Why Johnny Can’t Preach

In some senses, this book could be regarded as a potential `Last Will and Testament’ of its author who, at the time of writing, was undergoing treatment for cancer with only a 25% percent likelihood of success. Mercifully, at the time of my reading this book, David Gordon is currently in remission, and equally mercifully, did not significantly edit his work which is marked by a sense of urgency and conviction. He speaks his mind, in a gracious but earnest manner, and about things that need addressing in such a way.

Gordon’s main contention is that the vast majority of today’s preachers have been so affected by trends in the contemporary media culture that they are unable to deliver sermons that are characterised by the 7 basic features of expository preaching as listed by D L Dabney – Textual Fidelity, Unity, Evangelical Tone, Instructiveness, Movement, Point and Order. Gordon does not primarily blame the theological training received by preachers but illiterate, soundbite, triviality obsessed world of communication that surrounds us all. This means that preachers are not able to read and write – at least not in the classical sense. We lack preachers who are orators, using sacred rhetoric, and who have learned the art of crafting words and expressions. Often, they can’t even string coherent sentences together mentally dependent on the delete button on their key board and the spell check on their computer.

Gordon admits that his thesis is based on his own, personal observation of things and reflects the scene among conservative evangelical churches in North America. However, I believe that what he sees and says is equally applicable here in the UK where exposition has become the exception. Here are a couple of his, admittedly unscientific, observations – “less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon…of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point…Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read…Such sermons are religiously useless.”

Just by way of a taster, here’s an anecdote from a footnote: “At a faculty meeting at Gordon-Conwell once, someone reported that a study had disclosed that one-half or ordained ministers leave the profession before retiring. Most of the faculty gasped at this, but my good colleague Doug Stuart remarked: `I wish the number were higher; only about one in five can preach.’ “

I do, though, disagree with Gordon in one point. I think he lets theological seminaries and training off too lightly. Part of the job of Bible Colleges is to identify and remedy wrong attitudes and habits, especially when they are as detrimental to effective Gospel communication as the ones Gordon rightly identifies. A few years ago a lecturer in homiletics in a UK Bible College told me that they no longer trained preachers to preach dogmatically and expositonially but to engage in dialogue and share personal insights because that was more acceptable. Bible Colleges need to prioritise passionate, careful, expository preaching because it is still one of the primary God ordained means for the salvation of unbelievers and the maturing of believers.

Gordon pulls no punches and given the seriousness of his subject, is right not to. We need – and to need to heed – more clarion calls like this.