Why Johnny can’t preach (Part 1)

Why Johnny can't preach—cover

Why Johnny can’t preach

T David Gordon

P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, 2009.

Over the next few weeks, Peter Sholl is going to review and reflect on the issues raised by T David Gordon in his new book Why Johnny can’t preach.

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’.

22 thoughts on “Why Johnny can’t preach (Part 1)

  1. Hi Di,

    Give or take, thats what he says in the book. I’m not sure he thinks truth is on the ‘out’ – just that it is getting shoved into ridiculously short soundbytes, rather than being carefully explained or analysed.

    More on that in the next installment!

  2. Thanks for this post Pete.

    I think it is a really serious and relevant issue.
    Over recent years I have observed three children getting ‘educated’ in a postmodern school system!!


  3. I’ve heard some good things about this book, and I’m looking forward to this series.


    I’m a little wary of the whole “people can only consume sound-bites” sort of argument. These sorts of things always feel like they are harking back to a supposed golden age, when everyone was intelligent and literate, had read Homer, Cicero and Calvin, and was able to listen to a 3 hour doctrinaire sermon, then recite the contents back verbatim.

    I just don’t believe this golden age ever existed. Or if it did, it was only ever amongst a nice, clean upper middle class.

  4. From ABC News Oct 2008…
    <em>The National Curriculum Board has proposed traditional English and grammar lessons be reinstated in school classrooms to address a deterioration in writing skills.

    The recommendation comes after complaints from universities and business that students lack the most basic knowledge.

    The board has responded to concerns that students have been graduating without the ability to correctly form sentences, and lacking an understanding of nouns, verbs and adjectives.<em>

    I’d say comprehension skills have been in major decline in recent times. From a Christian perspective this has serious implications for people’s ability to read and understand the intended meaning of such texts as the Bible.


  5. Is editing possible? Poor computer literacy skills on display in my last comment!!

  6. Don’t worry about it Dianne – I lost concentration after the first paragraph……

    Seriously – the point you raise is exactly the point he is making. What we will find in later chapters is that his recommendation for ‘pre-seminary’ training is an undergraduate degree in literature.

  7. Craig,

    He’s not wanting us to go back to 3 hr sermons being repeated verbatim. He is simply arguing that we need to work harder at developing a longer concentration span because that is what is needed for the processing and understanding of complicated issues.

    One of the facts that is listed in the book is the average length of sound bytes broadcast by ‘the networks’ of campaigning presidential candidates in the US. In 1968 it was 42.3 seconds and in 1988 it was 9.8 seconds. In 2000 it was 7.8 seconds. He says

    “we are swamped by the inconsequential, bombarded by images and sounds that rob us of the opportunity for reflection and contemplation that are necessary to reacquaint ourselves with what is significant.” (p58)

    Its a good question that he asks following this observation. “What kinds of ministers does such a culture produce?”

  8. lol…‘focused attention’ please! (the information processing model or as I call it – the computer brain model!- the latest in learning theory!!)

    Perhaps Bible Colleges should spend one year of ‘english/literature’ in first year. I actually think this is a serious need considering current education and would have great benefit for many students.

    I think low literacy skills scares some students from tackling the demands of places such as Moore. I think it is a genuine concern.

    Really looking forward to your next posts.

  9. <i>He is simply arguing that we need to work harder at developing a longer concentration span </i>

    But how does the preacher taking additional study develop a longer concentration span in his audience?

    And say a preacher does manage (somehow) to “de-post-modernise” his congregation – how then does he, and they, communicate to the outside world who are still post-modern?

  10. I don’t agree with the ‘aliteracy’ premise either.  Literacy has levels, and yes, good preaching requires university-level literacy in the preacher.  My 8yo is learning literacy in a far more logical way than I did at the same age.  That doesn’t mean that his class will all end up with high-level literacy, though the possibility is there for those with the native ability.

    From personal experience only, I suggest that poor preaching derives from:
    1) Fading belief
    2) Fatigue in the preacher—writing a good sermon is hard work, and overwork or personal problems will affect it adversely
    3) Underestimating the congregation and giving them a milk-only diet.  If you never give them meat, you don’t give them a chance to grow.

  11. It’s also worth remembering that it’s not just our preachers who need to work hard. Listening well involves hard work and there are plenty of lazy listeners in church (myself often included). If we come away from church thinking “I didn’t get much out of the sermon today” we should not automatically assume the problem does not lie with ourselves.

  12. Craig, Nick,

    I agree this is not only an issue that the preacher needs to address in himself. I think we need to be thinking about how we can raise the issue of careful thinking and literary appreciation in our congregations.

    Here´s some ways I have seen it done.

    – modelling careful thought and ´textual appreciation´in the way we preach. Sometimes the temptation in the sermon is to give the answer without showing the working. That is, we can quickly jump to where the rubber hits the road without taking the listener through the process of thinking about the text, analysing the argument and coming to a useful conclusion. Sermons don´t just teach the main point, they teach us how to think as well.

    – the same can be said for the way we run Bible study. Writing studies that engage carefully with the text and encourage careful thinking really helps, rather than looking for the quick answer.

    – encouraging reading through a book club or discussion group.

    – recommending books, having book reviews at church. I have a couple of books on order because I was encouraged to read them in a sermon I was listening to!

    – Maybe we just need to be ecouraging people to read more – whether it be books or Briefing articles or whatever. Just get people reading!

  13. Hi Ellen (cluck!!)

    I certainly agree with your points about poor preaching. I don’t think Gordon is suggesting that increasing literacy is the one big answer to making sermons brilliant – in fact we have a few chapters to go so we’ll see what else he comes up with.

    Just to clarify – Gordon talking about society being ‘aliterate’ not ‘illiterate’ (gee I hope I got the spelling of those correct!) In a nutshell, the difference is that illiterate is an inability to read, whereas aliterate is being able to read, but choosing not to.

    I’m glad your 8yo is ahead of where you were at the same stage – I think my kids are the same. However the question is, as he grows up will he choose to use those literacy skills in a careful and critical way engaging with long and complicated texts and arguments, or be satisfied with MSN and soundbytes?

  14. Thanks Peter, I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts. The White Horse Inn have done an interview with the author, very interesting.

  15. Hi Peter

    Thanks for the review (part i). Looking forward to the future installments.

    The discussion thus far reminds me somewhat of Neil Postman’s point in Amusing Ourselves to Death. He contrasted the dystopian visions of Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian state enslaved its populace through thought-control, and Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populous gladly enslaved itself in meaningless diversions like the ‘Feelies’ and the ‘Centrifgual Bumblepuppy’ (if memory serves).

    Postman’s thesis was that Huxley’s vision turned out to be the more accurate. Sounds like Gordon is taking a similar line, and it’s hard to disagree.

    It also strikes me that preaching is an inherently literate activity in that it involves a careful, curious, humble reading of the text, a critical reading of the thoughts of others, the ability to analyse and synthesize all these ideas, and then the wit to formulate a coherent argument and communicate it compellingly to others.


  16. Peter,

    “Sermons don´t just teach the main point, they teach us how to think as well.”

    Amen to that. John Piper hit this point home very hard in his sermon and panel comments at the recent Gospel Coalition conference.

    I agree that encouraging people to read good material is a great thing to do. Also, courses like PTC and such – biblical theology is not just for preachers in my opinion. smile

  17. Hey Peter.  Thanks for the thought-provoking post and thanks to everyone else for your interesting comments!

    Tony – you’re spot on with your recollections re Neil Postman.  Here’s what he wrote in the foreword to “Amusing Ourselves to Death”:  “… in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think… Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…”

    Neil Postman wrote this 23 years ago!

    I wish I could remember who recently said this, but one wise person has described our current culture as ‘much-informed rather than well-informed’.  I think this ties in with the idea of ‘aliteracy’, Peter.

    In my own experience, one of the finest communication methods is love – if the teacher (literature or Bible) has a deep love for what they teach, the effectiveness of their teaching is greatly enhanced.

    Looking forward to more, Peter.

  18. Hey Pete, I found this book pretty sobering. Even if people don’t agree with the force of the critique (it’s pretty bleak) I think it’s the kind of thing most preachers (even the really good ones) should read.
    In particular it’s helped me to think again over what I might be subjecting people to each week.
    I do agree significant responsibility is on the listener when it comes to sermons….but sometimes a real kick in the guts from those who’ve done a lot of listening over the years is good for us.
    My question is how do you give a book like this to your minister without him taking it the wrong way?
    Oh well, don’t be shy, give it to him anyway!

  19. Hi Marcus,

    I agree that the review he gives of the general state of preaching is pretty sobering, but unfortunately my (short) experience here in North America (USA + Mexico) is that it is pretty accurate. In the second installment (which is coming up soon) he talks about the poor use of the Bible and of sermons becoming ‘generalised’ and ‘all the same’ because the text isn’t carefully engaged with. That is a common experience here.

    How to give it to your minister? Good question. I think it should be given in a spirit of care and love – not as a stick to say ‘I told you so’, but as an encouragement to say ‘we think the work you are doing is so important and we want to encourage you in it.’

    By the way – everyone – its a short, easy book to read. I started it while waiting for a plane to Mexico City (from Monterrey) and was finished by the time we were descending through the smog! (1:30 later) But then again, maybe I was just reading for information!

  20. A great book. Problem is, Gordon assumes that preaching in and of itself is a good method (he offers no evidence). He then goes on to assume that it doesn’t work because preachers do it poorly. I disagree.

    Preaching is nothing more than a glorified lecture with a religious title. Though there are times when lecturing can be used effectively, it is a poor method for recreating thought processes. It isn’t even good for memory enhancement.

  21. Hi Randy,

    You are right in saying that Gordon assumes that preaching is in itself a good method (although largely done badly). He does make several passing references to his Presbyterian confessional background and uses that as a ‘foundation’ as to why preaching is an effective and worthy method of expressing God’s word to his people.

    I suppose it also undergirds the whole thesis of the book. If he didn’t think preaching was a useful method, then there wouldn’t be any need for it to improve.

    However I guess a discussion of whether or not preaching in itself is an effective method is beyond the scope of what he is saying.

    There are plenty of good books that discuss that question. eg: ‘When God’s voice is heard’
    (Stott, Carson, Retief, Packer and others, IVP, 2003)

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