Why Johnny Can’t Preach

While at the Acts 29 boot camp in November, Justin Anderson gave a great message on preaching. In his talk, he referenced this book Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media have Shaped the Messengers over and over. The book is a really quick read and one you won’t want to put down.

The premise of the book is what is wrong with preaching, how culture has shaped our communicators and how to rescue preaching. One of the things I appreciated about the author was his forthrightness and bluntly saying what he thought. I found myself laughing out loud a number of times and cringing when I thought of the things I have subjected people to in some of my sermons. I definitely left challenged to be a better preacher.

He starts off by talking about how pastors no longer no how to put a sermon together. Because few pastors write or read outside of magazines and the internet, they don’t know how to form sentences and thoughts. They don’t know how to put a sermon together that has unity and order. They are often thrown together and it leads to sermons with no point and it ends with the pastor talking about whatever he wants to talk about.

So what makes a good sermon? According to Gordon, “If the hearer’s duty in listening to a sermon is to be willing to submit one’s will to God’s will, then one can only do this if the preacher does his duty of demonstrating that what he is saying is God’s will.” Namely, someone pays the price, pastors, it is supposed to be you.

Paying the price means you put in the work, in the word, in commentaries, in preparing your heart and preaching the text to your life:  “A pastor is an ambassador, who represents another, declaring the will of that Other. Therefore, he is not entitled to preach his own insights, his own opinions, or even his own settled convictions; he is entitled only to declare the mind of God revealed in Holy Scripture. Since the mind of God is disclosed in Scripture, the sermon must be entirely faithful to the text – a genuine exposition of the particular thought of the particular text.” This is one of the reasons I love preaching through books of the Bible, it forces me to stay on topic, to preach what the book and context actually says, not my opinion or hot button issue that I want to talk about. It also doesn’t allow me to skip topics.

One of the things Justin shared that came from this book was how long to preach. When I first discovered Mark Driscoll, I made it a goal to preach an hour. In fact, I held this up as a good thing if I got there, that I somehow served my church better by talking longer. While there is a lot of talk about shortened attention spans, and that is true to a degree, Gordon points out that “bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief.” This is huge:  “Sermon length is measure not in minutes; it is measure in minutes beyond interest. The amount of time a preacher preaches past his listeners interest.”

But how does the media and our culture shape our pastors? Is it bad or good? Gordon said (this section is worth the price of the book), “In 1968, a presidential soundbite was 42.3 seconds, compared to 9.8 seconds in 1988. In 2000, it shrunk to 7.8 seconds. This means, pastors today are not at home with what is significant. Pastors today have attention spans less than that of a 4 year old in the 1940’s, who race around like the rest of us, 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. It is not surprising that their sermons are mindlessly practical, in the “how-to” sense. It is also not surprising that their sermons tend to be moralistic, sentimentalistic, or slavishly drafted into the so-called culture wars. 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.

Overall, the way forward according to T. David Gordon is for preachers to be better prepared. Not only in their craft and in what they say, but personally. That they preach to themselves and allow the word of God to seep into their bones and then preach. I remember being challenged by someone once when he asked, “Are you preaching because it is the weekend or because you have something to say.” I can tell in my own preaching when I am preaching because it is the weekend and I am not spiritually prepared, mentally prepared or just don’t know my stuff. And then I can tell when I am prepared, my heart is right, my sins confessed, I am studied up and ready to preach because I have something to say.