Book Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach
“I would guess that of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point; I could say ‘The sermon was about X.’ Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read.” So says T. David Gordon in his book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Those are fighting words to a pastor. Throughout history, strong churches have been identified by the strength of their pulpit. Whatever a pastor’s giftings may be, if he did not feel the call of the Holy Spirit to teach the Word he would not have become a pastor. The one qualification for elders that is not demanded of the rest of the church is the ability to teach. When the Apostles were confronted with the problem of Greek widows being neglected in the early church, they delegated the task to others, saying that they were called to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Gordon’s statement is a strong statement indeed.
Gordon’s premise is that during the last 50 years our culture has shifted from being text based to visual-media based. Visual media (television, photography, film, video games, etc.) deals with motion. Texts deal with thoughts and ideas. The overwhelming majority of what is important and substantial within the human existence takes place “between the ears.” And yet, complex thought is what visual media is weakest in communicating.
As America has made this transition it has eroded the ability of individuals to discern between what is substantial and what is trivial. Visual media naturally deals with what is trivial. Even if it deals with a serious subject, it is not employed to deeply explore the issue. This has produced individuals who are immersed in a culture that is content to live with sound-bytes and shallow surface understanding. How are we to expect individuals who are literate but choose to pursue entertainment rather than education to faithfully exposit a divinely inspired text, asks Gordon. If our students have never been forced to diagram out English sentences, how will they be able to grasp the nuances of an inflected language such as Koine Greek?
Many of Gordon’s points are sound. My time spent chairing a pastoral search committee confirms for me much of what he says. The average communication (especially in writing) ability of those who submitted resumes and doctrinal questionnaires was tragically low. We received one questionnaire with 22 typos, another with only a handful of sentences that were over eight words long. Finding a candidate who could write clearly and concisely was the overwhelming exception among those with a MDiv degree.
Yet, many of Gordon’s points suffer from being overstated or in conflict with one another as well. My first question would be why less than 1.5 percent of the sermons he hears are cohesively based upon the text. Is preaching so poor that we can only expect one solid sermon every two years? I personally have consistently been in 4 different churches during my lifetime, and solid preaching has defined each church. (The preaching being defined as “solid” by Gordon’s own standards.) At one point Gordon goes so far as to state “I’m not sure there ever was any great preaching” (14).
At another point in the book he insists that congregations do not have shorter attention spans (28-30), but rather lose interest in sermons because of their lack of cohesiveness. Yet, in another place (58-59) he asserts that students who come to seminary have the same attention span as a four year old in the 1940s. If the sorry educational state of seminary students is a product of their environment, then the same would have to be true of the congregations.
For all of its overstatements, this is a good book to read and consider. While this would not be a good book to hand to a pastor (as it would probably be misunderstood!) it offers an important message to men my age who are looking to enter into pastoral ministry. I would highly suggest that Gordon’s suggestions on how to teach Johnny to preach be employed by those of us who want to grow in our ability to communicate the truth of God in all the clarity and passion it is worthy of.