Reflections on Why Johnny Can’t Preach
Let’s face it, most of the time rants aren’t that constructive. Most of the time. But when they are well-intentioned, well-conceived and passionately concerned about things that matter… well perhaps they have their place. And then when they come from the pen of a man who thinks he is dying of cancer, and who therefore worries about what will happen long after he’s gone, you really have to sit up and take notice.
Now, before we get too carried away, calling ‘Why Johnny Can’t Preach’ a rant is unfair. But it is a book that does not mince its words – it’s succinct (only 100 pages) and direct. Johnny is the generic everyman preacher – and Gordon’s terrible realisation is that he can’t preach. His evidence is avowedly anecdotal (but he never gets personal). And the phenomenon he describes is all too recognisable. People put up with, or ignore, or (even worse) go out of their way to avoid, less than ideal sermons because their pastors have other assets and virtues – or because they have nowhere else to go.
In the course of the book, Gordon offers some wonderful correctives. Take this on sermon length:
I suggest that it is not the case (as is so often argued) that people have a reduced attention span today, and that this is why they object to the length of the sermons. People may very well have a reduced attention span, but even so, they have no difficulty giving attention to a discourse they deem important and well organized. Bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief…
I realized then that sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers (assuming he ever kindled it in the first place). (pp30-31)
In Gordon’s view, at stake more than anything, therefore, is content. Issues of delivery and style are obviously important – but content is the key. And too much preaching has lost this for a number of reasons. He cites 3 primary concerns, all of which appear to be the results of a multimedia-saturated culture which is driven by the entertaining and the trivial.
- An inability to read texts closely and sensitively
- An inability to compose communication carefully
- An inability to distinguish the significant and essential from the mundane and irrelevant.
And, I’m afraid, it’s hard to disagree. A lot of the time, preachers are guilty as charged. He overstates the evils of all things modern and media – and I’d have preferred a more nuanced approach to things like TV etc (see, for instance, a previous post on Everything Bad For You Is Good For You). But hey – he has a point. Several in fact.
I was particularly challenged by his first major contention, namely our failure to do justice to the intricacies and nuances of texts. His solution is that we learn to appreciate poetry (so suggests Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for starters), primarily because with poetry, you have to read it slowly. There was a very nice quotation to C S Lewis on the difference between those who ‘receive’ texts and those who ‘use’ texts (unfortunately tucked away in a footnote):
The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them. from An Experiment in Criticism (CUP, 1961)
Gordon’s next challenge, after slowing reading right down, is to learn to communicate verbally without what he calls the inarticulacy of ‘verbal farts’ (!) – sentences that begin but never quite, you know, just not really, kind of, come to a sort of… you know? His solution is that we discipline ourselves to write letters by hand – no spell-checker, no cut and paste, no editing on the job. With a hand-written letter, you actually have to plan (!) what you are going to say in advance. And if you make too many errors, you have to start again.
All in all, we should strive for a combination of all 5 of these preaching hallmarks (which Gordon distils from the 7 ‘Cardinal Requisites’ in Dabney’s ‘Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric’):
- Textual Fidelity: does the significant point of the sermon arise out of the significant point of the text?
- Unity: if 10 people are asked after the sermon what it was about, will at least 8 give the same (or similar) answer?
- Order: could hearers compare notes and restate how the sermon progressed from point to point?
- Evangelical tone: Is the sermon Christ-centred? Do hearers get the impression that the preacher is for them or against them?
- Instructiveness: does the sermon significantly engage the mind, or is the sermon full of commonplace clichés, slogans and general truths? Is the hearer likely to rethink his/her views of God, society, church, or self, or his/her reasons for holding current views?
There is an urgency to this book which is infectious, but appropriate. Mercifully, since first writing the book in 2004, David Gordon has been in remission. However, he has published it now with only a few revisions, so that the original urgency of his writing remains. It is not a long read – but it is an important one. And I couldn’t have agreed more with one of the endorsements on the back cover, which states, “Adds more to the homiletical conversation than ten books twice its length.”