I am re-reading T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. It is a delightfully instructive and entertaining read. Our session is going to be going through it with the idea of studying how communication works, such that we can improve our teaching. The thesis of the book is relatively modest in scope. It does not claim to identify and solve all the problems with preaching today. Rather, Gordon claims to be identifying one major problem, and maybe the foremost problem. This problem has to do with the way in which the media, a primarily visual means of communication, has interfered with our ability to read texts well. He would go farther than that by saying that it has almost eradicated our ability to read texts well.
I agree completely with his thesis. However, I would like to point out something else, something less obvious, something deeper and less traceable, albeit still connected with Gordon’s analysis. I would argue that the almost complete division and separation among the disciplines of learning has resulted in ministerial candidates who do not offer the kind of well-rounded sermon that Gordon is promoting. What I typically find is that sermons these days are exegetical or systematic-theological or practical or historical or apologetic. This problem is not merely due to the fragmented way in which many seminaries teach the theological disciplines (though that may well be the main factor). It is also due to the colleges and high schools, which are usually oblivious to the problems that this Enlightenment-created phenomenon has produced. I realize that I am speaking somewhat generally, and that there are exceptions (specifically, most instructors and congregants desire the sermon to be practical, and so the practical aspect is often there alongside one of the other aspects; although, even here, the “practical” is usually truncated to mean “what is helpful to me at 9 AM on Monday”).
The effect this division among the disciplines has on preaching is profound, especially when aggravated by the factors that Gordon mentions. In the modern sermon, not only is there lack of unity in subject matter (“Point? What point?”), but there is also lack of unity in theological discipline (which is, ultimately, the viewpoint of the sermon). Most of the time, it seems that preachers will take one of the disciplines (their favorite) and preach from that viewpoint. As a result, their sermons are greatly truncated. What unites the theological disciplines, after all, is Scripture itself, as Abraham Kuyper so admirably says in his Principles of Sacred Theology (which ought to be required reading at every seminary in the last semester of study). It is like trying to pull a rope while grabbing only one of the strands: eventually the rope unravels.