Iâï¿½ï¿½m always a sucker for a good jeremiad. So I couldnâï¿½ï¿½t resist ordering T. David Gordonâï¿½ï¿½s new book Why Johnny Canâï¿½ï¿½t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Like every good book-long complaint there are parts here and there they I donâï¿½ï¿½t agree with. But on the whole, I found Gordonâï¿½ï¿½s butt-kicking to be well-deserved and well-stated. This is a very good book and I recommend it highly.
What makes the book compelling is Gordonâï¿½ï¿½s passion for preaching. If you donâï¿½ï¿½t know, Gordon is a professor at Grove City College (and formerly at Gordon-Conwell, though not when I was there). So his passion for preaching is not as a preacher, but as a listener. Also noteworthy is that Gordon wrote most of this book in 2004 while undergoing cancer treatments. At the time, Gordon didnâï¿½ï¿½t know if he would live. This book was the last thing he wanted to say to the world if he only had one last thing to say. That's how passionate he is about sounding the alarm on the woes of contemporary preaching. Thankfully, his cancer is in remission now. But he remains unapologetic in his critique.
The substance of Gordonâï¿½ï¿½s complaint is pretty simple: the overwhelming majority of those ordained to Christian ministry cannot preach even a mediocre sermon. And lest we think heâï¿½ï¿½s railing on some seeker-sensitive strawman, Gordon makes clear that he is speaking from his own experience running in conservative evangelical and conservative Reformed circles. This is not their problem, he argues, this is our problem. Sure, we may have some great preachers with large followings. But does the average Christian family in the average pew in the average church on the average Sunday get a decent sermon? Gordon thinks not.
Gordon gives several pieces of evidence for his negative conclusion.
1) Anecdotally, he estimates that only 15% of the sermons heâï¿½ï¿½s heard in the past 25 years had a discernible point. And of those 15%, less than 10% had a point based on the text of Scripture.
2) Most churchgoers wants shorter sermons, not because they have short attention spans, but because their preacher, God bless him, canâï¿½ï¿½t preach very well.
3) Gordon looks at Robert Dabneyâï¿½ï¿½s Lectures on Rhetoric from the 19th century and concludes that Dabney's âï¿½ï¿½seven cardinal requisites of preachingâï¿½ï¿½ are missing from most of our pulpits: textual fidelity, unity, evangelical tone (is the minister eager to bless the congregation or scold them?), instructiveness, movement, point, and order. These are not subjective measures, mind you. These are basic fundamentals. No one in the history of homiletics has encouraged disunity in the sermon. These are things we can all agree on. And yet, they aren't there.
Why are these qualities missing? Gordon says itâï¿½ï¿½s not mainly from laziness on the part of the preacher (though that can be part of it). Itâï¿½ï¿½s not the fault of our seminaries either. The two reasons Johnny canâï¿½ï¿½t preach are because Johnny canâï¿½ï¿½t read and Johnny canâï¿½ï¿½t write.
We have been trained by a image-based, sound bite, attention span deficient culture to skim books and fly past arguments. In other words, we donâï¿½ï¿½t read carefully. We donâï¿½ï¿½t read literature. And we surely donâï¿½ï¿½t read poetry. We arenâï¿½ï¿½t used to thinking deliberately, meditatively about texts. So preachers come to the text each week with general ideas about what the Bible says and then once they find those same ideas again, they preach on the same thing again. We are not learning, growing, or being changed by the text. Preachers are simply coming to have their banal assumptions and cliche-level understanding confirmed for yet another week.
And preachers canâï¿½ï¿½t write. We donâï¿½ï¿½t write letters anymore. We talk on the cell. We IM. We write a quick note on somebodyâï¿½ï¿½s Facebook wall (about something really important, like the kind of oatmeal we just ate or our favorite Smurf). And when we write at all, it's in an email, where we ignore punctuation and rely on emoticons to do the hard work of telling people how we feel.
All of this makes preachers and preaching disorganized, sloppy, and trivial.
Ministers [in our culture] 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...The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternityâï¿½ï¿½realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermonâï¿½ï¿½have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another (58-59).
My favorite chapter is Chapter 4: "A Few Thoughts About Content." After wrestling with the nature of preaching for 25 years, Gordon has concluded that the content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ. Kind of makes sense. Of course, preaching will included moral exhortation, but it is never appropriate, says Gordon, âï¿½ï¿½for one word of moral counsel ever to proceed from a Christian pulpit that is not clearly, in its context, redemptive. That is, even when the faithful exposition of particular texts require some explanation of aspects of our behavior, it is always to be done in a manner that the hearer perceives such commended behavior to be itself a matter of being rescued from the power of sin through the grace of Christâï¿½ï¿½ (70-71). So much for all our âï¿½ï¿½relevantâï¿½ï¿½ messages helping us live more fulfilled lives. So much for emergent kingdom rhetoric that fails to mention the mercy of the King. So much for more than a few of my sermons over the years.
Gordon sees four alternatives to this type of gospel preaching: Moralism, How-To, Introspection, and Social Gospel/Culture War. That is, instead of preaching Christ crucified and the grace of God, we end up preaching âï¿½ï¿½be betterâï¿½ï¿½ or âï¿½ï¿½here are three steps to being betterâï¿½ï¿½ or âï¿½ï¿½are you really a Christian?âï¿½ï¿½ or âï¿½ï¿½we need to do more to fight the bad guys out there.âï¿½ï¿½ Itâï¿½ï¿½s not that we canâï¿½ï¿½t do any of this as preachers--Gordon says there is a place for three of the four (everything but the how-to)--but âï¿½ï¿½the pulpit is almost never the place to do thisâï¿½ï¿½ (91). What must predominate in our preaching is the person, character, and work of Christ. And everything else should manifestly flow from these things. Don't leave the congregation wondering where grace comes in to play. Don't make them assume you are rooting this application in the person and work of Christ. Connect the glorious dots for them.
Gordon concludes his much-needed rant with some practical advice on how to teach Johnny to preach.
1. Arrange for an annual review. Most pastors donâï¿½ï¿½t know how bad they preach because theyâï¿½ï¿½ve never asked anyone and no one has felt bold enough to tell him the truth.
2. Cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely. Read literature. Try poetry. Read things that are written well and demand careful thought.
3. Cultivate the sensibility of composed communication. Write letters out by hand. Write out your prayers. And I would add, if you blog, don't settle for sloppy or merely serviceable prose. Try to write well, rather than just writing.
Despite the passion of his lamentation, Gordon asserts time after time that all is not lost. Johnny can learn to preach. But he needs to cultivate the sensibilities to do it. And the congregation needs to give him enough time, or make him take enough time, to craft a sermon that actually deserves to be preached.
The rebuke for us preachers is a good jab, because thereâï¿½ï¿½s hope in the rebuke. We donâï¿½ï¿½t need to give up on preaching, or ourselves. We simply need God's grace to work harder at preaching better and extra grace to live slower, more reflective lives. God will honor his Word when it is thoughtfully, carefully, and humbly delivered. We can trust the Word to do the work. âï¿½ï¿½My challenge to the comtemporaneists and emergentsâï¿½ï¿½, says Gordon, âï¿½ï¿½is this: Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. Iâï¿½ï¿½ve never seen such a church. The moribund churches Iâï¿½ï¿½ve seen have been malpreached to deathâï¿½ï¿½ (33).
Alright menâï¿½ï¿½time to preach them back to life. Heaven help us.