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Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers Paperback – February 27, 2009
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"No, it's not just you. There's a lot of disappointing preaching today, and it's not entirely due to departures from sound principles. It's also affected by the media culture in which we live. While there are helpful studies of popular culture and important books on proper biblical interpretation and theology, this book does both. I couldn't help but wince as I recognized myself in Gordon's descriptions, but he writes so clearly and convincingly that I couldn't help but be grateful." --Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California
"An insightful diagnosis of a serious problem in the life of the church. For this we should be grateful, as we should for the way out of the crisis to which this book ably points." --David F. Wells, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
"Adds more to the homiletical conversation than ten books twice its length. Dr. Gordon is saying things that no one else has said, perhaps because no one dares to. He brings two very important perspectives to bear on the serious business of preaching: finely tuned literary sensibilities and media ecology. Electronic media alter perception and dramatically transform the sensibilities of preachers and the rest of the culture. Gordon's analysis offers us hope that Johnny can learn to preach well." --Gregory Edward Reynolds, pastor, author of The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age
About the Author
T. David Gordon has been Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College since 1999. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for 14 years and Pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church (Nashua, NH) for 9 years.
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The title is a take on the famous books by Rudolf Flesch is the 60's Why Johnny Can't Read: And What To Do About It & Why Johnny Can't Write: How To Improve Writing Skills.
This book does not mince its words - and there is a reason for this. David GOrdon was diagnosed with cancer and his initial prognosis of survival was 25% chance. As a professor and former church pastor he felt he could not die until he had written about the poor preaching which is prevalent in our church today. He wrote this during the 11 months of treatment he received for the cancer - hence it is blunt and deliberately so.
For Gordon, less than 30% of ordained church ministers can preach at best, a mediocre sermon. The other 70% simply cannot preach. He recounts a story of a humble, godly elder who, having been asked by Gordon if they realized the new pastor they had just hired could not preach, replied "of course we know he could not preach." He went on to say that in the 30 years of being an elder he had never met a pastor who could preach - and that his rotary club has better public speakers.
This challenged Gordon - who in his own experience has generally found the same experience.
Now, this is not about the 'stars' of preaching. This is not trying to say we need to be George Whitefields, or Jonathan Edwards, or Charles Spurgeon. Gordon's point is that in the average church, with the average congregation, the average pastor is unable to deliver even a mediocre, competent sermon.
Gordon argues that there have been presentations, films, plays or concerts where we have watched without once looking at our watches or thinking "when will this end". This is because the presentations were well done. Gordon's argument is that sermons today are listless, rambling, disorganized - which will make even a 10 min sermon endless!!
Gordon rates a sermon by asking the following questions: does the significant point of the sermon arise out of the significant point of the text? If ten people are asked after the sermon what was the sermon about, will at least eight of them give the same answer? Does the sermon significantly engage the mind or is it full of commonplace-cliches, slogans and general truths? Do the earlier parts of the sermon contribute to the latter parts? Could the hearers compare notes and reproduce the outline of the sermon?
The reason for incompetent sermons? - the lack of being able to read texts. The average American reads 9 book annually. There has been a decline of literary reading in 20 years of 10%. Our modern culture is illiterate - not just biblically but generally.
Gordon makes a distinction between reading for INFORMATION and READING a TEXT. The first is to scan for information - the second is to read slowly, drinking in the style and composition of the text - noticing the small things - taking the book line by line. You simply can't read Shakespeare's sonnets for information - you'll miss the point of the sonnet - you have to read the text - slowly and deliberately.
This is also the problem with Bible reading - we have a culture and a habit of reading the Bible for information - not to read the text, slowly, deliberately, drinking in the words. That is why so many can read the bible through year after year and never be changed.
Preachers today read the Bible as they read everything - speed reading. This means they cannot write - and have lost the art of composition. Which means sermons are not based on the text, lack a main point and have applications which do not come from the text.
Gordon implores the church to change. Start learning to read slowly, deliberately - drink in some classic texts - learn to read not just for information.
While I think that Gordon paints the problem with a broader brush stroke than necessary the problem is real. I have met very few competent preachers in the church - even the ones who are hailed in our own diocese as good preachers I have found to be less than mediocre
This is a good book - and should be on the MUST READ for all ministry training courses!
Which brings me to T. David Gordon's Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, about the modern preacher and his ability both to read biblical texts and communicate compellingly their God-breathed truth. The minister's work is demanding: he must not merely assert the point of his sermon; he must fulfill "his duty of demonstrating that what he is saying is God's will." (18) Sadly, he often seems unaware of his solemn duty, and, even if he is, he finds himself woefully prepared to discharge it adequately.
Why Johnny Can't Preach is a pre-homiletics book. It has little to say about the how-tos of crafting a sermon but much to say about the literary sensibilities and habits of learning a preacher must possess - prior to undertaking the work of sermon construction. These cannot ordinarily be learned at seminary; the ministerial candidate must master them earlier as he studies in academic environments that prize the careful reading, interpretation and exposition of texts.
Gordon's assessment of the contemporary American pulpit is severe. Great preaching is rare, but that is not his fundamental concern: "What I care about is the average Christian family in the average pew in the average church on the average Sunday. And the problem there is not that we don't have `great' preachers; in many circumstance we don't even have mediocre preachers." (14)
The author, an ordained Presbyterian minister, teaches at Grove City College, and among his responsibilities, are courses in media ecology. As a media ecologist he explores our culture's movement from a language-based media to an image-based and electronic media, and how that movement affects the preacher and his preaching.
Two deficiencies mar contemporary preaching: Johnny, the preacher, can't read (texts) and he can't write.
That Johnny can't read doesn't mean that he is illiterate. But reading the sports page, or the latest John Grisham novel, or even a history book is not the same as reading a text - and, especially an ancient text - carefully. Too often readers read either for amusement or scan texts to acquire information. Speed-readers have learned to ignore articles, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs in order to quickly identify the main points. (43) In the process, appreciation for how the text is constructed is lost. (46)
This leads to a sad state of affairs, indeed. "Reading texts demands a very close and intentional reading. One cannot omit a single line of a given Shakespearean sonnet; each of the fourteen lines plays a crucial role. Those who are accustomed to reading such texts read each line for what it contributes to the whole and how it does so. But those not accustomed to reading texts closely just look for what they judge to be the important words, and the concepts to which they ostensibly point, and then give a lecture on that concept - ordinarily without making any effort to explain the passage as a whole, to demonstrate how each clause contributes to some basic overall unity." (48) The same careful attention to the text is demanded of any preacher who would faithfully discharge the duties of his office.
Sadly, the disciplined and careful reading of texts is no longer prized by much of our culture, and is beyond the immediate reach of many pastors. The text is not treated like a door that ushers us into the author's world, enabling us to examine it from his vantage point. Rather, the text becomes a tool to confirm our own biases about reality. (49)
As I read, I thought about books that claim the life of Jesus as the model for the successful CEO, salesperson or guru of human potential. That kind of author approaches the New Testament with predetermined and cherished ideas, and to no one's surprise - the very ideas he expected to discover in the text are waiting there for him, apparently undiscovered by earlier readers, now ready to be exploited and made into a cutting-edge book. Far from these best-selling authors' minds is the need to make the trek from our world back to the first century; to enter the mind of God as revealed through the words of the inspired gospel writers. They penned their accounts amidst the sorrows of God's suffering people, their words capturing the aspirations of the faithful, who waited patiently for the advent of the coming Messiah. Little or no time is devoted to how the words of the gospel writers fit into the grand story of God's redemptive work in preceding revelation, as proclaimed in the law and by the prophets. Our self-help author has no time or proclivity for that kind of study. "To employ C.S. Lewis's way of stating the matter, they `use' texts but do not `receive' them."(50)
Conspiring against the careful reading of texts is the omnipresence of electronic media - inconsequential, distracting, confronting us mostly with the trivial, and robbing us of the "sensibility of significance." (51) Gordon observes: "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." (54) Such a culture produces 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 1940s, who race around like the rest of us, consequently distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty." (58-59)
Life drives a hard bargain: the emergence and use of a new technology demands that we spend less of our time doing what we once did. We have fewer face-to-face encounters with our conversation partners - those occasions which require not just speaking, but also listening and looking, studying visible reactions to our words. Sadly, "ministers today seem especially blind to the visible response of the congregation because, as a culture, we get used to telephone conversations in which there is no visible response."(64)
Diminished, too, is the time spent composing letters. (61-63) Disciplined letter writing demands unity, order and movement," (66) all of which are invaluable to good sermon construction.
Where does this leave us? "A once-common sensibility (close reading of texts) is uncommon, and a once-common activity (composition) is now comparatively rare." (67)
How can Preacher Johnny be taught to preach? Prior to entering seminary, he should study where he learns to read the word of God, and where he is taught the skill of "composed speech." (96) A degree in English literature might be a wise choice for undergraduate students pursuing ministry. (101)
If Johnny is already in ministry, Gordon proposes:
1. An annual review which thoroughly evaluates the preacher's sermons according to unity, intelligibility, and so forth. (98)
2. The continual cultivation of the sensibility of reading texts closely. In addition to studying the scriptures in the original languages, the reading of poetry is most helpful in cultivating literary sensibility. (99-102)
3. The continual cultivation of the sensibility of composed communication through note and letter writing and through writing for publication. Joining a club devoted to honing public speaking skills and soliciting feedback from seasoned preachers are good uses of a minister's time. (103-105)
Although it is not a preaching "how-to" manual, Why Johnny Can't Preach does contain a very helpful review of Robert Lewis Dabney's seven requisites of preaching (23-28) and an extended reflection on the content of preaching (69-93). Gordon argues persuasively that "the content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ." (70) "Christian proclamation properly includes a declaration of those character traits that equip Christ to effectually fulfill his redemptive office. His love, mercy, compassion, and other traits equip him in specific ways to accomplish his works; therefore, the proclamation of such traits nourishes the faith of those who come to God through him."(71) Seriously deficient alternatives to Christological preaching include: moralism, "how-to" preaching, introspection (namely, preaching that constantly suggests to hearers that they might not be believers after all), and "Social Gospel/So-Called Culture War" preaching. None of these alternatives are helpful in cultivating biblical morality. "No; preach Christ, and you will have morality. Fill the sails of your hearers' souls with the wind of confidence in the Redeemer, and they will trust him as their Sanctifier, and long to see his fruit in their lives. Fill their minds and imaginations with a vision of the loveliness and perfection of Christ in his person, and the flock will long to be like him. (78)
I cannot recommend this book too highly to preachers. As I read, deficiencies in my own preaching and preparation came to mind, but along with them, suggestions for improvement.
Since good preachers are ordinarily the products of homes and/or churches that cultivate literary sensibilities, I believe that anyone who cares about children, education, and the future of pulpit ministry would find reading this book exceptionally beneficial.
Gordon probably alienates the people he desires to win over because of his tone, which borders on shrill at his most passionate moments. However, his point is valid, and those who disagree need to be able to articulate what it is they disagree with.
As an aside, I personally disagree with his conclusion that a Christi-centric preaching model will “fix” this problem. I would hope that sounds hermeneutics can be applied and excellent preaching still be practiced.