‘Why Johnny Can’t Preach’ Review

Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2009.

Introduction

After two decades as a seminary and Christian college professor, David Gordon is well positioned to assess the state of evangelical and Reformed preaching—and the ministers who do the preaching. In this penetrating book, Gordon seeks to examine “the causes for the impoverished conservative evangelical and Reformed pulpit.” The problem is not in the myriad of homiletics manuals that he acknowledges. Instead, Gordon locates the culprit “largely [in] the cultural changes in the second half of the twentieth century” (12). Thus he proceeds to critique the cultural milieu that has produced such vapid preaching, and offers a corrective course of action for ministers and churches alike.

Summary

Happily, Gordon uses his difficult life circumstances to produce this book in both its brief and direct manner. He first endeavors to demonstrate that evangelical preaching is impoverished. After establishing the validity of that claim, he diagnosis two critical deficiencies: the inability of Johnny to read and write texts. Gordon concludes with an affirmation of Christ-centered preaching and practical steps that a minister can take to undo the values inculcated by our mass media culture.

How then does Gordon seek to establish his claim that Christian preaching is insipid today? Essentially, he relies upon anecdotal evidence and personal experiences. He recognizes that this could prove misleading, but the nearly three decades of thought and reflection lead him to believe that his views are representative. He notes the Emergent church, lack of annual reviews, and the desire of congregations for shorter sermons as additional evidence that the preaching is poor. Again, because Gordon references no surveys or sociological evidence, it is tempting to dismiss his claims as idiosyncratic. Yet, his experience and breadth of learning indicate that he has touched a nerve.

He cites Robert Lewis Dabney as an authority for what a sermon should be. The seven prerequisites—“honored almost exclusively in their breach”—are textual fidelity, unity, evangelical tone, instructiveness, movement, point, and order (24-28). Gordon contends that these minimum requirements can be sufficiently summed up in his tripartite analysis: “What was the point or thrust of the sermon? Was this point adequately established in the text that was read? Were the applications legitimate applications of the point, from which we can have further fruitful conversation about other possible applications?” (19).

Yet if the preaching is poor—and Gordon contends it is—the blame should not be placed on seminaries. Indeed, they have an embarrassment of riches in distinguished homiletics professors! How then has this issue arisen? “The problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary” (italics his, 35).

And this woefully lacking aptitude is a result of culture. Indeed, Gordon believes that life has so drastically changed in the last five decades—with the advent of television, internet, mass media, and the image driven consumer—that the seminarian is laden with a load of culturally imported burdens (and deficiencies) that handicap him and impede his preaching. The rest of the book is simply aiming “to demonstrate that these cultural changes, and 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” (italics his, 38).

Hence the minister is incapable of appreciating Shakespeare, Frost or Dante. And this is not merely a crisis in highbrow culture. The issue arises when preaching demands that Johnny be able to comprehend, internalize, and conceptualize in a similar way as these writers. Johnny has been reared on a diet of magazines, sound bites, and frothy comedies so that he is unable to grasp the deep and profound meaning of Scripture. Entranced by the novelty of the insignificant, Johnny cannot bring himself to encounter the biblical God. Only an insignificant and banal gospel remains.

And because the modern minister is unable to master—and be mastered by—the epoch shaking drama of Scripture, he is unable to portray it. If his inability to read Dante, and thus the Bible, marks his study, the preacher’s lack of written ability showcases itself in the composition and delivery of the sermon. The congregation suffers as Johnny fails to bring coherent unity, structure, movement, and Christological focus to bear on the people. Moralism, how-to Christianity, introspection, and social justice pervade the Sunday morning pulpit, and leave the people malnourished.

But Gordon is not hopeless. If ministers will diligently seek to inculcate those latent abilities within them, they too can feed their people Christ. Through self-education—reading poetry and writing, mainly—the preacher is able to hone his abilities, faithfully preach Christ, and overcome the cultural trappings of modern technological society.

Critical Evaluation

Are we amusing ourselves to death? Or, as the subtitle to this book suggests, has “the media shaped the messengers”? Lamentably, I think Gordon is spot on in his assessment of modern evangelicalism and the impact culture brings to bear upon preaching.

Although written in 2009—and much has changed in the subsequent seven years—the dearth of good preaching in our day is pronounced. Evangelical mega-churches are packed. Christian bookstores are thriving. Yet the salt and light that Jesus calls his people to embody seem strangely—and almost uniformly—absent from evangelical private and public life. Lloyd-Jones is astutely cognizant of the underlying cause to such malformation when he comments, “the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching” (Preaching and Preachers, 2012, 17). Without true preaching, there cannot be true Christianity. Perhaps the best evidence for Gordon’s thesis—that, due to culture, contemporary preaching is inadequate—is the failure of the churches to live counter-culturally. Thus, I agree when he challenges detractors of preaching: “Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. I’ve never seen such a church” (33).

If Lloyd-Jones’ analysis was true in mid-century Britain, how much more so today in America! Gordon skillfully contends that contemporary culture has so conformed and shaped the evangelical mind that preaching necessarily suffers. Indeed, with Noll, Wells, and Guinness, one is tempted to say that there is no evangelical mind! So I agree with Gordon that the contemporary obsession with the “STEM” disciplines—though he does not put it this way—comes not only at the cost of our societal unity and coherence, but the very sustenance of the church! That is, the preaching of God’s word. In some ways, the scandal could not be any more penetrating and pernicious than this.

For just as architecture and law requires a certain skill set, so too does preaching. The question is whether the church’s ministers are sufficiently equipped for this calling. And it seems to me that television, Twitter, and telecommunications have stunted the education, and thus the abilities, of ministerial candidates. Why? Such mediums—as Gordon notes—rely upon the trivial. It is necessarily the case that nothing of substantive depth and weight can be considered in 140 characters. This is not to imply that Twitter is useless, but that it is useless at cultivating the kind of man that can preach God’s word. And as ministers fritter away their time—Piper would say, “wasting their lives”—on the inconsequential, the sheer weight of God and his reality leave the preacher un-impressed. That is, instead of having his mind shaped by the profundity of the word of God, it is conformed to the superficiality, levity, and insignificance of this world. Thus un-impressed, he is unimpressed.[1] No awe remains in the preacher because his God is not awe-some. And unimpressed preaching always begets un-impressed listeners.

Though implicit in Gordon’s work, I likewise contend there are two skills necessary for faithful preaching. As two wings on a plane, both are indispensable to preaching; without one, the whole exercise is doomed to fail.

First, the minister must be analytically competent. This is not too dissimilar from Dabney’s “textual fidelity” requirement. The minister must be a skilled exegete. Paul charges Timothy to preach the word and this can only be accomplished as the preacher understands the word. To accomplish this, ministers must have a firm grasp on logic, Greek and Hebrew grammar, biblical theology, and historic Christian orthodoxy. These skills might be called the “science” of preaching.

Second, the minister must be artistically competent. I take this to be the thrust of Gordon’s argument, with which I heartily agree. A minister does not profit his congregation by merely regurgitating biblical phrases. Rather, he must so take his exegesis—data gathering, you might call the first step—and shape it in such a way as to be beautiful. This is not to appeal to any kind of ancient Greek rhetorical standard. Paul explicitly denounces such a worldly philosophy in the first chapters of First Corinthians. Rather, it is to let the beautiful text radiate all its beauty. The Greeks rhetoricians were skilled in their ability to put makeup on a corpse and give it beauty, as it were. The task of the preacher is to draw out the beauty latent in the text. This is not to imply that God’s revelation is “trapped” by words. By no means! Rather, we are trapped in our ignorance so long as we fail to adopt the worldview and meta-narrative that Scripture appropriates and subsequently promotes. The task of preaching is to reveal that glory-beauty which is already present—in ways not too dissimilar from Heidegger’s etymological understanding of aletheia as “unveiling” or “disclosure.” This textual beauty can be seen in a sermon’s structure, unity, movement, vocabulary, and Christological focus.

My only noteworthy qualm with Gordon is his insistence on his particular form of education. Put another way, Gordon seems to imply that there is a certain standard of learning and cultural appreciation—that he determines—that must precede preaching. Without such sophistication, preaching is hopeless adrift in the waves of late modernity. I agree, but I question his authority to determine such qualifications. Why his standard, instead of Rick Warren’s? Of course, Gordon might respond that he is merely requiring of ministers those qualities that were normally expected in centuries past. To this, I contend that he is mostly right. Yet the solution is not necessarily Shakespeare, as he suggests. Why not Tolkien? Or Beowulf? I suspect Gordon would agree that such works would be helpful. Thus my disagreement is actually slight. I would simply allow ministers more freedom in choosing those particular books and poems to be their tutors, leading them to a more profound encounter with, and exposition of, the biblical Christ.

Conclusion

I enthusiastically recommend Why Johnny Can’t Preach to all preachers and would-be preachers interested in honing their craft. We need more pastors skilled in the English language, and we need Gordon to wake us from the dogmatic slumber that insists “peace, peace” when there is none. Evangelical preaching is in a crisis. The solution cannot be more of the same, for that is how we landed in this mess. Modernity has exacted its toll and our preaching has been found bankrupt. What then should pastors do? To adopt Lewis’ insight into Gordon, read the old books! And may God give the growth as we tolle lege.

[1]Perhaps more clearly: thus un-shaped by God, the minister is apathetic towards him.

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