Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Preach (2)

My favorite chapter in T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach is Chapter 4: "A Few Thoughts About Content." After wrestling with the nature of preaching for 25 years, Gordon has concluded that the content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ. Kind of makes sense. Of course, preaching will included moral exhortation, but it is never appropriate, says Gordon, “for one word of moral counsel ever to proceed from a Christian pulpit that is not clearly, in its context, redemptive. That is, even when the faithful exposition of particular texts require some explanation of aspects of our behavior, it is always to be done in a manner that the hearer perceives such commended behavior to be itself a matter of being rescued from the power of sin through the grace of Christ” (70-71). So much for all our “relevant” messages helping us live more fulfilled lives. So much for emergent kingdom rhetoric that fails to mention the mercy of the King. So much for more than a few of my sermons over the years.

Gordon sees four alternatives to this type of gospel preaching: Moralism, How-To, Introspection, and Social Gospel/Culture War. That is, instead of preaching Christ crucified and the grace of God, we end up preaching “be better” or “here are three steps to being better” or “are you really a Christian?” or “we need to do more to fight the bad guys out there.” It’s not that we can’t do any of this as preachers--Gordon says there is a place for three of the four (everything but the how-to)--but “the pulpit is almost never the place to do this” (91). What must predominate in our preaching is the person, character, and work of Christ. And everything else should manifestly flow from these things. Don't leave the congregation wondering where grace come in to play. Don't make them assume you are rooting this application in the person and work of Christ. Connect the glorious dots for them.

Gordon concludes his much-needed rant with some practical advice on how to teach Johnny to preach.

1. Arrange for an annual review. Most pastors don’t know how bad they preach because they’ve never asked anyone and no one has felt bold enough to tell him the truth.

2. Cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely. Read literature. Try poetry. Read things that are written well and demand careful thought.

3. Cultivate the sensibility of composed communication. Write letters out by hand. Write out your prayers. And I would add, if you blog, don't settle for sloppy or merely serviceable prose. Try to write well, rather than just writing.

Despite the passion of his lamentation, Gordon asserts time after time that all is not lost. Johnny can learn to preach. But he needs to cultivate the sensibilities to do it. And the congregation needs to give him enough time, or make him take enough time, to craft a sermon that actually deserves to be preached.

The rebuke for us preachers is a good jab, because there’s hope in the rebuke. We don’t need to give up on preaching, or ourselves. We simply need God's grace to work harder at preaching better and extra grace to live slower, more reflective lives. God will honor his Word when it is thoughtfully, carefully, and humbly delivered. We can trust the Word to do the work. “My challenge to the comtemporaneists and emergents”, says Gordon, “is this: Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. I’ve never seen such a church. The moribund churches I’ve seen have been malpreached to death” (33).

Alright men–time to preach them back to life. Heaven help us.


Achilles said...

Concerning such posts, how about we put our voices/fingers where our mouths are...

Have you considered setting-up or contributing to a new blog that consists of a series of open 'letters' written by preachers/pastors to each other and their flocks... where every word is measured and every thought is considered; where the 'loftiness' of the register is only bettered by the 'highness' of the content; where good literature and good theology and good christian attitude are all being modelled concurrently...?

It's a thought. I for one would be prepared to invest in such a project. It's all very well each one of us having their own blog and writing 'thoughts' but in order for what you describe to happen, it must be a discipline that is activiely pursued, cultivated and practised - not merely mentioned in a couple of blog posts.

(...a couple of blog posts, it must be said, that have fiercely convicted and inspired).

Achilles said...

Inspired by your first post

J. D. McGinnis said...

Thanks for the post. I'm inspired now to get the book and check it out. I appreciate your blog post.

E. said...

Gordon's assertion that preachers need the time to craft a sermon that is worthy to be preached is an important point. Too many pastors busy themselves (or find their church expects them to busy themselves) with this or that committee or council, with being part of denominational or (eek) political boards or causes, that they don't have time to either take pastoral care of their flock (like visiting the home-bound, being there to pray for someone before surgery) or give sermon prep the necessary time. Instead they do just as Gordon said and start with a preconceived notion, find it quickly in a text ripped out of context, and dress it up with some tired, lame sermon illustrations from a book. Very little edifying or convicting content will ever come out of that truncated process. The kind of reading and writing Gordon seems to say is necessary is actually what English majors do with all of their time. Perhaps pastors should take more Lit classes in college? :)

ian said...

I have needed some time to reflect on the first post and perhaps my comments are more pertinent in regards to the earlier item.
I would like to speak from my own personal experience as a preacher. I would say that laziness can be a problem for a preacher in that there is often not enough study of the Bible and theology etc. Men are not fulfilling 2 Tim 2:15. All that to say that can be a problem for some preachers but it wasn't for me. I really struggled as a preacher following my theological training - Bible College and not Seminary. Of course I haven't got it altogether now but I was at the point of thinking I had mistaken my call. My preaching sunk to really low levels by the most generous of standards.
By the grace of God I discovered Spurgeon and it was of untold blessing to me. I know Spurgeon's sermons are not always the most exegetically accurate and some of them wouldn't be acceptable today but he taught me how to exhort, how to structure a message, how to have a main point and to how to preach Christ. Quite literally finding Spurgeon saved my ministry.
I believe I went to a good Bible College and am thankful for my time there in so many ways. However, even though I took classes in homiletics it was all so academic. I tried applying the principles I was taught and I tried turining the thoughts of a well known text book into practice but I found it binding and I had no liberty as a preacher. I think I became overly theoretical and tried to dot all my "i's" and cross my "t's". It was a disaster. Spurgeon liberated me from this, helped me enjoy preaching and helped me to be myself. I think this latter point is important because too often there is a problem with trying to be so technically correct that we fail to realize that God made all preachers of vastly different shapes and sizes - better styles.
Overall I would say the issue is that I learned to preach by example and not by theory. If I had my way I would not give anyone a text book on how to preach until they have been preaching at least five years. My thought is that we can learn to preach well by studying the great preachers. I am not so sure that studying lietrature is as helpful as has been put here. I think many of the great preachers (Spurgeon included)have been men who didn't actually read literature. I am not dismissing it but I just don't give it the weight that seems to be given here.

gospelmuse said...

Let's not forget that our dear brother, T. David, is not your run-of-the-mill pastor. David has himself claimed to be a *academician*, thus distancing himself from being strictly a *pastor*. If you've ever met David or heard his teaching, you'd know that he is not your typical Joe-pastor.

Prof. Gordon’s manners are refreshing, indeed. Thus, it comes as no surprise that this book has the real potential to help light the way toward our getting/keeping Christ central to not only preaching, but the entirety of the Church’s mission. All this other “stuff” (a nice way of putting it!) which distracts pastors, filling their color-coded day planners with “busyness,” has to be run through the apostolic grid of “preaching Christ alone” (1Cor.1.17,23; 9.16; 2Cor.4.2-3; Col.1.28; 3.16).

Part of the problem, as T. David likely points out in this book (which I have yet to read), is pastors and parishioners alike have a tendency to start out with the wrong set of questions. And, into such questions the Gospel is manipulated so that it fits. [SQUARE PEG…ROUND HOLE!] Instead of the Gospel dictating what questions it answers, the order ends up inverted and we end up without the Gospel.

The local pastor is forced to succumb to a great host of concerns that face all the walks of life found in the Church, and even those outside the Church (socio-political issues, etc). It’s no wonder these are the guys that have long been burnt-out as they race about trying to put out fires the Gospel was never meant to extinguish (at least not this side of Glory). Sadly, too many have long parted ways with trying to appropriate the Gospel to the fallen human condition and have resorted to taking up other measures with which to battle (2Cor.6.7; 10.4).

Honestly, as much as I appreciate T. David’s chief concern of keeping Christ central, I am not as comfortable with his remedy being found in men who are highly adept in poetry, literature, grammar, etc. It would be passages like Acts 4.13 that give me pause here. This isn’t to say that elders (not the singular “pastor” model of evangelicalism, etc) ought not strive to continue growing in the knowledge of the Lord (this means theology is important!), for they MUST! However, to assume that sending a young lad off to “wherever” to learn “whatever” will do the trick is na├»ve at best. (I understand T. David isn’t ignorant on this point.)

Spurgeon, as referred to by someone else here, approached the overall ministry of the Gospel in a somewhat unique manner. In particular, I’m referring to how he committed himself to training others for the Gospel ministry. This included the more localized academy model of preparing men, as opposed to the more university style bible college or seminary.

In this regard, I submit a few comments found elsewhere about the College:

“Spurgeon's College has always distinguished itself by giving opportunities for training to persons with little academic background. In the 19th century different courses were offered depending on ability. Spurgeon said in 1871 that someone who needed help with English should not muddle his head with Hebrew. To this day the College prides itself in offering tailor-made packages to those who are called by God to train for Christian ministry.”

It would be worth considering how might T. David Gordon’s assessment and Spurgeon’s methods pair up.


thexchangeconference said...

Hi Kevin -- Forgive me for using the comments field for something other than a comment on the post. I'm wondering how best to contact you regarding a speaking engagement? My email address is if you wouldn't mind letting me know. I saw a publicist's contact information for interviews about the book, but this is not book-specific. Thanks so much. In His matchless grace,
Mary on behalf of truthXchange

Kevin DeYoung said...


If you go to the church website ( and follow the links to the staff, you can get me email address there.

Thanks. And thanks to everyone else for the really thoughtful comments.

Rileysowner said...

I think the one thing that this made me remember is that while I was taught to preach, and to find the point, and to present the point well (something I sometimes achieve and sometimes don't) in seminary, while they constantly talked about being Theocentric and Christocentric in sermons, they really missed to boat in teaching how to do so. How? By often being focused on the Biblical text and what it taught and exhorted to the point of forgetting that all the scriptures are meant to point us to Christ. Too often I have preached texts and been faithful to them, but neglected to preach Christ as he should be preached. While I was faithful to scripture my sermons like that often descended into mere moral exhortations with very little Christ in them.

It was not until I experienced two things that a change started to happen to moved me to write truly Christ centered sermons. First, the Banner of Truth Minister's Conference did a conference with the theme of Christ centered preaching. Then last year Between Two Worlds posted on a series of lectures by Ed Clowney and Tim Keller posted by RTS on I-tunes U. The focus of the entire series was on Christ centered preaching. Now I strive to, and have some idea how to preach Christ from all the Bible. I don't always achieve it, bad habits are hard to break, but I now strive for it.

To sum up, the very approach many seminaries take to Old Testament and even New Testament exegesis often forgets that these texts are there to point us to Christ. That also needs to be changed lest we continue to have mere moral exhortations.

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