shaping the messengers

Someone generously loaned me this book – Why Johnny Can’t Preach, by T David Gordon – and I read it last night in one sitting. It is very short, very readable, and very much recommended.


Its two arguments are, firstly, that most preaching in orthodox Reformed congregations is dire, and also, that this can be attributed to ‘the movement from language-based media to image-based and electronic media’.

Dire, in this context, is objectively measurable. When you hear a sermon, two basic tests can be applied: 1) What was that sermon about? and assuming there is an answer, 2) Was that the point of the text which it was based on? According to the writer, from his experience in Reformed American denominations,

“I would guess that of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point; I could say, ‘The sermon was about X.’ Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read.”

Dire, in this context, is also confirmed by painful anecdotal evidence of unconvincing pulpit delivery, inadequately organised or structured content, and restless inattentive hearers – even when the doctrines were orthodox and people loved their pastor.

So far, so alarming, and distressing. But Gordon’s purpose in writing is not just to stick the boot in. His second argument, where he offers an explanation for this state of affairs, is supposed to identify ways to improve things.


The second argument, however, is only partly satisfying as an explanation for why things are the way they are. If sermons are inadequate on the exegetical or expository front, Gordon’s explanation for this is that Johnny no longer has the concentration or attention to detail required for the close reading of texts. If, on the other hand, sermons are poorly constructed on the organisational or delivery front, Gordon’s explanation is that Johnny no longer knows the discipline of writing texts (letters, articles, journal entries, eg). In both cases, this is attributed to our experience of electronic media — the pace of information flow, the immersion in what is trivial, and the practice of communicating with people who aren’t physically, visibly present, all combine to deprive people, preachers and hearers alike, of the capacity for sustained thought, a sense of what is significant (in earthly or eternal matters), and the ability to communicate in a focused rather than a babbling and rambling way.

But this can’t be entirely the explanation. It’s just too easy, to indulge the Grumpy Old Slash Earnest Young Man syndrome and blame modern technology for all the ills of today’s society. Certainly, technology has a profound (if not necessarily dramatic) impact on thinking and learning and behaviour patterns. Ong and Havelock are mentioned at one point – Ong’s brilliant essay on how ‘writing is a technology that restructures thought’ deserves much more attention than it gets, and understanding the differences between literacy and orality is an ongoing challenge. (Allow me to digress here for a sentence by saying that most of the criticisms of telephone conversation in Chapter 3 are only the result of a mistaken application of the criteria for written text to spoken dialogue – something that would never have happened had Halliday’s differences between spoken and written language been taken into consideration alongside Ong.) But the bewailing of the technology of electronic media is only an echo of the plaintive cries that have gone up from learned men ever since they could record their thoughts in writing. The very technologies that allow them to formulate, express, and propagate their views are somehow spelling the doom of all the rest of society. In reality, whatever technologies may be available, and whatever restructuring goes on in people’s minds as they get used to using these technologies, the gospel remains applicable. People didn’t outgrow the gospel when it was inscripturated, nor when the masses learned to read it for themselves, and neither does TV or email unfit people for the gospel, however much adaptation they demand.

This is demonstrated by several examples offered in the book itself. When a doctor is explaining what surgery is available for your life-threatening condition, people then listen intently. Powerful public speakers can hold an audience captive for any length of time. You can sit for ages in a concert on the edge of your seat and still want an encore when the orchestra stops. But presumably doctors and politicians watch TV and patients and audiences check email. It’s not that people have lost the gift of communicating, or that listeners are now incapable of sustained attention. If preachers are unconvincing and congregations apathetic, it can’t be because of any fundamental change in speaking or listening capacity.

What then? Possibly, the analysis is slightly back to front: “[Ministers,] like the rest of us, [are] constantly distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty. It is not surprising that their sermons, and the alleged worship that surrounds them, are often trifling, thoughtless, uninspiring, and mundane. … The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternity – realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermon – have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another.”

Rather than technology making us dabble in trivialities, isn’t it at least possible that it’s our thoughtlessness in the weighty matters that makes us such suckers for creating and consuming frivolities. For sure, once we shrug off the thought of God, and lower our horizons so that eternity doesn’t impinge on our consciousness, we willingly confirm ourselves in the practice of frittering away our time and energies with the insignificant. But that is to press technology into bad service. There is nothing intrinsic to television that it should be so many people’s method of choice for amusing themselves to death, just as there is nothing intrinsic to written text that it should tempt the bookish into cold intellectualism devoid of spiritual life. We are just experts at adapting every tool for self-destructive ends, from fig leaf to video game – anything, everything, we can lay our hands on, to perpetuate the delusion that God doesn’t matter.

If the man in the pulpit isn’t compelled to be there, burdened with a message from the Lord, consumed with the urgency of the situation, desiring from his heart that his people would be saved – and if the people in the pews aren’t compelled to be there, yearning to know how they can be reconciled to God, hanging on the Word of the Lord, hunting high and low for the one who their soul loves – really, it’s not technology to blame.


What I would say then is that the usefulness of this book lies not in its critique of the preaching scene across the pond, nor entirely in its proposed diagnosis of the problem, but rather in its exceptionally clear depiction of what preaching is for, and what the soul in the pew can legitimately expect from the pulpit. Gordon explains beautifully (1) why preaching matters and (2) what its content should be like.

(1) Bad preaching is so serious for the Reformed, who are committed to the priority of preaching in the life and work of the Church: “When the Westminster Confession refers to the ‘conscionable hearing’ of the Word, this is what it means – to hear it as an act of conscience, which is bound to obey God. But the conscience is not bound to obey the minister; the minister is only to be obeyed insofar as he demonstrates to the hearer what God’s will is. Therefore, there is no religious use … in a sermon that merely discloses the minister’s opinion, but does not disclose the opinion of God. And there surely can be no use in a sermon that does not even disclose the minister’s opinion clearly.”

And (2) content-wise, it’s a question of preaching the gospel. The message, says Gordon, “should be the person, character, and work of Christ. What we declare, with Paul, is not ourselves, but Christ crucified. … The substance of our proclamation is the soteric fitness of the person and character of Christ, and the soteric competence of his work.” Further: “there is no need for some trade-off here, or some alleged dichotomy suggesting that we need to preach morality if we are to have morality. No; preach Christ, and you will have morality. Fill the sails of your hearers’ souls with the wind of confidence in the Redeemer, and they will trust him as their Sanctifier, and long to see his fruit in their lives.”

5 thoughts on “shaping the messengers

  1. And this is not a new problem. Spurgeon, to take just one example, was guilty, on many occasions, of not preaching explicitly from his text. In fact, in many sermons, he specifically says, up front, that he is not going to explicate his text, but rather use it as a springboard to preach on something else. The “something else” was always biblical and theologically orthodox, but related to his actual text in only the most tangential way. Someone (I’ve forgotten who) went through his more than 3500 surviving sermons and estimated that he preached the actual text something under 50% of the time (I don’t remember his exact figure – it was a long time ago).

    So, as I said, this is not a new problem.

    Relatedly, I think we need more explicitly theological preaching (as opposed to preaching through books). I had to correct an acquaintance of mine – a serious-minded Christian who has been a believer for something like 50 years – when she said that God is a Trinity of personalities. I informed her that He is a Trinity of Persons – not the same thing at all. My suspicion is that there are a lot of believers out there who have sat under good biblical preaching, sometimes for many decades (like my acquaintance) who don’t know some of the most basic things in theology. More explicitly theological sermons would help solve this problem, in my opinion.


  2. On the Spurgeon thing, dare I say that this is perhaps the style of preaching that in my denomination i think we might be most familiar with? Edifying, valuable, orthodox content, which may or may not evidence an especially direct connection with the text? In mitigation of Spurgeon, he was never boring. And in the choice between impeccable exposition and Christ absent, versus fuzzy exposition and Christ glorified, it would have to be the latter every time.

    On the other hand … there was a very interesting little flurry of articles some time ago, possibly in the Banner of Truth Mag but I seem to remember a couple of other voices as well, saying people are perhaps overdosing on “expository” preaching, where the minister works slowly through a whole book or whole passage, because in too many cases this was degenerating into little more than lectures on the grammar and the interpretation of the texts. (I paraphrase.) This struck me as fascinating. Because fidelity to the text doesn’t always mean a good sermon, if that makes sense – not that I’m entirely sure what a good sermon does consist of, but somehow Christ the Redeemer has to be prominently displayed (offered, even) to the hearers, otherwise it’s going to be less than satisfying.

    And definitely, it is alarming how lacking in theological basics people can be. The Trinity and the Person of Christ are two areas where the Church has had a rock-solid understanding from virtually its earliest days, so that in one sense there’s no excuse for people being unclear on these doctrines. Obviously in another sense they are the greatest mysteries of revelation, so from that perspective it’s not surprising that our understanding fails. But you do occasionally get glimpses that all is not well – in a way that would be avoided if people knew (understood) the Catechism, for example, or indeed if enough emphasis was given to the explicit confession and explanation of these doctrines from the pulpit. (Between the pulpit and the Shorter Catechism I learned all the theology I’ve got!) That quote above, that the minister is supposed to ‘demonstrate to the hearer what God’s will is’, means among other things that if people have to resort to doing catch-up reading in their own time, to fill in the blanks on basic doctrines, then the minister can’t be doing their job properly.


  3. I understand what you mean regarding expository preaching. There are other ways to preach the Bible – topical preaching, narrative preaching and, especially, theological preaching. Especially since World War II, though, verse-by-verse expository preaching has dominated. Too bad, in a way…


  4. Pingback: Vaughan’s bridge « ninetysix and ten

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