Why Johnny Can’t Preach

Posted on November 24, 2009


If you’ve ever taught a class at a seminary or undergraduate Bible institution, I’d bet you’ve said something along the lines of “I can’t believe these men are training for ministry, and yet they exhibit such sloppiness when it comes to a basic ability to ______________ (fill in the blank with any number of fundamental English sensibilities – sentence composition, spelling, subject-verb agreement, etc).”

Now, let me say that I am certainly not perfect in this regard, but I cannot escape the haunting memories of my mother, who is an English teacher and librarian, forcing me to speak/write/read accurately from the time I was a small child.  Every night before bed I had to spend a minimum of 30 minutes reading a book of my choice (which were usually something from the Hardy Boy collection).  My papers could not be submitted until they had undergone thorough revisions and significant “red ink-lettings” from my mother. However, I am grateful for the education I received in the basic competencies of the English language, which allowed me to successfully complete and defend my Ph.D dissertation last fall.

Which leads me to the point of this post. I recently finished T. David Gordon’s book on preaching, “Why Johnny Can’t Preach.” In his short but powerful little book, Gordon argues baldly that most contemporary preachers “simply can’t preach.” Why is Gordon, a professor of religion and media ecology, so critical of modern preaching and preachers? Aside from his own experiences (which form the thrust of his “objective” evidences against the field of preaching), Gordon asserts that

“the problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary. The culture has profoundly changed since the 1950s. A culture formerly dominated by language (reading and writing) has become a culture dominated by images…As a consequence of this cultural shift, those human sensibilities (one’s capacities to know, understand, experience, or appreciate certain realities) essential to expository preaching have largely disappeared, so that a theological seminary attempting to teach a person who is not comfortable with texts or with writing organized prose is analogous to a theological seminary attempting to teach a dachshund to speak French…these culturally changes, especially changes in the dominant media, have created a Johnny who can neither read nor write as he could in the early twentieth century, and who, therefore, cannot preach.”

I found Gordon’s book to be a fascinating angle on the preaching enterprise.  While most books written in the last decade focus on technique, delivery, mechanics, and connectivity (visual illustrations, stories, etc), Gordon sticks to the more fundamental elements that make one an effective communicator (namely, the ability to first understand your subject before trying to explain, illustrate, unpack, and persuade it others). Here are my general thoughts on the concepts found in the book:

  1. While I agree in generally affirm most of Gordon’s insights, I do not think he does a great job of establishing evidence that most preaching today is poor in quality. Most of what he presents as “objective evidence” is really just anecdotal stories from conversations with congregants, other professors, or his local rotary.  I’ll give him a pass on this, however, since he wrote the book in a season of his life when he thought he was going to die from cancer.
  2. Having said that, my own experience in seminary and as an adjunct professor does seem to point to the fact that those training for ministry are not immune to the effects of dominant media (Internet, movies, iPhones, television, cell phones, etc).  It’s no surprise that the “average American adult reads fewer than nine books annually, spends seventeen times as much time watching television as reading…and from 1982 to 2002 there was a 10 percent decline in literary reading in the U.S.” No doubt that is impacting young preachers as much as anyone else.
  3. It is impossible to preach a good sermon unless you first understand the text in your own mind. Gordon argues that most preachers don’t read texts well. The problem, he says, is not that we don’t read (most seminary-level classes require at least 1000 pages per semester) – it’s that we read for information, not for understanding. “Preachers read the Bible the way they read everything else: virtually speed-reading scanning it for its most overt content. What is this passage about? they ask as they read, but they don’t raise questions about how the passage is constructed…All of their sermons are about Christian truth or theology in general, and the particular text they read ahead of time merely prompts their memory or calls their attention to one of Christianity’s important realities…their reading does not stimulate them to rethink anything, and since the text doesn’t stimulate them particularly, their sermon is not particularly stimulating to their hearers.”
  4. This leads inevitably, Gordon concludes, to preachers “using” the text as opposed to “receiving” the text before we preach it. “We don’t really read texts to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point; we read texts to see how they confirm what we already believe about reality. Texts are mirrors that reflect ourselves; they are not pictures that are appreciated in themselves.”
  5. Culture has shaped our (in)ability to read texts well. The pace and substance of general media is fast and trivial, and teaches us to focus on the insignificant aspects of life (point in case is the TV show Seinfeld, a “show about nothing”). We rarely slow down to read carefully, as most of what we read is not significantly challenging enough to cause us to do so.
  6. Gordon makes an interesting case for why people shaped by twentieth century media don’t write as well or frequently as people of previous generations. Telephones, cell phones, text messaging, email, skyping – these technological advances are radically altering the social landscape and causing many of us (myself included) to lose the discipline of solid written communication. How does this affect preaching? “Telephone conversations rarely have unity, order or movement; it isn’t surprising that those who spend more time on the phone that in private written correspondence preach sermons that rarely have unity, order, or movement…in many respects their sermons reflect the babbling, rambling quality of a typical telephone conversation.”
  7. I found it very interesting that he recommended those training for the ministry to get their undergraduate in English literature, and not a Bible degree.
  8. Generally, I agree with his prescriptions for making better preachers: 1) annual reviews by church members or committees, 2) cultivating greater abilities to read texts well (he suggests reading poetry/verse), and 3) disciplining ourselves to written composition (journal articles, editorials, private journals, etc).  I DO NOT think that these things, in and of themselves, make Johnny a better preacher.  They do, however, better prepare him for the task of studying for and organizing a biblically faithful sermon.

Overall, a great book that I would recommend and plan to use frequently as I train young preachers. I was personally challenged to broaden my literature intake, and to do the hard work of working out my thoughts through written correspondence (which is why I wrote this post).  So, this was more therapeutic for me than for you – hope you enjoyed!

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