Some Thoughts on "Why Johnny Can't Preach"

“To preach the Word of God well, one must already have cultivated, at a minimum, three sensibilities: the sensibility of close reading of texts, the sensibility of composed communication, and the sensibility of the significant.” Thus T. David Gordon summarizes his book “Why Johnny Can’t Preach.” It’s a homiletics book, or more precisely it’s a book about the current state of homiletics. As one might guess from the title, Gordon thinks things are bad; he asserts that most preachers cannot and do not exposit the Word of God when they preach. I agree; for that matter, I have found few church members who can accurately define what exposition is.

The primary problem, in his estimation, is that preachers cannot closely read texts; that is, they don’t appreciate the skill with which a piece of literature is composed. This leads to a lack of ability to discern the true meaning (significance) of a text, and thus they preach sermons that are on the text but miss the point of the text. Gordon goes on to write that his problem stems from the abundant presence of electronic media that constantly distracts our attention and keeps us focused on the insignificant (can you say sitcom, Facebook, or Twitter?). In a similar vein, preachers can’t write well either, thus they can’t organize a good sermon.

His fourth chapter is a wonderful plea for Christ-centered preaching as well as a list of poor (though common) alternatives to exposition. He ends with some suggestions for homiletical improvement, many of which are quite good.

Overall, I find myself to be in agreement with his book. Perhaps the one area I would disagree most with Gordon is his emphasis upon reading classical literature, notably poetry. Gordon argues that learning to reading poetry will develop the skill of closely reading texts; while it may, I think there are probably many other degrees, jobs, and skills that can develop it. Computer programming, as one example, requires a person to pay close attention to details; I’m fairly certain that other occupations such as medicine and law do the same. Furthermore, I think anyone who takes time to develop inductive Bible study skills, such as those taught by Kay Arthur and Howard Hendricks, can learn to closely read a biblical text.

Overall, this short book is solid. But for those who are well read in expositional and Christ-centered homiletical books, it probably doesn’t really break much new ground.


Jasen said...

So in super-short-summary: They are bad preachers/teachers because they are bad students.

Did they start that way? Are the seminaries not teaching them to be good students? Do they need refresher classes?

Or is there something in the "popular way to do things" that says all that systematic study & presentation is old fuddy duddy?

James Garriss said...

He argues that wannabe seminarians should get an English lit degree at a good liberal arts school before going to seminary. That way they would enter seminary with stronger reading comprehension and writing/communication skills, which would be wonderfully helpful in preparing and delivering sermons.

I don't know that seminaries are deficient; one expects a student entering a Master's level program to already have these skills. However, the seminary I went to was planning to offer remedial help to those who needed it.

I experienced this diversity. Some of my classmates were wonderful communicators, some not. Some seemed to easily find and expound the point of the text, some not.