Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach, by T.David Gordon

It’s a short book,108 pages, but it packs quite a punch.  T.David Gordon wrote Why Johnny Can’t Preach during a year of treatment for cancer.  Given only a 25% chance of survival, he found his focus clear and the desire to compromise his message absent.  The book is hard-hitting, but I found the tone entirely appropriate and not harsh despite the subject matter.

The writer is a media ecologist – that is, one who studies the effects of the change of media forms on the culture.  Taking his title from two books in the 1960’s on the growing inability of students to read and write, this book focuses on why the present state of preaching is so dire.

The first part of the book sets out his evidence for his claim that preaching is ordinarily poor.  While admitting freely that his first line of evidence is merely anecdotal, I found the presentation of evidence hard to argue with (not that I’m inclined to argue since my experience largely reflects the author’s).  Yet Gordon’s evidence is not merely subjective.  He goes to some pains to make clear that there are some objective measures of sermon quality that can be used to identify problem preaching.  It is too common to hear “that is just your opinion” if a sermon is ever questioned or critiqued.

The author’s argument culminates with the almost total absence of the annual review, not missing in any other profession, but indicative that all sides know there is an issue.  Gordon doesn’t blame seminaries for this state of affairs.  In his perspective they haven’t changed, but the calibre of incoming student certainly has.  What has changed?  Because of the change in media forms, Johnny is no longer able to read, nor write, nor discern the significant, and hence he can’t preach either.

True preaching requires close examination and study of a quality text, something non-readers have no experience of today.  People don’t study classical languages.  They don’t read literature.  They aren’t equipped to really study a text.   People read for content, but don’t learn to look at how a text communicates.

True preaching requires careful composition.  But people don’t write letters anymore.  They talk on the phone. Instead of careful composition, we live in a day of easy and cheap talk.

True preaching requires a sensibility of the significant.  But the only way to watch hours of television is to turn off such sensibility, so most do.

A once-common sensibility (close reading of texts) is now uncommon, and a once-common activity (composition) is now comparatively rare.  A once-common daily occurrence (face-to-face communication allowing us to “read” the unstated feelings of another) has been replaced by telephone conversation in which visual feedback is absent.  A once-common sensibility, the capacity to distinguish the significant from the insignificant, is becoming rare.  For a minister today to preach a basic average sermon by early-twentieth-century standards would require a lifestyle that is significantly countercultural.

The book is not solely concerned with capacity to study and compose.  The fourth chapter looks at the content of sermons and gives a fine rebuttal of four contemporary approaches – moralism, how-to, introspection and “so-called culture wars” . . . helpful content that I will come back to in other posts.

At certain points I would suggest that the author’s view of Christian preaching is a little narrow.  There is more to an inherently relational faith than merely submitting our will to God’s will.  Perhaps the Bible text, if read carefully, might present the heart of God such that our hearts might be changed in response.

Nevertheless, even taken on the author’s terms, the book’s message is important and needs to be considered.  All of us live in a fast-paced world that simply doesn’t allow for careful reading of God’s heart in His Word.  Perhaps it is time we were more counter-cultural in order to be able to read the text well.

Thankfully, T. David Gordon is still alive and serving the church through his teaching and writing.  We should be grateful for this little gem of a book.  Buy this book, perhaps even pass on a copy to someone else!

(If you are in the UK, click here to buy.)

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