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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!
The premise of the book is what is wrong with preaching, how culture has shaped our communicators and how to rescue preaching. One of the things I appreciated about the author was his forthrightness and bluntly saying what he thought. I found myself laughing out loud a number of times and cringing when I thought of the things I have subjected people to in some of my sermons. I definitely left challenged to be a better preacher.
He starts off by talking about how pastors no longer no how to put a sermon together. Because few pastors write or read outside of magazines and the internet, they don't know how to form sentences and thoughts. They don't know how to put a sermon together that has unity and order. They are often thrown together and it leads to sermons with no point and it ends with the pastor talking about whatever he wants to talk about.
So what makes a good sermon? According to Gordon, "If the hearer's duty in listening to a sermon is to be willing to submit one's will to God's will, then one can only do this if the preacher does his duty of demonstrating that what he is saying is God's will." Namely, someone pays the price, pastors, it is supposed to be you.
Paying the price means you put in the work, in the word, in commentaries, in preparing your heart and preaching the text to your life: "A pastor is an ambassador, who represents another, declaring the will of that Other. Therefore, he is not entitled to preach his own insights, his own opinions, or even his own settled convictions; he is entitled only to declare the mind of God revealed in Holy Scripture. Since the mind of God is disclosed in Scripture, the sermon must be entirely faithful to the text - a genuine exposition of the particular thought of the particular text." This is one of the reasons I love preaching through books of the Bible, it forces me to stay on topic, to preach what the book and context actually says, not my opinion or hot button issue that I want to talk about. It also doesn't allow me to skip topics.
One of the things Justin shared that came from this book was how long to preach. When I first discovered Mark Driscoll, I made it a goal to preach an hour. In fact, I held this up as a good thing if I got there, that I somehow served my church better by talking longer. While there is a lot of talk about shortened attention spans, and that is true to a degree, Gordon points out that "bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief." This is huge: "Sermon length is measure not in minutes; it is measure in minutes beyond interest. The amount of time a preacher preaches past his listeners interest."
But how does the media and our culture shape our pastors? Is it bad or good? Gordon said (this section is worth the price of the book), "In 1968, a presidential soundbite was 42.3 seconds, compared to 9.8 seconds in 1988. In 2000, it shrunk to 7.8 seconds. This means, pastors today are not at home with what is significant. Pastors today have attention spans less than that of a 4 year old in the 1940's, who race around like the rest of us, constantly distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty. It is not surprising that their sermons, and the alleged worship that surrounds them, are often trifling, thoughtless, uninspiring, and mundane. It is not surprising that their sermons are mindlessly practical, in the "how-to" sense. It is also not surprising that their sermons tend to be moralistic, sentimentalistic, or slavishly drafted into the so-called culture wars. The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternity - realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermon - have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another.
Overall, the way forward according to T. David Gordon is for preachers to be better prepared. Not only in their craft and in what they say, but personally. That they preach to themselves and allow the word of God to seep into their bones and then preach. I remember being challenged by someone once when he asked, "Are you preaching because it is the weekend or because you have something to say." I can tell in my own preaching when I am preaching because it is the weekend and I am not spiritually prepared, mentally prepared or just don't know my stuff. And then I can tell when I am prepared, my heart is right, my sins confessed, I am studied up and ready to preach because I have something to say.
(for more, see my other reviews at[...]