Book Summary: Why Johnny Can’t Preach

Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media have shaped the Messaengers (T. David Gordon, 2009)

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  • Less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon.
  • The problem there is not that we don’t have “great” preachers; in many circumstances we don’t even have mediocre preachers.
  • Media ecology describes how changes in dominant media alter the human and social environment.

1. Johnny Can’t Preach

  • All I really desire is the ability to answer three questions: What was the point or thrust of the sermon? Was this point adequately established in the text that was read? Were the applications legitimate applications of the point, from which we can have further fruitful conversation about other possible applications?
  • Robert Lewis Dabney’s Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric offers seven objective criteria for sermon evaluations:

1. Textual Fidelity
Does the significant point of the sermon arise out of the significant point of the text? Is the thrust of the sermon merely an aside in the text? Is the text merely a pretext for the minister’s own idea?

2. Unity
Test: If ten people are asked after the sermon what the sermon was about, will at least eight of them give the same (or a similar) answer?

3. Evangelical Tone
Does the sermon press the hearer to consider the hopelessness of his condition apart from Christ, and the utter competence of Christ to rescue the penitent sinner?

4. Instructiveness
Does the sermon significantly engage the mind, or is the sermon full of commonplace clichés, slogans, and general truths? Is the mind of the attentive listener engaged or repulsed?

5. Movement
Do the earlier parts of the sermon contribute to the latter parts’ full effect? Does the address have intellectual (and consequently emotional) momentum?

6. Point
Is the effect of the sermon, on those who believe it, similar? If it encouraged one, did it tend to encourage all, and for the same reason?

7. Order
Could the hearers compare notes and reproduce the outline of the sermon? If they could not reproduce the outline, could they state how it progressed from one part to another?

  • Dabney’s seven cardinal requisites today are honored almost exclusively in their breach.
  • When something is well done, we do not complain about its length. Therefore, I suggest that it is not the case (as is so often argued) that people have a reduced attention span today, and that this is why they object to the length of the sermons. …Bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief.
  • Sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers.
  • One common trait among [contemporary churches] is their conviction that the church’s liturgical practices need to be jettisoned and replaced with something else. What they have not yet considered, however, is the possibility that such moribund (dying) churches are so not because they are doing the wrong things, but because they are doing them incompetently.
  • My challenge to the contemporaneists and emergents is this: Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund (dying). I’ve never seen such a church.
  • Almost no churches conduct an annual review of the pastoral staff. Because ministers don’t want to be told that their preaching is disorganized, hard to follow, irrelevant, and poorly reasoned; and because churches don’t want to insult their ministers or hurt their feelings.
  • The problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary. The culture has profoundly changed since the 1950s. A culture formerly dominated by language (reading and writing) has become a culture dominated by images, even moving images. …As a consequence of this cultural shift, those human sensibilities (one’s capacities to know, understand, experience, or appreciate certain realities) essential to expository preaching have largely disappeared, so that a theological seminary attempting to teach a person who is not comfortable with texts or with writing organized prose.

2. Why Johnny Can’t Preach, Part 1: Johnny Can’t Read (Texts)

  • Ministers read for information or for amusement, but they do not read because they cherish the aesthetic pleasure taken in something that is well written. They notice only the content of what they read, but do not notice the subtler semi-miracle of language well employed.
  • Ministers read the Bible the same way they read everything else: virtually speed-reading, scanning it for its most overt content. “What is this passage about?” they ask as they read, but they don’t raise questions about how the passage is constructed.
  • Reading texts demands a very close and intentional reading.
  • Our inability to read texts is a direct result of the presence of electronic media. Reading texts (and especially verse) cultivates the sensibility of significance.

3. Why Johnny Can’t Preach, Part 2: Johnny Can’t Write

  • Every technological development has an opportunity cost because once we spend even part of our day using a technology we once did not use, some of the things we once did with our time we no longer do.
  • Two developments: We can hear people whom we do not see, and that we do not compose our thoughts as frequently or carefully as we once did.
  • If we become less practiced (and therefore less skilled) at reading people’s visible reactions to our speech, we will become less skilled at reading those reactions when speaking publicly.
  • As a medium, the telephone also robs us of composition skills. We lose the instinctive habit of asking: What should I say first, this or that? The consequences of this for preaching should be very obvious. Telephone conversations rarely have unity, order, or movement.
  • A once-common sensibility (close reading of texts) is now uncommon, and a once-common activity (composition) is now comparatively rare. A once common daily occurrence (face-to-face communication allowing us to “read” the unstated feelings of another) has been replaced by telephone conversation in which visual feedback is absent.

4. A Few Thoughts about Content

  • The content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ.
  • What could we conclude about preaching today, other than that the great transaction of the Sin-bearer’s suffering for sinners has receded in importance from our churches?
  • 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 exactly the 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 our culture. Faith is built by careful, thorough exposition of the person, character, and work of Christ.

A. Moralism

  • It was a way of understanding Christianity as essentially consisting of a particular moral framework, and of understanding Christ as essentially a great moral teacher.
  • Liberalism was an understanding of Christianity that wished to embrace its ethical system without its redemptive system.
  • Moralism occurs whenever the fundamental message of a sermon is “be good; do good”.

B. How-To

  • Unlike moralism, it expends less time describing what one ought to do, and more time how to go about doing it. In one sense, it is even worse than moralism, because it reduces life and religion to technique.
  • It pushes the person and work of the redeeming Christ out of the realm of the hearer’s consideration.

C. Introspection

  • The subtitle of each of their sermons could accurately be: “I Know You Think You Are a Christian, but You Are Not.”
  • Unbelievers are given nothing that might make believers of them, and many true believers are persuaded that they are not believers. So no one profits from this kind of preaching.

D. 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 government.
  • Culture warriors are not content with the two legitimate ways in which humans may exert influence on the behavior of others: through reasoned discourse and the power of example.
  • None of these false surrogates for real Christian proclamation nourishes the soul. They may inform or instruct about some aspects of religion, but they do not nourish faith; they do not feed faith. We need to feed on Christ! There is a place in the overall ministry of the church for instruction in moral behavior. But the pulpit is almost never the place to do this.
  • Curiously, when one considers the instructive role of the apostles in the early church, it is ironic that in many churches today, instruction has been handed over to the nonordained. Many ministers never teach regularly in the educational programs of their churches.
  • If preaching, in its authentic biblical, apostolic (and Reformational) sense, is to be recovered, it will also be necessary to recover an enduring commitment to Christ-centered, expository preaching, in addition to cultivating the necessary pre-ministerial sensibilities. Ministers will need to renounce their tendency to use the pulpit as a catchall, a place from which they attempt to do everything, and will need to return it to its proper place of proclaiming how (and how well) God reconciles himself to hopelessly lost sinners through the person and work of that beloved Son in whom he is well pleased.
  • A return to such Christ-centered preaching, however, probably cannot occur apart from cultivating the sensibility of reading texts closely and a sensibility of the significant.

5. Teaching Johnny to Preach

  • We need to cultivate those pre-homiletical sensibilities that are necessary to preach well. How can one preach the Word of God if he can’t read the Word of God? Similarly, while many people can talk, not everyone has acquired the skill of carefully or thoughtfully composed speech.

A. Annual Review

  • Most ministers will never know how bad their preaching really is without an annual review.
  • I believe at least five or six of Robert Lewis Dabney’s cardinal requisites outlined can be tested by carefully designed survey questions.
  • One could do a more general assessment, and simply take the primary ministerial tasks (preaching, counseling, pastoral visitation, teaching, administration, etc.), put them on a form, and ask members of the congregation to rank them in order of their perception of the minister’s competence.
  • Alternatively, a sermon or two could be submitted annually to presbytery for review.

B. Cultivating the Sensibility of Reading Texts Closely

  • If he intends to go to divinity school and become a minister, he should not major in religion but in English literature.
  • One can learn to read poetry by reading books about how to read poetry.

C. Cultivating the Sensibility of Composed Communication

  • Those who are preparing for the ministry should also write handwritten letters whenever there is justification for doing so. In addition to letters, ministers should compose other material: articles for theological, religious, or denominational periodicals; editorials for magazines or newspapers; journal entries; anything.
  • The value resides in the shaping of one’s sensibilities and abilities (especially that of composition) that comes from organizing one’s thoughts into writing.
  • Most pre-ministerial candidates, and most ministers, would be well served by taking a nonreligious course on public speaking.
  • One might even consider joining Rotary International (speech masters).
  • Some ministers work on the technical aspects of their sermon preparation by developing a homiletical partner: another minister with whom they meet once or twice a month to discuss their recent sermons, and why they constructed them as they did.

D. Cultivating Pre-Homiletical Sensibilities: Johnny Can Learn to Preach

  • 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.
  • In terms of churches, congregations should give their pastors time to study. preaching. An individual without time to read broadly and intensely, without time to reflect on life, without time to compose (even if merely in a personal journal), is not likely to be an individual who can preach.


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