Why Johnny Can’t Preach (1)

I am a fan of T. David Gordon. He writes well. He speaks plainly. He doesn’t mince words. With some writers it’s quite possible for five people to read them and come away with five different conclusions about what the writer is saying. This is not so with Gordon and he is deeply concerned about the state of preaching in conservative evangelical and conservative Reformed circles.

As he explains in the preface, this concern has been developing for 30 years. He hesitated to write the book because he feared that by indicting preaching his pastors might think he was indicting them. When he was diagnosed with stage-3 cancer, however, he decided that he had to write the book. Mercifully, his cancer is in remission, but the state of preaching is, we must say, still quite unhealthy.

Gordon has every right to be concerned. My experience is that preaching in evangelical and Reformed circles is too often not very good. As Gordon notes in a footnote ( 12–13 n. 1) in the introduction, sermons in the mainline tend to be better crafted but less filling and sermons in more conservative pulpits more filling but poorly constructed. There’s a reason for that. Anecdotal evidence suggests that mainline preachers tend to be better educated but believe less and “sideline” preachers tend to believe more but they tend to be less able to express themselves. The ideal is to marry orthodox content with suitable rhetoric. As Machen used to say: suaviter in modo, fortiter in re (winsomely in manner, strongly in substance).

Gordon is not pursuing an idiosyncratic agenda. His concerns are not whether people agree with him on questions such as “how to preach Christ from the Old Testament.” Rather, he argues that “few sermons have unity; and the lack of unity is a serious, if not fatal defect in a sermon” (13-14). The concern is not, as some might assume, that “ours is not a day of great preaching” (14). Rather, the concern is for the “average Christian family sitting in the average pew, in an average church on the average Sunday (14). The problem is not lack of gourmet meals, it’s the lack of basic nourishment.

The point is not even to hammer (already defensive) pastors. The point is to note the connection between changes in the media and culture and how those changes have affected the ability of preachers to do the things necessary to preach well. He is asking: “How has the movement from language-based media to image-based and electronic media altered our sensibilities and how, in turn, has this change in sensibility shaped today’s preachers?” (16).

Reformed folk should take a special interest in this book. First, because we confess that it is by the “due use” of this particular “ordinary means” to which God the Spirit has attached promises (Rom 10) and through which he ordinarily works to bring the spiritually dead to life and to build up believers (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65; Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 88). The Reformed liturgy is structured in a dialogic pattern: God speaks and the people respond with his Word. Thus, the sermon (lit. “the word”) is at the center of our liturgy since it is there where God speaks to us most extensively. The Second Helvetic Confession famously notes that the preaching of the Word is the Word (if the heading is correct). Obviously, the sermon must be faithful to the text of Scripture to be “the Word.” Not everything that proceeds from every preacher’s mouth is “the Word.” That’s the problem. We’re not talking about an occasional failure to communicate. We’re talking about, as the tech guys say, “a systems” failure here. More to come…

You can hear an interview with Gordon at Reformed Forum.

Part 2.

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22 comments

  1. I heard the interview at the Reformed Forum, and, as a pastor who preaches regularly, I was duly convicted. I majored in English, but realize my communication is poor and I never liked poetry much. I plan to get the book and listen again to the interview. Also, Dr. Clark, a week or so ago, you penned a list of things regarding preaching which sounded eeirily similar to what I heard from my professor at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (particularly not using a manuscript). Were you penning an ad hoc list or were those items from another source or something else?

  2. Scott, thanks for this post. This subject interests me incredibly and has been a concern of mine for some time. I look forward to reading the book, perhaps with our interns this summer or fall.

  3. Isn’t there something a little odd about Gordon’s thesis?

    I haven’t read the book yet, but prima facie when Paul says that his own preaching lacked “wisdom of words” (1 Cor 1:17) … I always took that to mean both in substance (ie, not so-called wisdom apart from Christ) and in form (ie, not polished rhetorical style). Paul seems to indicate that his lack of rhetoric was actually fit for the gospel ministry, as it is marked primarily by the Spirit’s efficacy, and not an effect enhanced by following the natural laws of good public speaking.

    I don’t think the import of this would be that Paul is encouraging that preachers cultivate poor public speaking, but rather, to put it briefly, if Johnny can’t preach, then it’s because he’s not genuinely preaching Christ.

    In my own experience [and I’ve heard a significant number of preachers in the OPC and PCA, for example], the preaching is so poor because these guys still don’t believe that the Word rightly preached only and ever ultimately proclaims two things [in all its various particular ways]: 1) the person of Christ and His definitive accomplishment of full redemption for His people, and 2) how this applies to His people in union with Him. A good number of NAPARC preachers, seemingly, don’t know how to preach Christ from the New Testament either.

    None of this undermines the validity of oratory, rhetoric, and “media ecology” or whathaveyou. It’s just to say that the theological fundamentals still seem to be at stake. And Paul’s testimony seems to be that these fundamentals are both necessary and sufficient for “good preaching,” poor rhetoric not withstanding.

    What do you say, Dr. Clark?

    • Gregory,

      Obviously I don’t disagree w/1 Cor 1:18ff. I just gave a devotion on it last week. It’s on the WSC website.

      Paul was concerned about the Corinthian quest for power (via rhetoric or via stoicism or via epicureanism or whatever). Paul was quite capable of being eloquent. The power of the gospel is the Spirit working through the announcement of the facts of redemption. I agree that too many ministers don’t trust the story or the Spirit sufficiently. I suppose that’s true of all of us.

      Still, ambassadors for Christ ought to train well and diligently to read texts well and to explain them well. They owe that duty to Christ.

      This installment only covers the opening chapter.

  4. If the devotion you gave is posted to iTunes, or is elsewhere on audio, I’ll listen to it. Thanks.

    I look forward to your further thoughts on Gordon’s book. For now, there seems to me an important difference between such skills as “not mumbling; making your meaning understood to the hearers” and (what might be called) “the aesthetic craft of poetic oration.”

    The latter is certainly a product of good education, broad reading, practical training, experience, etc. But I don’t quite see that it is a genuine imperative for gospel ministry.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like to know that a preacher is also a scholar, has a mastery of the intellectual currents of both the past and our own day, and is able to wield the English language with art.
    But I don’t see how this is a Scriptural requirement of preachers.

  5. I disagree with Mr. Clark’s contention that we are in fact dealing with “a systems” failure here. Where ever and when ever there is a true Church there is church discipline being exercised, the sacraments are being properly administered, and the pure Word of the Gospel is being preached. The problem is not with the Church but with those institutions which identify themselves as such but are not, and are rather synagogues of Satan. These two are easily discerned.

          • I stand corrected. I assumed that your question was rhetorical, that you were not being serious, and that you were not concerned with an answer to it.

            In view of the seriousness of your question then, my point is that if we identify the Church in the way that the Belgic Confession identifies it, by definition the Gospel is being preached, the sacraments are being administered, and church discipline is being exercised; in short, all things are being managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected.

            What then, is Mr. Gordon really saying? Is he suggesting that there are things missing in the Church that need to be implemented, things to be managed NOT according to the pure Word of God? We hope not, for then he would be asking us to violate the regulative principle of worship.

            Don’t miss my point. I am simply saying that if the institution that is in question is a true Church, then certain things necessarily follow. Again, I do not believe the issue to be the poor education of those who minister in the Church, but rather there are not many true Churches as should be apparent. Apparent that is, if you agree with the BC that these “two churches are easily known and distinguished from each other”.

            ps. thank you for letting me participate in your blog!

  6. I take Paul’s meaning in 1 Cor. 1 to be that he did not craft the message in order to make it more pallatable to his hearers, not that he didn’t seek to make it intelligible or to communicate it as clearly as he possibly could. The accent there is on the foolishness of the message of the cross, which is utterly contrary to the thinking of Jews and Greeks. What Paul is saying is that he proclaimed that message boldly and with power without altering a single element of it in order to tickle the ears of his hearers. It’s not clear to me that rhetorical style *necessarily* has anything to do with it.

  7. Cliffton’s comments seem to me like the logical conclusion of the URC’s position on true/false churches.

    I’d love to find out that that’s not the case.

    E

    • I don’t think so. Gordon’s interest isn’t in sorting out true and false churches but whether preaching is done well. Surely true churches have an interest in good preaching as a opposed to bad. The Directory for Public Worship was interested in good, thoughtful, careful preaching. So was Perkins.

      I don’t understand the dichotomy between “if true churches then the quality of preaching doesn’t matter.” Non sequitur.

      We can do both, distinguish between true and false churches AND insist on good preaching AND diagnose what’s wrong with a lot of preaching.

      • Mr. Clark writes: “I don’t understand the dichotomy between “if true churches then the quality of preaching doesn’t matter.” Non sequitur”

        Cliffton: Who has made this argument? I have not and have already indicated that this conclusion would not follow. And you made the claim that you were not. For if you recall, you previously stated,

        “So, it doesn’t matter if Rev. Johnny is illiterate or ill-spoken or incoherent?”

        And I then indicated that “Your conclusion does not follow from what I wrote.” To which you responded,

        “I’m asking questions. They aren’t conclusions.”

        Which one is it?

    • Echo writes: Cliffton’s comments seem to me like the logical conclusion of the URC’s position on true/false churches.

      Cliffton: No, it is the logical conclusion of the Belgic Confession, that is, the Reformed position. And, it is the failure of churches that identify themselves as Reformed to apply this teaching of the BC which is all so evident in there unwillingnes to discipline those who teach false doctrine, thereby manifesting themselves as a false church. The distinction is not between “preaching the gospel” and “preaching the gospel well”, but rather between what is true and what is false, as the BC so “well” points out.

  8. I agree with what you said, of course.

    Maybe I misunderstood, but it seems like C’s comments were basically:

    If it is a true church, it is such because the preaching is genuine/biblical. If the preaching is genuine/biblical, there’s no problem.

    If the preaching is not genuine/biblical, it’s not a true church but a synagogue of Satan, and therefore the quality of the preaching no longer matters.

    It seems like what you’re saying, however, is that preaching can be pure (genuine/biblical) and yet still be bad.

    For my part, I think a less pure (not false) church such as a “reformed” Baptist church can have decent preaching, while a (true) Presbyterian church can (and frequently does) suffer from awful preaching.

    (Though that part about the “reformed” Baptist church having decent preaching is only theoretical; they all tend towards moralism in my reckoning.)

    It seems to me that I can hold to these possibilities, at least in theory, because Presbyterians conceive of churches, not just in categories of true and false, but in terms of more pure or less pure. So to me, a “reformed” Baptist church is not a false church, but a less pure church (even though not truly Reformed).

    I am squeamish about what I perceive the BC to be saying about the distinction between true and false churches. I am uncomfortable with the fact that a URC won’t let a “reformed” Baptist take communion in their church. It doesn’t seem like by doing so you are excluding them from fellowshipping with you, but with Christ. It seems like that makes the statement that they are not Christians. I am uncomfortable with that.

    • I appreciate your squeamishness but I think it’s a big assumption that “more or less pure” refers to Baptist Churches. This relates to the post on the WCF 28.4-5. In context, “more or less pure” most probably refers to Anglican Churches. The dominant group in the Assembly was Presbyterian. The arrival of the Scots shifted the balance. The entire assembly was paedobaptist. Why would they have made those (whom they described still as “Anabaptist”) as “less pure”? That may be the modern view, but it’s to read that tolerance back into the 17th century is anachronistic.

  9. The Belgic Confession is clear that true churches engage “in the pure preaching of the gospel.” It seems that the issue is always “what” and not “how.” If the issue becomes “how” then I think it is one of two problems – a congregation with too many itching ears or a “minister” whom the church should have recognized as not being called to preach.

    As an aside, I think both of these problems partly stem from the fact that so-called seminaries churn out “pastors” like a factory assembly line. The fact that there are so many men “preaching” badly may be due to the fact that, despite their diplomas, they are *not* preachers.

  10. I’m a huge fan of TDG.
    And I think I need that book as much as anyone. My wife is getting it for me…I hope.
    p

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