Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon
Updated: Feb 21
While it is certainly true that preaching contains some subjective elements, Gordon seeks to demonstrate the abysmal state of preaching based on objective criteria. Most preaching, he says, fails when held up to three simple questions: 1) What was the point or thrust of the sermon? 2) Was the point adequately established in the text? 3) Were the applications legitimate applications of the point, from which further fruitful conversation can ensue concerning other possible applications?
More technically, Gordon argues that preaching is perfectly susceptible of objective evaluation according to seven cardinal requisites of preaching as set forth by Robert Lewis Dabney. The first criteria is textual fidelity. The preacher is not entitled to preach his own insights or opinions; he is entitled only to declare the mind of God as revealed in Holy Scripture. The next criteria, unity, refers to the requirement that the sermon be about one thing. I can hear my homiletics teacher, Dr. Chapell, exclaiming, “A sermon is about one thing!”
The next criteria, evangelical tone, the sermon should, “…press the hearer to consider the hopelessness of his condition apart from Christ.” The fourth measure, instructiveness, highlights the requirement that a sermon abound in food for the understanding. The Christian faith deals with people as reasoning creatures. Sanctification is by the truth. The sermons must reflect those realities. The fifth criterion is movement. Does the sermon exhibit a sustained progress from beginning to end?
The sixth cardinal requisite for a good sermon is what Dabney calls, “point.” Point is really the result of unity, movement, and order. Point captures the idea that the hearer of the sermon should feel a certain point pressing upon him, and he should have the sense that he must either assent to or deny the point. Finally, order is simply the proper arrangement of the parts so that what is earlier prepares for what is later. Hearers ought to be able to compare notes and reasonably reproduce the outline of the sermon.
One might assume that Gordon would blame seminaries for utterly failing in their efforts to train pastors to preach effectively. Perhaps surprisingly he does not blame the seminaries at all. He notes that in his experience seminaries are doing excellent work in homiletics, and they have very skilled people performing the instruction. Seminarians are by-in-large trained according to the sorts of principles Dabney articulates in their course of study.
Rather, argues Gordon, the problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary. The problem is that a culture that was once dominated by language (reading and writing) has become a culture dominated by images. “The average American adult reads fewer than nine books annually, and spends seventeen times as much time watching television as reading (including all reading–magazines, newspaper, etc.).” This cultural shift dramatically hamstrings ministers in the construction of their sermons.
The first reason that Johnny can’t preach, then, is that Johnny can’t read texts. Gordon notes that there is a profound difference between reading for information and reading texts. Rapid reading is commended as a means for more efficiently assimilating information. “But reading a text is a laboriously slow process; when one reads a text, one is reading a piece of literature that survives beyond its initial generation largely because of its manner, irrespective of its matter.” Because people generally read for information, they do not tend to think about how a given passage is constructed. This tendency is part of what leads to pastors failing to meet even the basic requisites for a good sermon.
The second reason that Johnny can’t preach is closely related to the first: he can’t write. In part this is a function of changing forms of communication. Formerly writing was an important means of communication. Today writing has been replaced largely by the telephone. There is no longer any need to write out (in freehand) a letter; now one need only pick up the phone. When we do write it is in emails and text messages. In the past people wrote freehand letters, and they were accustomed to crafting thoughtful, well-composed letters. We have largely lost this art of composition.
Not only are we deficient in our ability to compose, but we have also lost the ability to accurately read people in our communication. Because we more frequently communicate via the phone, and less frequently face-to-face, ministers have also lost the ability to read their audiences. They are virtually blind to the visible response of the congregation because they have become accustomed to the telephone where there is no visible response.
On the whole, I must reluctantly admit that Gordon is largely correct in his evaluation. I anticipate returning to this book regularly. As a preacher, I myself struggle with many of the very things he raises. His work, in this manner, is compelling. It reminds me of my responsibilities, and helps me to evaluate where I fail. Gordon’s little book is also convicting in regard to being more circumspect about how I am spending my time. In fact one of the main reasons I started this blog was to attempt to better hone my reading and writing skills.
I do, however, have one question in response to reading this book. If preachers were more effective in delivering sermons according to Dabney’s criteria, would listeners be able to appreciate their preaching? Or, since they are subject to the same cultural forces that have undermined the preaching, will they also fail to appreciate well-constructed sermons? What do you think?