Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009. 108 pp. $9.99.
Homiletics will only get us so far. Something more is necessary in order for an average preacher to rise above his peers and become a great one. This book is Dr. T. David Gordon’s attempt to locate that “x-factor.” I had the pleasure of taking Greek with Gordon at Grove City College in the fall of 2004, and this book is a reflection of his teaching style. His brutal honesty comes off as winsome, even entertaining. And his argument is persuasive.
I can safely recommend this book to seminary students for two reasons. First, they’re probably not preaching yet (at least not on a regular basis), so they can accept Gordon’s criticism of the general quality of preaching today without offense. Second, the subject matter makes itself suitable as secondary reading for homiletics curricula. Preaching style is not addressed from a technical standpoint. Rather, Gordon, who teaches media ecology as well as religion, comments that cultural changes in the West have moved society (including preachers) away from word-based media and toward picture-based media. As a result, preachers do not know how to appreciate good writing.
The author is essentially saying that Johnny can’t preach because he also can neither read nor write. After painting the problem as such, Gordon goes on the suggest the obvious solution: preachers should cultivate an appreciation for both practices. I found myself able to resonate with these suggestions. I know that I do not read enough literature. I also know that most of what I do read is not literature, but some form of technical writing (theological or otherwise). Gordon makes it clear that reading something for understanding is vastly different than reading something for enjoyment. So “cultivating an appreciation” for reading means finding a style whose form you can appreciate as much as its message and taking the time to read it for enjoyment.
Writing is more or less a matter of practice. But how much practice does a person get on average today versus 50 years ago? When was the last time you wrote something that wasn’t an e-mail, or a required paper for class? If we will be writing sermons, then we should enjoy writing. This book provoked me to consider taking up paper correspondence again, just to get the practice in writing something more formal than e-mail. I haven’t done this yet.
Is this all common sense? Is Gordon just making a lot of noise to say something that people intuitively know? Perhaps. But for me, even if I didn’t learn much that was new, there was a payoff to having these thoughts moved from the back of my mind to the front. One such payoff has been that, now more than ever, I consider all of the writing I do (required or otherwise) as service to the Church. This is not to say that it’s a gift to the Church (as if the Church should be grateful I’m writing!). But it is a service to the extent I might come out on the other end a better preacher. The same goes for reading such a breadth of literature that I become more able to express myself in writing. We learn to talk by listening to our parents. We learn to write (sermons) by reading literature.
I said earlier that preaching is not addressed from a technical standpoint in this book. That’s really only half-true. The book actually contains a chapter-length parenthesis in which Gordon considers the content of a good sermon. I imagine the author included this chapter because he sees good sermon content so rarely that he felt not saying anything on the subject would be unhelpful. Suffice it to say that, while the chapter seems like somewhat of an extended parenthesis, I agree with Gordon’s point here as well. Sermon’s should be Christ-centered.
In the end, as preachers, we are ministers of God’s Word. This means that, despite the broader culture’s drift to image-based media, what we do is inherently word-based. We need to own that, and do everything we can to cultivate our enjoyment of all kinds of literature (including Holy Scripture). Finally, we ought to pray that we can be used to pass the enjoyment on to those who hear our sermons. We’re not just giving people information during our sermons. We’re teaching them to read the Bible. Ultimately, though, we’re provoking their hearts and ours to worship. We need to craft our sermons in such a way that they can carry that weight. If Johnny learns to do that, then Johnny has learned how to preach.