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Review: Why Johnny Can't Preach

Stephen J. Tracey

Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, by T. David Gordon. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2009, 108 pages, $9.99, paper.

In this little book T. David Gordon asserts that, due to the corrosive effects of cultural changes, Johnny can't preach. Preacher Johnny suffers from an inability to master either the form or the content of preaching. Dr. Gordon does not intend to be either uncharitable or ungrateful. He speaks, rather, in the mold of Baxter, as "a dying man, to dying men." For a spell he found himself on the fast track, the accelerated course, suffering from a cancerous tumor and undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. By God's grace, his cancer is in remission. His passion for soul-nourishing preaching comes from his own hunger, as well as his own calling to preach.

Dr. Gordon boldly asserts that preaching is "ordinarily poor," "incompetent," "not genuinely soul-nourishing," "in disarray," "ineffective," "defective," "in bad shape," and "poorly done." Sermons are "religiously useless," "pointless," "inadequately drawn from the text," with applications that "almost never have anything to do with the text." They are generally "listless," "rambling," "disorganized," "without clear purpose," "uninspiring," "hard to follow," "irrelevant," "poorly reasoned," and—to put it bluntly—"poor."

Here is the heart of the matter:

To preach the Word of God well, one must already have cultivated, at a minimum, three sensibilities: the sensibility of the close reading of texts, the sensibility of composed communication, and the sensibility of the significant. Without these, a person simply cannot preach ... but our present culture does not cultivate any one of these sensibilities, and pre-ministerial candidates, or ministers themselves, must undertake their cultivation if preaching is to be rescued from its present moribund state (106).

Preacher Johnny, like every other Johnny, no longer reads texts. He scans them, browses them, "Googles" them, blogs them, pastes them on his Facebook: he looks for overt content and does not notice "language well employed." Consequently, Preacher Johnny is neither sharp on rhetorical form nor on content. He "uses" texts, but does not "receive" them.

This then feeds an inability to recognize what is significant. Says Gordon,

A culture that reads can consider what is significant because reading takes time, and what is significant ordinarily takes time to apprehend. But a culture that is accustomed to commercial interruptions every six or seven minutes loses its ability to discuss significant matters because it has lost the patience necessary to consider them (54).

It is not simply that Johnny can't read; the problem is not merely illiteracy, but aliteracy. Johnny can read, he just chooses not to read, or at least not to read anything that requires mental wrestling. The awful result of this decline is stated by Gordon in the following way,

What kinds of ministers does such a culture produce? Ministers who are not at home with what is significant; ministers whose attention span is less than that of a four-year-old in the 1940s, who race around like the rest of us, constantly distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty. It is not surprising that their sermons, and the alleged worship that surrounds them, are often trifling, thoughtless, uninspiring, and mundane (58–9).

As if that were not bad enough, Preacher Johnny has another problem, he can't write. What Gordon means is this, "we do not compose our thoughts as frequently or carefully as we once did." (63). We are so busy e-mailing, texting, or twittering that we become hooked on a stream-of-consciousness-speak, and that just doesn't work in the pulpit. Furthermore, Preacher Johnny is not used to reading body language and so he doesn't even know when people are bored and disconnected.

In a chapter entitled "A Few Thoughts About Content," Dr. Gordon turns his intellectual weed whacker to a few of the weeds commonly found masquerading as good pasture in sermons; Moralism, How-To, Introspection (the pernicious preaching of "I Know You Think You Are a Christian, but You Are Not."), and Social Gospel/So-Called Culture War. He pleads for Christ-centered preaching, preaching that proclaims the fitness and competence of Christ in his mediatorial work.

Our problem is not unique. It seems that every generation laments the loss of power in the pulpit. Gordon has stepped forward to fill a gap. He does not try to do too much. Others have provided more in-depth analysis of media, or more detailed works on preaching. Gordon, with lucidity and brevity, combines the two. He offers practical suggestions on developing these sensibilities.

However, there is one area that Dr. Gordon leaves untouched: the question of unction. In Preaching and Preachers, Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, leaves this to the final chapter. Explaining why he left it to the end, he says, "My reason for doing so is that I believe if we do, or attempt to do, all I have been saying first, then the unction will come upon it" (305). Perhaps Dr. Gordon agrees with Lloyd-Jones that, if we use the ordinary, God-given means, the Spirit will ordinarily come. However, some discussion of what Charles Bridges calls "the want of divine influence," would have been helpful.

If preachers are a gift to the church, does it follow that preaching is a gift? And like every other gift it is to be improved. This is the subject Dr. Gordon addresses. Yet preaching is not simply a science or an art. Should we look for unction? Is the current problem merely a sensibility problem, or a spiritual problem? Sadly this takes us into the shadow of the Log College and the residual tension in American Presbyterianism of defining a "churchly form of Christianity." Should we license men to preach who demonstrate literary sensibilities and have not the Spirit? Some say "aye," some say "nay." Some say "do we have to choose?" Some say "the question is not well put." This book would have been greatly enhanced had Gordon shared some of his reflections on that subject.

Some more, please, Dr. Gordon!

Stephen J. Tracey
Lakeview OPC
Rockport, Maine

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