Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2009.
In Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon argues that preaching today is generally bad. His thesis is that “many ordained people simply can’t preach” (16). His conclusion is that modern forms of media have shaped the messengers themselves. Minds that have not been shaped by reading struggle to understand a text and minds that have not been shaped by writing struggle to proclaim a message. Gordon’s solution is that those who aspire to preach should prepare beforehand and cultivate life habits that make good preachers. Gordon says, “What I care about is the average Christian family in the average pew in the average church on the average Sunday” (14). His goal in writing is the health of the church.
Gordon is a former professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently a professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has a special interest in media ecology which brings a unique perspective to Why Johnny Can’t Preach. He also wrote the book while being treated for stage three cancer which brings a refreshing frankness and urgency to his prose.
The unity and content of preaching are essential to the message. Moribund churches “have been malpreached to death” (33). Gordon argues for a series of imperatives that shape good preaching and relies upon Robert Lewis Dabney to lay out seven “cardinal requisites.” These include fidelity to the text, order, and an evangelical tone. None of the requisites would be associated with persuasive rhetoric. Rather, they are all points that draw the message closer to the text and encourage a clear communication of the main point of the passage. Many of those rhetorical flourishes that are commonly associated with preaching are tropes that distract from its main purpose. Gordon, therefore, spends time defining what makes good preaching.
Gordon argues that many secular speakers can present their message better than preachers (21-22). He believes that congregations endure bad preaching because there is no better alternative presented. He then points to Dabney’s seven cardinal requisites as an example of the “minimal requirements” of good homiletics. (23-28). Many of these are taught in more recent homiletical texts like Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching.
Gordon presents Dabney’s requisites in a summary form that provides an overview of clear gospel preaching. The first is textual fidelity. Does the significant point arise out of the text? The second is unity. Is there a single point to the sermon? The third is evangelical tone. This includes both tone as well as a focus on Christ and the gospel. The fourth is instructiveness. Does the sermon engage the mind? The fifth is movement. Do the points of the sermon build upon one another? The sixth is point. Does the sermon point toward an effect in the hearer? The seventh is order. Is the sermon well ordered? These elements work together to engage the hearer and communicate the message clearly.
Brevity is another key issue. Many people feel that preaching is too long. “Bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief” (30). It is easy to fill a sermon with too much information. Gordon argues that good preaching does not seem long. The point is to be clear and avoid information that does not add to the movement, order, and unity of the message (24-27).
Gordon provides suggestions for how preachers can improve. First, preachers should look for feedback. Gordon recommends an annual review (33-34, 97-99). This can also be done through fraternal relationships with other pastors (105). If someone endeavors to improve in their craft, then feedback and review are critical.
Second, preachers should learn to read a text (99-102). Gordon is challenging preachers to do more than learn to read in general. He wants them to read well. This developed sensibility comes from investing time in reading books that challenge the mind. He calls these texts. Texts cannot just be scanned for information. They must be considered carefully in light of their literary setting and read again and again to fully understand them. This is a process that shapes the mind of the reader over time.
Gordon wants the reader to develop an appreciation for literary craftsmanship (49). Thus, he encourages the reading of particular authors that develop that appreciation. He also encourages the study of English at the undergraduate level in order to develop this sensibility and uses James Montgomery Boyce as an example (101). It takes reading three to five books to gain an introduction to a subject (54). This is no small investment. The time investment spent reading is reflected in the person. Gordon gives an example of being able to deduce the education of the person he is speaking with at an airport in a matter of minutes (36-40). The intake of media shapes the man.
Third, preachers should learn to write in order to be able to communicate well (103-5). Writing requires an author to construct sound sentences that must be thought out beforehand. This is contrasted with the medium of conversation as seen through the example of the telephone (65-7). Composition requires thought as to the order and tone of the writing. These are aspects of good preaching. Preaching also has the added element of interaction with the congregation. The preacher must be sensitive to the “visible response of the congregation” (64). The speaker must be able to read the reaction of the congregation and adjust the sermon appropriately. It is a live event and not a reading of an essay.
A fourth point elaborates the second. Gordon encourages the reading of poetry and literature so that preachers gain “the sensibility of the significant” (51, 106). Reading poetry requires time and attention. It is denser than prose and must be unpacked to see the significance that it contains. Preachers should not just read great books, but also read great poetry. “The sensibilities necessary to preach well were best shaped by reading verse” (100). This practice shapes the mind to consider the significant and to see the literary art in biblical passages.
Preparing to preach is more than preparing sermons. The preacher is preparing himself for the task. Gordon wants the reader to understand that to communicate well, you must be “the kind of human who has the sensibilities prerequisite to preaching” (107). This is not so much a skill to be learned as a conditioning of oneself for the task. It is a lifelong endeavor that is undertaken deliberately and runs against our contemporary culture.
Gordon’s target audience are those who may not have developed the habits of reading and writing. This is targeted at a younger generation who have not inculcated a lifestyle of literary pursuits. His style is direct and clear and that may have been intentional given his audience. The result is a book that is easy and enjoyable to read. I am among his target audience, having grown up exposed to visual media more than books. He makes a compelling case that motivates the reader to pursue reading and writing for the sake of gospel ministry. Gordon is correct that this book is needed in the church today and I am grateful for his desire to write on this topic even as he faced the high potential of his own death.
Sometimes the frankness and critical nature of Gordon’s argumentation can be shocking. His language is not hyper-critical though. He consistently comes across with a genuine concern for the church and for those who preach, but his tone is striking enough to wake a complacent pastor from slumber. At times his assessment comes across overly critical, especially for someone who has enjoyed the benefit of good preaching, but the strength of his argument is necessary to get our attention. Many believers do not have the luxury of sitting under good preaching and Gordon’s words are necessary. They cut deep, but they are not vindictive. His critique is meant to provide growth for the good of Christ’s church.
Gordon’s exhortation to read poetry and other literature is compelling. Pleasure reading is something that is often put off for more urgent tasks. The contemporary reader who reads by scanning for information is synonymous with the internet age (47, 49). The implication is that those who read that way end up mirroring themselves rather than the text. It cuts to the heart. This accusation is often levied against liberals, but can be equally true of anyone. We should let the text speak for itself. Seminary coursework has revolutionized my appreciation for literature, but analytical reading is something that is engrained by the culture as a whole. Gordon’s suggestion that pastors take in literature and read the Bible with a literary eye is acutely needed.
The discussion on sermon length is enlightening (28-31). Some preachers measure the weight of their sermons by their length and complexity. Gordon measures sermons by their clarity and impact. He rightly asserts that a short sermon is preferable to an unfocused long sermon. Getting the message across clearly is the key aim of preaching. A long sermon that is well done will not feel long at all. Preachers should aim for clarity and textual fidelity rather than length and rhetorical flourish. The stylistic elements of preaching that are often considered normative do not always add to the clear communication of the meaning of the text and can actually add confusion. In the end what may be thought of as good is actually bad. Sermons must be well organized and move toward a fixed point. The goal is to communicate truth and illicit response. This is not always done by taking additional time.
Gordon argues for good preaching rather than seeking the style and mechanics that are commonly considered the hallmarks of great preaching. He wants to encourage a faithfulness to the text and clarity that is necessary to faithfully proclaim the gospel. Why Johnny Can’t Preach is a needed book that deserves to be read. It’s brevity and clarity make it a joy to read and provide an example of writing that communicates well, which is one of the characteristics for which Gordon is calling. In a generation where the disciplines of reading and writing have been largely forgotten, the message of this book is imperative. The media have shaped the messengers. Preachers must consider how they invest their time in order to be shaped themselves into effective communicators of the gospel. May a new generation of preachers rise up who are faithful to the text and preach well for the sake of Christ’s church.