It should be obvious by the title: many preachers can’t preach. “In my opinion, less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon,” writes T. David Gordon. It’s a stinging indictment, and it’s why Gordon wrote the book Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. When he was diagnosed with cancer, Gordon felt compelled to sound the alarm. “Before I die, I must express my opinion on this subject.”
Gordon survived, and so does this book. In the space of just over a hundred pages, he makes the case for why he’s dissatisfied with much of the preaching he’s heard. He explains the underlying problem: we’re so influenced by culture that we’ve lost the capacity for thinking at the level required to preach well. And he offers some suggestions for how we can recover good preaching: we must get honest feedback, learn to think, read, and write better, and create space in our schedules for thinking, writing, and reflecting.
I don’t hear enough preaching to know if Gordon’s assessment is correct. I know there’s a lot of good preaching out there, but I’m sure that my sample isn’t representative. I do know that most of us feel like we could do better.
Gordon is correct that we all could benefit from honest feedback on our preaching, and it’s wrong that we let insecurity get in the way of receiving it. I’ve benefited from this kind of feedback in the past, and I need to build it into the life of our church. I’m impressed by how churches like Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, D.C. make this a part of their weekly rhythm.
I’m very much persuaded by Gordon’s assertion that many of us are consumed by trivialities and have lost the ability to think deeply. Gordon wrote this book in 2009. It would be hard to argue that we’ve improved in our ability to manage the trivial since then. It’s easy to become consumed with texts, tweets, and notifications rather than with the kind of sustained thinking we need to wrestle with what matters most.
Why Johnny Can’t Preach seems curmudgeonly at times, but even curmudgeons can be right. It forces us to ask the question: will we discipline our minds and schedules in such a way that we can preach well? There’s too much at stake to not ponder that question, and the answer, for a very long time.
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