Why Johnny Can’t Preach (Book Review)

I enjoyed a quick but meaty read by T. David Gordon:  Why Johnny Can’t Preach:  The Media Have Shaped the Messengers.

His main premise/concern is that Preachers:

  1. no longer have the ability to read texts
  2. no longer have composition skills to create unity and movement in a sermon
  3. no longer recognize the difference between the significant and insignificant

He wrote the book while dealing with cancer and thought he was dying and felt the urgency to share his concerns about the state of preaching.

He will come across as an old codger, modernist, grumpy old man to many, and to more among younger generations and emergers.  I still believe he has a lot of great things to say that need to be heard, especially in seminaries.

Anecdotally, he claims that his family often has a hard time recognizing the main point of a sermon, and also understanding the connection between points made and the text used.  A unity or structure is rarely evident or obvious.

I am intrigued by his use of Dabney’s “Seven Cardinal Requisites of Preaching,” which is over a hundred years old, but beneficial.

Gordon is a “media ecologists” and while I can’t tell you exactly what that means, it is a study of how culture affects us.

He is not a Luddite, but is concerned with more than just the effects of TV and internet.  He makes an interesting point that even the advent of the telephone has reduced our ability to notice and respond to body language.  He believes that preachers are too often unaware of their effect (or lack thereof) among the congregation while we preach.  Also, “telephone conversations rarely have unity, order, or movement” all of which are vital to a good sermon (p. 66).

His main argument against TV and current media is that they have eroded our ability to distinguish the significant from the insignificant.

He highly recommends study of literature and poetry for all ministers, even suggesting preachers should study liberal arts or Literature before moving to Bible/Theology degrees. He refers to others in history with the same view.

A love for words and why certain words were used are crucial to reading the Bible as we ought. With regards to reading, he says,

“we scan for information, but we do not appreciate literary craftmanship…we don’t really read texts to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point;  we read texts to see how they confirm what we already believe about reality.  Texts are mirrors that reflect ourselves; they are not pictures that are appreciated in themselves. This explains in part, the phenomenon that many Christians will read their Bibles daily for fifty years, and do not have one opinion that changes in the entire fifty-year span” (p. 49)

He believes that Preachers are the most resistant to Annual Reviews and criticism, even though it is a common practice in most professions.

I may post more quotes later.  It was an interesting read that I am still chewing on and thinking about ways to grow and improve as a speaker.

I highly recommend it to all preachers, especially those considering a preaching ministry.

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5 thoughts on “Why Johnny Can’t Preach (Book Review)

  1. Sounds interesting. I spent some time teaching speech as a grad student, so this sort of stuff fascinates me. Thanks for the tip!

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. b

    he also highly recommends taking non bible speech classes and joining rotarians, I may share a quote about that tomorrow that was great

  3. nick gill

    And now for my serious comment: Traditionally well-made sermons will fly right past my audience. If Spurgeon or C. Campbell Morgan, or Walter Scott or Ira North, or even NT Wright were to speak their best-made sermons to my audience, I’m not convinced anyone would hear them.

    I’m an English major, and I love literature and history, and I believe in the power of words and rhetoric (the art of affecting people with words, not the pejorative definition) and the well-turned phrase.

    But my audience has been deeply shaped by modern media, and you can’t unring that bell. The audience I’m trying to reach has been even more shaped by YouTube, iPods, Playstations, and FB than the audience I have now.

    We do have to find ways to teach people how to read well, because the educational system has failed most of them. and I definitely think more preachers need to take classes in rhetoric and speech rather than merely homiletics.

  4. b

    nick, that needs to be said and I agree,
    I think it’s good for preachers, though, to strive for the basic skills he emphasizes, and then adapt them.

    I bet even if they were foundational, they will have a positive impact even if they aren’t obvious. kinda like greek study.

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