After hearing much about this book, I happened to find a copy underneath a scrabble board while tiding up the youth club. I consider this and a free few hours I had that day, a sign I should take it and read it (although if you happened to have left your copy of this book at my work, it’s now on the youth office bookshelf- come get it). Why Johnny Can’t Preach is a little book with a fairly simple premise that’s contained in the title; most pastor’s can’t preach these days and this is a bad thing. The author, T. David Gordon, speculates that less than 30% of people in ordained ministry in the USA can preach properly. Why is this the case? Well, his theory goes like this; people can’t preach because people can’t communicate composedly, people can’t communicate composedly because they don’t understand significance, people don’t understand significance because they don’t read properly and they don’t read properly because, in part, modern life doesn’t do proper reading. This factors are more interwoven in his argument that I’ve simplified here, but that’s the gist of it.
There’s a lot in here that’s helpful and useful and challenged me, but as much as I think about it, his argument basically comes down to this; pastors can’t preach because they don’t get prose and poetry and so the solution is to develop a deeper understanding and passion of great literature. And I want to say at that point “really? That’s what’s wrong with preaching in most churches? That the vicar hasn’t read the sonnets?” I wonder if some of it is that Gordon writes thinking most pastors are people who essentially get the gospel, love the bible, love their church, and by and large do most things faithfully, but for some reason balls up on preaching. And so with a significant bit of shaping and directing, their preaching would be brilliant. That’s why so much of the emphasis of the book seems to be on the style of the sermon and not on the content of it. That’s not to say he’s arguing that what is wrong with preaching is just a stylistic issue, just that if they get their reading and thinking right, their preaching will be consequentially in good style; it will be well composed and well communicated. But what if the problem actually starts with the content? He does though, tackles this in chapter 4 of the book, and all of a sudden this book is brilliant.
Chapter 4 is called “A Few Thoughts About Content” and what thoughts they are. I’m going to quote extensively here, because it’s probably the only way to do the section justice, but when I say this chapter is worth the price of the book, I mean it and mean for you to go on to Amazon and purchase it now. The point he makes on content is this; the aim of a Christian sermon is to hold up Christ and present him, and his work and character, as the joy and satisfaction of every good thing. He puts it like this:
bq. What is offered to the congregation, in rightly ordered Christian worship, is nothing less than Christ himself. Now, since Christ rescues us from both the guilt and power of sin, one aspect of his work is the work of sanctification, whereby he renews us into the image of God and conforms us to his likeness. So Christian proclamation properly includes the shaping of a Christian moral vision, and preaching Christ crucified does not exclude, but intentionally includes, shaping such a vision. But it is never appropriate,in my estimation, for 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 requires some explanation of aspects of our behaviour, it is always to be done in a manner that the hearer perceives such commended behaviour to be itself a matter of being rescued from the power of sin through the grace of Christ. When properly done, the hearer longs to be rescued from that depravity from which no sinner can rescue himself; and the hearer rejoices to know that a kind and gracious God is both willing and able to begin that rescue, which will be completed in glorification. (p.70)
bq. Fill the sails of your hearers’ souls with the wind of confidence in the Redeemer, and they will trust him as their Sanctifier, and long to see his fruit in their lives. Fill their minds and imaginations with a vision of the loveliness and perfection of Christ in his person, and the flock will long to be like him. Impress upon their weak and wavering hearts the utter competence of the mediation of the One who ever lives to make intercession for them, and they will long to serve and comfort others, even as Christ has served and comforted them. (p.78)
His then list of four ways in which contemporary preaching goes wrong is as enlightening as anything in the rest of the book. I found myself cheering him on under my breath in places.
It’s slightly frustrating then that the book is shaped the way it is. If the book started with and was rooted in the ideas of chapter 4, and then led us into the rest of the content it would be perhaps the best book I’ve ever read on preaching and ministering in general. He has reasons for doing it the other way around the, saying that if you get your reading and thinking right, you’ll read the New Testament right and you’ll learn to preach Christ rightly. But this, I think, fails by his own argument. His book doesn’t place Christ as the centre of how to preach, and when he does talk to us about the excellencies of Christ it feels that it’s an aside, not the root of his argument. Which is what he’s precisely arguing we shouldn’t do when we preach. He tells us that the content of our preaching needs to be Christ so we can show him to our congregations, but then when he comes to tell us how to preach he puts Christ in as almost incidental. But surely if his argument is true (and it is), then Christ needs to be at the centre for how we preach now just what we preach. Get Him right and then consequentially people will desire to master their reading, thinking, and diligent study of the text of the scripture.
For all that, the book is well worth reading. As I wrote, Chapter 4 alone is almost required reading on preaching, and there are large other parts that have stuck with me. Do I live by the delete key? Do I read too much garbage? These things are true and things I need to think through and in some cases repent of. But don’t let this book be the only book you read on preaching, especially if you’re an intellectual type who’ll feel smug that you already read the works of long dead authors.