Last week our Lifeway Campus store asked me for a list of five favorite books that they could display in their store as recommended reading. They are asking various professors from our faculty to do this throughout the year.
I wanted an ancient work, which was easy to choose – Augustine’s City of God – everyone should read it. And then I added a few “modern classics” that are accessible and don’t have any good popular analogs: Helmut Thielecke’s Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and C.S. Lewis’s Four Loves. I also wanted an example of a good new book, and on my desk was a terrific little volume I had just read, T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach.
Gordon asserts that we’re in a bad state with regard to preaching in our churches (presumably US churches) and he’s right about that. He thinks that perhaps less than 30 percent of preachers can deliver “an even mediocre sermon.” I think he is generous.
Gordon first explains that Johnny can’t preach and he is spot on about this, as they say. He offers good reasons for his assertion, including the fact that most congregations are simply not satisfied with the preaching they hear. I am aware that some will say that congregations are untrained and aren’t the best judges of preaching. I reject that notion. I think congregations are the best judges in a significant way. That is, ultimately I am most concerned about how the church receives the preaching of sacred Scripture. And I have the confidence that God’s people will sort out whether they are being fed or not. And, if you don’t believe Gordon’s assessment, be brave enough to ask the people to whom you preach what they think of your preaching. Give them the freedom to tell you what they really think. As someone who preaches in a fair amount of churches where I’m not the pastor, I’ll tell you what they think: While they love Johnny (usually), they too think Johnny can’t preach.
Next, Gordon offers a couple of important reasons why Johnny can’t preach. That’s because Johnny can’t read and Johnny can’t write. What Gordon is really getting at is that Johnny can’t think. Not because he isn’t able, but because he never learned to. And, again, I think Gordon has stated what is so obvious but what is so often neglected. The basic disciplines of reading and writing should be seen as a significant part of pastoral ministry, but they are no longer.
The reason they are so important is because they are significant means by which we reason and formulate communication as thinking beings. (Yes, I’m aware that there are non-literate cultures and that my assertion raises an interesting question about them. I also understand that divine revelation was given, in part, in written form so it could be read and heard – this is not an unimportant matter).
My one criticism of the book has to do with the subtitle “The Media Have Shaped the Messengers.” Gordon is involved in the field of media ecology and he brings interesting insights to bear about how media affects culture. He has good insights along these lines. My only beef is that the problem with preaching isn’t solely or even mainly to do with media. Johnny doesn’t read or write for reasons other than media.
The reason I object to these sorts of assertions, common as they are, is that I see not a few brilliant readers, writers, and, yes, preachers whose media intake is actually immense, and has been from early years. According the thesis that media is the problem, these folks should be “image-based” rather than “text-based,” but they’re not. I’m not certain what to make of that. As Gordon notes, this field of study is young and I gather we just need more time to sort out what’s actually going on here. In the meantime, I am hesitant to cast blame in such a way on “media.”
Visiting with an old college friend a couple of weeks ago, he said this book was one of the best and worst books he’d read in a long time. “Best” because it identified a problem and addressed it so well. “Worst” because it made him feel awful about his preaching. But, of course, because my friend cares about preaching well, he was glad the book made him feel so bad. Perhaps everyone who preaches would profit by feeling bad for a bit in order to become a better preacher. If you’re up for that, then read this valuable little book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach.