Why Johnny Can’t Preach

T. David Gordon has just come out with a very interesting book with the title listed above.

If you liked reading Neil Postman or Kenneth Myers, then you will like this book as well. It’s short, and you can read it in about two hours. However, this short book manages to put its finger on the pulse of what is wrong with preaching today in our culture.

The basic thesis is that the electronic media have so shaped our culture that preachers cannot read the text with understanding, provide order and flow in their sermons, preach Christ, exposit the text, or provide instruction. Instead, they tend to read the text in a way that confirms what they already know, rather than taking the time to read the text well so as to be changed by it.

All throughout this book, I was feeling a huge weight of electronic media crushing in all around me, with a gleam of hope shot through this book, such that I felt that there is a way to avoid jejune preaching, if only we as preachers could learn how to read texts not just for their informational content, but also for the way in which it is said, and how that realization could impact how we preach.

It is impossible to be bored when reading T. David Gordon. He has a great sense of humor, and has all the qualities of writing which he laments preachers don’t have. An example of his humor:

Several of the more incompetent preachers I’ve heard have jumped on the emergent bandwagon, and their ministerial careers are undergoing a resurgence now, as people flock to hear their enthusiastic worship leaders and to ogle their PowerPoint presentations. Their churches are no longer moribund, but then the annual carnival isn’t, either-it, too, is full of enthusiasm, activity, and lively entertainment. But I’m not sure these emergent activities have any more spiritual effect than the pig races at the carnival (p. 32, fn10).

Buy this book for your pastor. If you are a pastor, buy it. Do not be offended at the title (parishioners who buy this book for their pastor might have to be careful about that landmine!). This book will help you be a better preacher, because it will help you focus on what is important in preaching.



  1. Lee said,

    October 8, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    How does the electroinc media make people read the text with out a desire to be transformed by it? It sounds to me like an inability to structure a sermon and provide order is a problem with logic and rhetoric which are not taught in schools. Did you personally find his argument blaming the electronic media convincing?

  2. mary kathryn said,

    October 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    “Instead, they tend to read the text in a way that confirms what they already know, rather than taking the time to read the text well so as to be changed by it.”

    This sentence grabbed my attention because it seems to describe a problem I see with so many young people that we’ve churned out of our educational system in the past 25 years — people who require the world to conform to them, instead of being willing to conform themselves to an outside standard. I don’t know that it’s the electronic media at fault, so much as an educational and child-rearing model that says a child’s world must be custom-made made to suit him. So much in life is customized to suit the individual, and God forbid that anyone should ever hurt his self-esteem by suggesting that he need to comply with a standard.

    Perhaps today’s preachers are approaching God’s Word with that attitude?

  3. rfwhite said,

    October 8, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    TDG’s stuff is always thought provoking, and I look forward to reading the book. Assuming that his basic thesis is as you say, it will be interesting to contrast the reactions to that thesis by folks in the pew and folks in the pulpit. For example, do preachers and non-preachers even agree on what the preacher’s task is what Gordon says it is?

  4. rfwhite said,

    October 8, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Typo alert in #3: do preachers and non-preachers even agree that the preacher’s task is what Gordon says it is?

  5. Stephen Welch said,

    October 8, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I am in the process of writng a review on this book for a Theological Journal. The review will be out in the spring. I am looking forward to this. It is an easy reader, but one that will stimulate your thinking.

  6. Paige Britton said,

    October 9, 2009 at 2:53 am

    “Buy this book for your pastor. If you are a pastor, buy it. Do not be offended at the title (parishioners who buy this book for their pastor might have to be careful about that landmine!).”

    Good point — especially if your pastor happens to be named John.

    T. David Gordon has a fine article based on a chapter of his book in the latest issue of Modern Reformation, all about the crazy idea that preachers ought to be reading poetry so they can preach better. If you think of poetry as the diametric opposite of image-based media, you can see Dr. Gordon’s trajectory here — good preaching has to do with careful reading and precise, meaningful, arresting communication. The intellectual discipline of reading thoughtful poetry is a neglected part of anybody’s education anymore; those who work with words would benefit muchly by it. (G.M. Hopkins being my personal recommendation!) I immediately thought of you, Dr. White, and your educational soapbox when I read it. I’m sure you’d love the whole book. :)

    My pastor, whose name is John, said he was rather put out by the title (I forgot to warn him about it when I gave him the magazine), but I think he was kidding. :)

  7. Jamie said,

    October 9, 2009 at 5:07 am

    The real reason Johnny can’t preach is because he (like most evangelicals) has isolated preaching from the rest of the worship service. When preaching loses sight of the sacraments and the other elements of worship then it rarely turns out well.
    As far as the premise of the book is concerned, it is true, but I think that there is more to it than just that.

  8. Todd said,

    October 9, 2009 at 11:09 am

    After reading the book, it seems Gordon’s concern with pastor’s reading poetry and fiction is to learn to be sensitive to the text as literature, not only as doctrine. At times confessionalists approach a text seeking to find which doctrine it teaches, but not asking questions about the way it is written. Of course, discerning literary technigue only adds to the doctrine in the long run, but it avoids the common thought from those in the pew – “Why do we pay him so much to tell us what we already can see ourselves from a quick reading of that passage?”

    For example, I have heard Reformed sermons on II Sam. 11 that speak of resisting temptation, the danger of adultery, etc…even adding towards the end that David himself needed a Savior. All well and good, but failing to ask questions of the literature itself, such as:

    Why is this story so long?
    Why is Bathsheba never mentioned by name?
    Why is the passage only concerned with David’s guilt and not Bathsheba’s?
    Why is Uriah almost always called a Hittite?
    Why is the Lord not mentioned until the last sentence in the story?

    Learning to pay attention to the way a story is written brings out the richness to the text and adds to the biblical theology of the story in the history of redemption; only enriching the doctrine. So Gordon believes preachers need to read poetry and fiction to learn how to ask better questions of the literature of the Bible.

  9. Todd said,

    October 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm


    Since I write too fast I tend to note the blunders too late, especially with a post on reading literature! No apostrophe in “pastors,” and richness *from* the text, not to the text.



  10. rfwhite said,

    October 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    8-9 Todd: thanks for your comments on TDG’s content. As I understand it, reading the Western literary tradition as is typical in the classical educational model was presumed to be part of pre-seminary education in the past (see, for example, J. M. Garretson, Princeton and Preaching, especially chap.3). By that background, past seminarians gained what TDG describes as lacking in the present day.

  11. Reformed Sinner said,

    October 10, 2009 at 1:44 pm


    I am quite shock you have to list them out because when I prepared my sermon on that story those are exactly the questions I asked myself (and more) and they seem to come naturally. As #10 says, I guess I should thank my English teachers throughout high school and college days. The classes forced me to read classics after classics, poetry after poetry, and literature after literature. But those questions just come naturally for me as I read Scripture, and I did not think that what I’m doing is something “special” that needs to be highlighted by a book.

  12. Todd said,

    October 10, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    # 11

    I am glad you have learned to be sensitive to literature, but I don’t think those questions come as natural to Reformed pastors as you may think, as Gordon and others have noted.

  13. October 10, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Some lectures by the author along that line.

  14. Richard said,

    October 11, 2009 at 4:07 am

    Todd, does TDG look at the work of Alter et al?

  15. Todd said,

    October 11, 2009 at 7:27 am


    No, it’s a very small book.

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