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  • Daniel Klassen

Book Review: Why Johnny Can't Preach

With his opening paragraph in the introduction including: "Less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon," and the first sentence of the first chapter stating, "Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor," it was clear to me from the onset that T. David Gordon was not about to sugar-coat his message. He didn’t. In Why Johnny Can't Preach, T. David Gordon's desire to see pastors preach well, church life to flourish, and the individual Christian to grow in holiness is unmistakable.

You might ask yourself the question, "Since I'm not a preacher, why would I need a book on preaching?" I admit the thought crossed my mind as well, but the answer is clear: you are always preaching to yourself, best you do a good job at it.

Why Johnny Can't Preach

Three reasons are given for Johnny's failure to preach: he can't read, he can't write, and he doesn’t know what is significant.

1. He can't read.

More importantly, Johnny can't read texts. The reason he can't read is that we have become a society that promotes reading for information, not for the purpose of studying the construction of words, sentences, and paragraphs. He can't read well because no one has taught him to look past what is written and consider how it was written. Translated into studying Scripture, this model is detrimental. Gordon describes the mindset this produces: "virtually speed reading, scanning it for its most overt content. What is this passage about? they ask as they read, but they don’t raise questions about how the passage is constructed" (pg. 46).

How has our culture come to this? Gordon's subtitle gives us a hint: "The Media Have Shaped the Messengers." Media, in its various forms, has accustomed us to a fast pace of life. "We become acclimated to distraction, to multitasking, to giving part of our attention to many things at once, while almost never devoting the entire attention of the entire soul to anything" (pg. 50).

2. He can't write.

There was a time, not too long ago, where people took the time to compose letters. Now, all we have are poorly written, short messages. Media has shaped our writing, and the result is not only detrimental to our conversations, but also to our minds, and to our whole being. The problem, as Gordon explains, is that we are made incapable by the fast pace of media to rest for a period of time long enough to compose our thoughts properly. If we are consumed by the different forms of media, we will not be able to properly think through what we believe, nor think long enough to become convicted of what we believe. As a result, the preacher becomes confusing and confused, for they are thrown this way and that by the wind of popular opinion.

In my personal experience with writing, Gordon's assessment resonates with me. When my thoughts are on the paper (or computer) in front of me, I am able to interact with them differently than when they swirl around in my mind. I am able to analyze, scrutinize, critique, and change the erroneous ways of thinking. Writing makes me a better person, for it allows me the time to compose myself.

3. He doesn’t know what is significant.

If Johnny cannot give his attention to a single thing for a period of time, nor compose what he believes, it should come as no surprise that he doesn’t know what is significant. Again, the media plays a leading role in shaping Johnny. Significant things take time, effort, and concentration to understand. Insignificant things take up little time. The media is fond of the insignificant, for it can distract us with many insignificant things in a short period of time.

Translated into preaching, Gordon points out that our pulpits are filled with moralistic, how-to, introspective, and social gospel teaching. In essence, there is not much of Christ.

"Perhaps," states Gordon, "somewhere in the sermon is some mention of Christ; perhaps at the end is an obligatory comment, 'And of course we couldn't do this apart from the grace of God in Christ' –but such a lame comment cannot rescue an essentially moralistic sermon and make it redemptive." Indeed, a few minutes of Christ in a 40-minute moralistic sermon is not enough to revive the soul from religiosity. Christ must be the central message if it is to be recognized as a Christian message.

My Concluding Thoughts

There were times where I nearly stood out of my chair exclaiming my affirmation as a read this short book. In the case of preaching to myself, all three points rang true to me. I was quick to see myself as one enamoured with the various forms of media today: I do not read as I should, I do not write as I must, and I do not always understand what is significant. The message of this book is not only necessary for the pastor who steps into a pulpit on a weekly basis, but it is for me, and it is for you who are constantly preaching some sort of message to yourselves.


By T. David Gordon, P&R Publishing, 2009.

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