Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why Johnny Can't Preach

I read Dr. Gordon's new book Why Johnny Can't Preach last night (it is a quick read - 108 pages) as I am in the preaching business and wanted to see what he had to say about why my profession is broken. I actually started to read the book about a month ago but put it down after 20 pages when I felt like I had been caught in the vortex of a complaining retired seminary professor. However, late yesterday as I was working on my sermon for 3.14 and putting some books away, I picked it up again and started skimming his later chapters. What I found was encouraging and challenging.

Dr. Gordon's basic premise is that today's preachers (who have grown up in a media-saturated generation) struggle to preach because we struggle to read and write - the necessary basics of preaching well. His chapter on reading basically makes the argument that most preachers do not know how to sit with texts for long periods of time and wrestle with metaphors and poetry (which the Bible is full of) and this negatively impacts our ability to preach the Scriptures. I was challenged by his conviction that most preachers start with a short list of Christian convictions that they have been taught through the years and then look for those principles in every passage they read (technically known as eisegesis - reading intended meaning into a text). This stands in contrast to how we should preach - built on exegesis (looking for the text's actual meaning). Dr. Gordon says that preachers should regularly be challenged (in their worldview) by the texts they are working on if they are doing actual exegesis - because after studying the actual texts the concepts are different than what the preacher thought they were going in. I totally agree with this!

His second concept is that modern preachers struggle to preach because they are ineffective writers. Instead of growing up writing long-hand (which forces thinking ahead, clarity, and brevity), my generation has grown up with limited writing experience and even then, only in the context of email and word-processing (which is very forgiving to errors - thank you "delete" key). Dr. Gordon's main point is that my generation has grown up in a media-saturated environment (where we spend a ton of time with video-imagery) where we spend more time with TV, movies, video-games, and the computer than we do with reading and writing. This obviously has a major impact on preaching, causing most preachers to struggle with not only understanding texts but with articulating their ideas in coherent and cohesive ways. Hard to argue with that!

While these two chapters were insightful, his final one was actually the most helpful in this short book. He writes about four alternative concepts of preaching from the Reformation view of preaching as gospel-centered and Christ-exalting. The first is moralistic preaching, where the sermon is a call to some kind of ethic living separated from the redemptive narrative of Christ's death and resurrection. This is not new to me - Tim Keller has shaped my views in this area over the last year - but Gordon connects moralistic preaching to the birth of Protestant liberalism in the early twentieth century. I have never made this connection (that ethical preaching separated from Christ and the gospel is another version of classical Protestant liberalism) but think it is accurate and common. The second alternative that Gordon describes is "how-to" preaching which is very similar to moralistic preaching (he calls is a subset), but is built even more on the assumption that people can obey God is they simply know the right strategy to take - the problem is lack of information, but the condition of the heart. The third alternative is introspective preaching or what Gordon calls "you think you are saved, but you're really not" preaching where the focus is constantly on the commitment level of the listener rather than the glory and perfection of Christ. He likens this to standing at the edge of a bridge crossing a canyon and discussing the person's level of confidence in the bridge rather than the trustworthiness of the bridge. What people need is not continuous self-reflection but rather to hear the beauty and glory of Christ's perfections. The final alternative that Gordon addresses is culture-war preaching where the communicators spends all of his effort addressing cultural and political issues in an attempt to increase the Christian flavor of the overall culture. Gordon calls this misdirected patriotism that seeks to coerce the masses rather than convert the individual with the gospel of Christ.

In all of this, Gordon is focused on the skill of preaching. And for this contribution to my thinking I am grateful. I would recommend this work to stir your thoughts more than anything else. However, Gordon leaves off one very-important piece of the puzzle - the character of the preacher. As important as the skill of crafting and delivering a fully biblical, gospel-centered sermon is the character (read godliness) of the man who delivers that message. We are all guilty of preaching better than we live, but we need to continue to pursue an incarnational model of preaching that demonstrates that we believe what we are saying.


Sean Chandler said...

Does he offer a solution to the problem besides, "you need to read and write more?"

Also does he address this issue from the listeners perspective? It would seem that the problem identified would affect the listener more than the preacher. I would think the personality types drawn towards preaching are more inclined to read, write and study, but the people listening are less and less accustomed to listening to 35-45 minute monologues.

Keith Ferguson said...

He gets more specific in that he recommends what guys should read (texts that challenge them to learn to read slowly) and how they should write. But his book is not really a homiletics book like Robinson or Chapell, more of just a critique about weaknesses in preaching overall. I agree with you that preachers have to adapt style to their audience, though I think he issue is more about substance than style.