social Gospel/So-Called “Culture War.”  Each of these has its faults.  (He does later say that all but the “How-To” model have an important place in pastoral ministry, but does not feel that the pulpit time is their rightful place.)  Perhaps more time could have been given to analyzing each of these particular concerns; while I personally agreed with most of them, I did not feel enough weight of the argument from this chapter alone.

In the final chapter, Gordon moves to giving some ideas for application for improving preaching.  The most obvious and easy to implement is the “Annual Review” for pastors. Are pastors aware of deficiencies in their preaching?  Almost everyone will say “Great sermon, brother” at the door on the way out, but what are they saying in the car?  He actually encourages pastors to ask for this when they are hired at a church.  While it may seem difficult to hear criticism, I know from experience in seminary that I benefitted greatly from open critique during our preaching class.  He also advocates getting rid of the television and spending more time reading texts closely.  I personally confess that often the books on my shelf that I choose to read first are those I know I can finish quickly.  But modern C.S. Lewis-es aren’t forged by quick-reads.  Thirdly, he recommends developing a practice of writing notes to people and prayers as a way of improving one’s thinking.

In all, I found this brief (108 pages!) book to be of great help in understanding not only the culture I minister to but the culture that has in many ways shaped me as well.  I recommend those preaching (even youth pastors—one of the most difficult communication-heavy areas of ministry) to read this book and take it to heart.  If we really believe that preaching is important enough to do each week, then we should also believe it is important enough to do our very best in it.