Saturday, March 21, 2009

Book Review: Why Johnny Can't Preach

Why Johnny Can't Preach
The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
by T. David Gordon
©2009, P&R Publishing
108 pages

Though I knew nothing of the author, nor had I heard anything of the book, I decided to add it to my shopping cart while shopping online. The author explained that his title is to emulate the "Why Johnny Can't Series" (books on writing, reading, branding, etc.), but also liked the title because "Johnny" can be gender neutral. He does not state if he is complementarian, but rather presents it as if it does not matter. It seems that the author would rather avoid theological controversies.

General Flow

It's probably easiest to refer to this book in three sections:

First Section
As logic would dictate, Gordon first lays out his case that Johnny can't preach. Gordon not only offers personal anecdotes and statistics, he also states that it is typical to hear of a "good pastor" who isn't really able to preach, but carries his ministry with many other things. It is much, much rarer to hear of a "good pastor" who's people say, "You know, he isn't that gifted at many things, but he can at least preach." (I'd have to agree whole-heartedly with this statement.) Gordon even speculates that less than 30% of ordained ministers can even preach a mediocre sermon.

Gordon also appeals to Dabney's Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric to develop a litmus for good preaching. (I found this section quite helpful.)

Second Section
The reason Gordon tied in with the "Johnny Can't" Series becomes more clear as he makes his point that since most pastors can't read carefully today, the pastor is left with such a shallow working of the language, that his preaching is bound to suffer. Gordon suggests that since most read all literature as if it is a newspaper (just looking for high points or certain words instead of reading each word deliberately), many pastors prepare their sermons by simply looking for particular phrases or word studies.

He next suggests that a pastor's inexperience in writing causes him to slip into bad communication patterns. In the days of handwritten letters as a primary exchange, authors had to think of a sentence before they put it to paper. This forced the person to formulate a flow and structure (at least in his head) just to be adequately prepared. When this discipline faded, Gordon suggests that the preacher began to struggle with well spoken sentences.

To be honest, Gordon struck me as some sort of elitist antique. He didn't just recommend reading over television, but called for the reading of pre-World War I verse. He not only encourages handwritten letters (the backspace key just allows for too much laziness in preparation), but repeatedly scolds against the babbling that the telephone promotes. While this theme certainly fits his subtitle for the book (and thus, I should not have been surprised), it felt a bit like Gordon was simply calling the pastor to return to 1840 to be able to preach well.

Furthermore, I have no desire (nor ability) to be sophisticated. It does not seem the answer to preaching was oration or poetry. Didn't Paul deliberately avoid sophistication when speaking to those in Corinth. Wasn't the real power of preaching not found in the secular solutions, but in preaching Christ?

I almost set the book down unfinished...

Final Section
...I'm so glad I kept reading!

Gordon begins this section by telling the reader his intention was to keep the preaching discussion generic, hopefully avoiding all "hot topic" issues. However, Gordon finds himself compelled to share on some non-negotiable content issues. At this point, my eyes open wider. "What is Gordon (who I assumed I would find myself on another end of the spectrum on multiple issues) going to tackle in regard to content?" I wondered. To my delight, Gordon does not address the "what" of content, but the "Who."

Gordon presents four possible types of sermons that preachers preach today:

Moralism--"Whenever the fundamental purpose of the sermon is to improve the behavior of others, so that Christ in His redemptive office is either denied or largely overlooked, the sermon is moralistic." (p 80)

How-To--"Unlike moralism, it [How-To sermons] expends less time describing what one ought to do, and more time how to go about doing it...I would love to challenge the how-to preacher to preach a sermon on 'How a Leopard Can Change His Spots,' since, biblically, this is as easily done as a sinner's changing his ways...It is worse than Pelegianism because it doesn't even accept the burden of attempting to prove that the will is morally unencumbered by original sin; it assumes this heresy from the outset." (p 82)

Introspection--"Some of the neo-Puritans have apparently determined that the purpose and essence of Christian preaching is to persuade people that they do not, in fact, believe...And it is absolutely debilitating to be told again and again that one does not have faith when one knows perfectly well that one does have faith, albeit weak and imperfect. (p 83,84)

Social Gospel/So-Called Culture War--"...the Christian pulpit is devoted to commenting on what's wrong with our particular culture, and what ought to be done to improve it, either by individuals or (worse) by the coercive powers of the government...So the one inadmissible thing to a culture warrior (that cultural change is out of our hands) is the basic subtext of everything the Bible teaches." (p 85, 86)

Gordon reviews many of the resources he has quoted before. In fact, he goes back to Dabney, and shows how a Christ-centered sermon was the assumption. At one point, Gordon states:

Such Christological preaching feeds the soul and builds faith. Faith is not built by preaching introspectively (constantly challenging people to question whether they have faith); faith is not built by preaching moralistically (which has the exact opposite effect of focusing attention on the self rather than on Christ, in whom our faith is placed); faith is not built by joining the culture wars and taking potshots at what is wrong with out culture. Faith is built by careful thorough exposition of the person, character, and the work of Christ.
Ultimately, I'm not sure how helpful handwritten letters and poetry readings can be for pastors and their congregations. Even if it does refine the preacher's message, if the congregation is not reading such material, could he still struggle to connect with them?

However, I do know this: Seeking to preach Christ from all of Scripture will not only benefit the congregation, it will grow the pastor as well.

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