Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
T. David Gordon
Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009
Paperback, 108 pp.
According to T. David Gordon, “less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon.” That may be
the nicest thing he has to say about today’s preaching in his brief book Why Johnny Can’t Preach (P&R).
Gordon’s concern is not that there may or may not be “great” preachers around, but that “the average Christian family in the average pew in the average church
on the average Sunday” is being starved. He observes, “If Jesus tests Peter’s profession of love by the ministerial act of feeding his sheep, our sheep do not need gourmet meals. But they do need good, solid nourishment, and they are not ordinarily getting it.”
The problem, Gordon argues, is not that preachers are lazy or that seminaries haven’t done their job (some may question that latter assumption in many cases), but that shifts in “culturally dominant media”—the movement from a text-based to an image-based culture—have altered our society and the way we think.
The problem with this book is that Gordon’s presupposition is completely anecdotally based; there is no research provided to support or reinforce the assumptions he makes based on the bad preaching he has heard (and apparently he has been the victim of some pretty poor preaching), as well as the “hundreds of conversations” he has had with others. That’s the extent of the evidence by which he indicts the majority of those who preach. On top of that, he turns to a popular 19th century preaching text (Robert Lewis Dabney’s Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric) to provide the criteria by which we should judge effective preaching in the 21st century.
All that is unfortunate because it detracts from a book that otherwise offers an interesting argument: that the problem with preaching is that today’s preachers have been shaped by an image-based culture to the extent that they no longer seem capable of clear, careful analysis and organized treatment of a biblical text. That is, Johnny can’t preach because Johnny can’t read well or write clearly.
This is an interesting little book which would be a valuable one if it had been based on any data beyond the author’s personal observations. It may well be that Johnny often can’t preach, but it is also true in this instance that Johnny didn’t make his case.