T David Gordon
P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, 2009.
Do you find yourself getting frustrated with the way your minister preaches?
Do you walk out of church on Sunday, wondering more about whether there will be chocolate biscuits on the morning tea table than about the content of the sermon?
Are you getting frustrated with your own preaching, worrying that it is becoming a bit ‘all the same’?
Are you looking for a quick fix to give your preaching a new zing?
Do you think your local theological college/Bible school needs to radically rethink the way it prepares candidates for ministry—especially a preaching ministry?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, can I suggest that you don’t read T David Gordon’s Why Johnny can’t preach?
Are you wanting to be stimulated to think about the way 21st-century people communicate, and how we need to work hard at speaking to them?
Are you wanting to encourage your minister lovingly to prepare and deliver his sermons with more care and passion?
Are you wanting to encourage young men and women to develop into fine preachers of God’s word and to move beyond the great one-liner and the snappy illustration?
If so, can I suggest that you do read Why Johnny can’t preach?
The reason I’m asking these questions is that Why Johnny can’t preach is a very dangerous book—primarily because of its potential for misuse as a tool for saying, “I told you so!” and fuelling discontent. Nowhere is this danger more apparent than in chapter 1, which is entitled ‘Johnny can’t preach’. In the space of 25 pages, Gordon tips a substantial bucket of water on the state of preaching in North America:
As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel of spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there. (p. 17)
The evidence he presents for this condemnation comes in various forms:
- Gordon’s individual experience
- the “almost universal evaluation of ministers by the congregations as, well, he’s not a great preacher but …” (p. ?)
- an analysis of preaching using ‘Dabney’s Cardinal Requisites’
- the “almost universal desire for briefer sermons” (p. 28)
- the challenge of contemporary and emerging churches.
Having presented the evidence, the chapter concludes by raising the question “Who is to blame for this situation?” Naturally, the first victim in the crosshairs is the seminary. Gordon acknowledges that the state of North American theological education is far from perfect, however he concludes that the problem is not with the seminaries. The problem is the culture that has shaped the candidate prior to his arrival at seminary.
So what’s wrong with the culture? In a word, society has become ‘aliterate’. That is, people are able to read, but choose not to.
The result of this is that people are not in the habit of reading texts, constructing written arguments, or composing prose with clarity and artfulness. So when a culturally shaped aliterate candidate arrives at seminary to be taught theology, Greek and Biblical studies, he needs to be taught how to read and write as well, for being able to preach in a careful and nourishing way requires an appreciation of literature, argument, style, composition and delivery—all characteristics that fall by the wayside in an aliterate society.
Chapter 1 raises big questions that will be developed throughout the book, and that we’ll examine in subsequent weeks. While we wait for that, here are a few thoughts to toss around.
Firstly, it’s important that this book is read in its correct context. It’s not a stick to beat struggling preachers with—hence my opening warning. Gordon’s point is that “society is to blame”, and hence we need to be active in shaping preachers who swim against the tide of an aliterate society. We need to ask ourselves the question “What can we be doing to encourage our preachers to be literate?”
Secondly, I suspect that some and perhaps many of us might read Gordon’s criticisms and say, “That may be true for North America, but it’s not the case here at St Brian’s Nowheresville”. If that is the case, praise God for your careful and literate preacher. However, I think that it only takes one short generation for a wholesome and nourishing sermon to become a nutritionally deficient drone. If we currently have good preachers, what can we do to preserve a healthy preaching culture? How can we meet some of the challenges that the contemporary aliterate culture presents?
Next time, part 2: ‘Johnny can’t read texts’.