Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reflecting On Preaching

Written at a point of personal crisis, Why Johnny Can’t Preach puts across ideas and arguments that reflect a crisis in the larger evangelical world. T. David Gordon decided to put these ideas on paper while facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, so there is an air of urgency to the work. He wanted to discuss why preaching (specifically among evangelical and reformed circles) is so bad. I, too, feel his sense of urgency.

The book begins with the sobering revelation, “Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor.” Drawing on his teaching, preaching, and academic background in media ecology, Gordon proceeds to lay out the case that most preaching misses all the foundational homiletical principles. The most glaring of which may be what is labeled “Evangelical Tone,” or the sense that the preacher is proactively proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.

The middle two chapters make the case that Johnny can’t preach because he can’t read and he can’t write. We live in a culture that creates a kind of “aliteracy”: pastors can read, but they can’t read for meaning or significance. In addition, pastors by-in-large can’t communicate well in writing. And if our future pastors enter seminary lacking these foundational tools, all the theological and homiletical training in the world can’t save future pulpiteering tragedy.

Gordon ends up arguing for training our missing “pre-homiletical sensibilities” in seminary and Bible colleges. He is most assuredly right. Without an analytical eye to deep reading for meaning and flow, and without the ability to sift through the insignificant to get to the significant, expositing a text becomes an exercise in futility.

While there is a lot to commend, Gordon fell a little short on treating Johnny’s inability to write. His short chapter on this issue dwelt entirely on telephone conversations, and I am sure there is a lot more he could have said. I addition, Gordon placed a lot of weight on the usefulness of yearly reviews of the pastor’s preaching by his congregation or peers. If the trained preacher lacks the necessary skills to tell good preaching from bad, how can the untrained public be any better?

All in all, however, Gordon’s book is a tremendous work and deserves to be read by those who are interested in reviving the Church through Christ-centered and life-giving preaching.

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