Why Johnny can’t preach (Part 4)


Having heard that Johnny can’t preach, Johnny can’t read and Johnny can’t write (read parts 1, 2 and 3), one could be tempted to think that David T Gordon is an old crank, romantically reminiscing about how good things were when he was a lad, and complaining about the state of the world in ‘the modern times’ (along with young people and their loud music!)

In the last chapter of Why Johnny can’t preach, Gordon is quick to point out that if this is the impression he gives, it is certainly unintentional. Rather, he is hoping to cultivate great preachers, which, I assume, is a concern the majority of us hold—even if the current state of preaching in our neck of the woods is good.

Given his concerns throughout the book, the majority of his recommendations involve literature, but he also goes beyond that.

Here’s a summary of the suggestions he makes.

1. Perform an annual review

He suggests that each year, the minister should sit with a few trusted members of the congregation—the parish council or equivalent—and review the key tasks performed that year: teaching, administration, visiting, evangelism, training, and so on. While Gordon suggests this may be a useful tool for the preacher to find out how bad his preaching is, there might also be a glimmer of hope that the congregation appreciates the pastor’s ministry, and here is an opportunity for encouragement.

2. Cultivate a sense of reading texts closely

Encourage preachers to study literature as undergraduates or ‘amateurs’. Encourage the reading of poetry and classical literature. Read books for the sake of the literature, not just for the information.

3. Cultivate the sensibility of composed communication

Gordon suggests that those involved in, or preparing for ministry, should be in the habit of writing handwritten letters, as these force the writer to write carefully, without the availability of the ‘delete’ key. One easy way of doing this is to get into the habit of briefly writing to congregation members each time you pray for them. A quick, but thoughtful and considered note will produce numerous benefits.

He also encourages the writing of articles—for publication or just for local distribution. He doesn’t mention it, but I think blogging would fit in here somewhere.

4. Develop a sense of congregational responsibility

The majority of the book is aimed at preachers, candidates and trainers. But in the last two pages, we find that congregations also have a part to play in developing good preachers, well-summarized in the following.

As long as the typical congregation runs its minister ragged with clerical, administrative and other duties; and as long as such a congregation expects the minister to be out five or six nights a week visiting or at meetings, the minister will not have time in his schedule to read, write or reflect. (p. 107)

If congregations want good preachers, they need to allow the preacher time to prepare and develop. Gordon is not encouraging laziness or ridiculous hours, being locked away ‘reading for preparation’; but he is advocating that good preaching takes time. Perhaps for many ministers, the pendulum needs to swing away from the administration/management category back towards the preparation and thinking end of the spectrum of activity. For that to happen, congregational activity, support and ‘culture’ is required.


In the end, I did wonder if this last suggestion highlighted the weakness of the book. Gordon suggests that way forward for improving preachers is to work on the skill set of the preacher, think about how we train that skill set through seminary, and, at a very distant third, think about the congregation—the ‘receiver’ of the skill set.

However, I wonder if we need to increase the responsibility of the ‘receiving’ congregation. Do we as listeners have a more significant part to play in preparing preachers, and if we do, are we active in taking that role?

For example, if we commend the preacher on his jokes, his brevity and his snappy use of PowerPoint, then it is likely that that is where he will spend more and more of his time. But if we encourage him on his careful analysis of the text, his easy-to-follow presentation, and his incisive application, then that will create a culture of great preaching.

It’s easy to point the finger at the ‘aliterate’ nature of our culture. It’s easy to take pot shots at the seminaries and say what they should do better. But should we, as the recipients of weekly preaching, be seriously asking ourselves “What can we be doing to ensure that (our) Johnny can preach”?

2 thoughts on “Why Johnny can’t preach (Part 4)

  1. Point 2 is an interesting one!  Our senior minister has an amazing knack for the apt word, such that I suspect him of not only reading novels, but also… poetry! (I must ask.)

    WRT congregational responsibility—do people really congratulate ministers on their use of the Tool of Satan (PowerPoint)?  If I were to comment on something in a sermon, it is likely to be on an idea that has struck me (or, I suppose, if I couldn’t understand what the preacher was getting at!).  I think most people would probably not feel qualified to critique *delivery* of a sermon, apart from audibility and speed.

  2. Hi Ellen,

    This is pure speculation, but I do wonder that if we surveyed the reading habits of the preachers we know who have that amazing knack for the apt word, the results would be that they read widely, in all sorts of literature – including poetry (although I’m not sure limericks count as poetry!)

    I am glad you comment on the substance or the main point – but I wonder if that is not the normal experience of many ministers of congregation members. When I have been part of feedback groups or discussions about sermons or convention talks, just as much effort is given to discussing style as there is substance. While that has its place, it does have an influence on the listening culture which the congregation forms.


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