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VINE VOICEon 12 July 2009
Let's face it, most of the time rants aren't that constructive. Most of the time. But when they are well-intentioned, well-conceived and passionately concerned about things that matter... well perhaps they have their place. And then when they come from the pen of a man who thinks he is dying of cancer, and who therefore worries about what will happen long after he's gone, you really have to sit up and take notice.

Now, before we get too carried away, calling `Why Johnny Can't Preach' a rant is unfair. But it is a book that does not mince its words - it's succinct (only 100 pages) and direct. Johnny is the generic everyman preacher - and Gordon's terrible realisation is that he can't preach. His evidence is avowedly anecdotal (but he never gets personal). And the phenomenon he describes is all too recognisable. People put up with, or ignore, or (even worse) go out of their way to avoid, less than ideal sermons because their pastors have other assets and virtues - or because they have nowhere else to go.

In the course of the book, Gordon offers some wonderful correctives. Take this on sermon length:

I suggest that it is not the case (as is so often argued) that people have a reduced attention span today, and that this is why they object to the length of the sermons. People may very well have a reduced attention span, but even so, they have no difficulty giving attention to a discourse they deem important and well organized. Bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief...

I realized then that sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers (assuming he ever kindled it in the first place). (pp30-31)

In Gordon's view, at stake more than anything, therefore, is content. Issues of delivery and style are obviously important - but content is the key. And too much preaching has lost this for a number of reasons. He cites 3 primary concerns, all of which appear to be the results of a multimedia-saturated culture which is driven by the entertaining and the trivial.

- An inability to read texts closely and sensitively
- An inability to compose communication carefully
- An inability to distinguish the significant and essential from the mundane and irrelevant.

And, I'm afraid, it's hard to disagree. A lot of the time, preachers are guilty as charged. He overstates the evils of all things modern and media - and I'd have preferred a more nuanced approach to things like TV etc (see, for instance, Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter). But hey - he has a point. Several in fact.

I was particularly challenged by his first major contention, namely our failure to do justice to the intricacies and nuances of texts. His solution is that we learn to appreciate poetry (so suggests Shakespeare's Sonnets, for starters), primarily because with poetry, you have to read it slowly. There was a very nice quotation to C S Lewis on the difference between those who `receive' texts and those who `use' texts (unfortunately tucked away in a footnote):

The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them. from An Experiment in Criticism (CUP, 1961)

Very challenging.

Gordon's next challenge, after slowing reading right down, is to learn to communicate verbally without what he calls the inarticulacy of `verbal farts' (!) - sentences that begin but never quite, you know, just not really, kind of, come to a sort of... you know? His solution is that we discipline ourselves to write letters by hand - no spell-checker, no cut and paste, no editing on the job. With a hand-written letter, you actually have to plan (!) what you are going to say in advance. And if you make too many errors, you have to start again.

All in all, we should strive for a combination of all 5 of these preaching hallmarks (which Gordon distils from the 7 `Cardinal Requisites' in Dabney's `Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric'):

1. Textual Fidelity: does the significant point of the sermon arise out of the significant point of the text?
2. Unity: if 10 people are asked after the sermon what it was about, will at least 8 give the same (or similar) answer?
3. Order: could hearers compare notes and restate how the sermon progressed from point to point?
4. Evangelical tone: Is the sermon Christ-centred? Do hearers get the impression that the preacher is for them or against them?
5. Instructiveness: does the sermon significantly engage the mind, or is the sermon full of commonplace clichés, slogans and general truths? Is the hearer likely to rethink his/her views of God, society, church, or self, or his/her reasons for holding current views?

There is an urgency to this book which is infectious, but appropriate. Mercifully, since first writing the book in 2004, David Gordon has been in remission. However, he has published it now with only a few revisions, so that the original urgency of his writing remains. It is not a long read - but it is an important one. And I couldn't have agreed more with one of the endorsements on the back cover, which states, "Adds more to the homiletical conversation than ten books twice its length."
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on 17 June 2010
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, 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.
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on 11 February 2014
The writer has a very clear view of what he considers are essential elements in a sermon, which he bases on classical literature and rhetoric.

* Textual fidelity;

* Unity, i.e. a single subject throughout;

* Evangelical tone;

* Instructiveness;

* Movement - the development of the theme, one part building on another;

* Intellectual and emotional impact;

* Organisation.

These are good points to consider in preparing a sermon, but particularly one for denomination such as his own Presbyterians where the congregation has the expectation of a weighty discussion requiring some thought on their part. Certainly some of the more traditional and thoughtful congregations that I visit would value a sermon based on these principals.

I do have some concerns that he is effectively tackling today's soundbite culture head-on in that he is trusting that the congregation will be prepared to listen to a whole sermon (plus readings) and absorb the whole. In my experience, some will, and some won't, and the preacher should be aware of who he is talking to. It is better to take in to account the way that your particular congregation is used to taking in information, and that may mean embedding "sound bites" into the structure in case those are the only points remembered. If you look at the gospels, Jesus himself often compressed a lesson in to one or two sentences - e.g. "People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honour to your Father in heaven".

In summary - a useful book for a preacher to traditional congregations who are prepared to think about what they are hearing. I would say that it needs some adaptation when dealing with some other types of congregation, and that the preacher should take this in to account.
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on 28 April 2010
A review of this book is in danger of being as long as the book itself (108 pages).

One specific sentence in the book ably sums up the basic proposition of the author, namely,
"To preach the Word of God well, one must already have cultivated, at a minimum, three sensibilities: the sensibility of the close reading of texts, the sensibility of composed communication, and the sensibility of the significant."

The trouble is, although I didn't always disagree with some of the points, he would have us go back to the era of Shakespearean sonnets and hand-writing letters to get a grip on some of these "sensibilities". I wouldn't like to conclude that none of the disciples could preach, even though they were 'unschooled' men - yet this is a logical conclusion of his rant.

Preaching is clearly important, but we shouldn't be expected to have 'polished performances', as this is surely not the purpose of it. I can fully agree therefore with his statement that "the content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ."

For someone having a rant about communication, as well as anything else, the book does not, in my opinion, 'flow' well.
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on 13 December 2014
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on 16 October 2011
It took a long time to complete a moan about bad preaching before it finally suggested what could be done about it. The essence of this advice could have been condensed into one short paragraph.
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