Why Johnny Can't Preach (6)

gordonwhyjohnny Part 5

The situation is not hopeless. In the history of the church, those times when she has prospered are those times when, in the midst of a low point, she has engaged in reflection and self-criticism (95). What is needed here is to “cultivate those pre-homiletical sensibilities that are necessary to preach well.” The first thing preachers need to learn to do is to read texts closely. Before one preaches the Word, one must be able to read it well. The next skill is that of “carefully or thoughtfully composed speech” (96).

Preachers should not assume that, because they have an audience or a congregation that, therefore, they are doing a good job as a preacher. It doesn’t follow. “Many people, myself included, consider it a Christian duty to attend the worship of God on the first day of the week” (97). Those who take this view attend to worship whether the preaching is excellent or wretched. One can test 5/6 of Dabney’s “cardinal requisites” for preaching by calling members of the congregation randomly mid-week to ask them what the sermon was about. If folk don’t recall or if they all have different ideas of what the sermon was, then the sermon failed. Another step might be to list the various ministerial tasks (counseling, visitation, teaching, preaching etc) on a form and ask the congregation to rank them “in order of their perception of the minister’s competence” (98). Perhaps a sermono or two could be submitted annual to presbytery for review (the submissions being anonymous) for annual review. There are ways of beginning a regular process of evaluation which might lead to the improvement of preaching.

One step preachers may take to improve their ability to read texts is to begin to study poetry or verse (100). Prose texts may be read for information but not so poetry or verse. Gordon cites the example James Montgomery Boice, who pursued the study of English literature at Harvard for his undergraduate training. This was great preparation for analyzing sacred texts (101). Pre-seminary students should not major in religion before seminary. They should major in English lit. (Gordon notes that no one ever heeds this advice but he keeps pitching. It all sounds strangely familiar). Read C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism (102). Read anthologies of pre-World-War II poetry. These sorts of resources help to cultivate the humane, literary sensibilities necessary to good preaching (102).

One way to cultivate the skills and sensibilities needed for composed speech is write letters by hand. It takes time. it requires deliberation. There is no “delete” key and no emoticons “to compensate for lack of clarity” (103). When praying for one’s congregation, keep letterhead nearby. “Often, while praying, one will get an inclination to write a brief personal note” (103). Such communiques not only encourage the congregant but cultivate “the habit of thoughtful composition, which will ultimately spill over into sermons.”

Write. It “matters not at all whether any” of what you write gets published” (103). Writing forces one to organize one’s thoughts. This is why Samuel Miller recommended that ministers write out their devotional prayers. This helps facilitate the skill of public prayer. Take a “nonreligious” course on public speaking (104). “Once religious texts are involved, too many complicating factors enter the picture.” In a nonreligious speech class, the focus would be on the act and art of public speaking (104-05). Organizations such as Rotary International help improve public speaking. Meet with another minister with whom to share ideas and discuss sermons.

“[H]uman sensibilties can be cultivated….” One may learn to appreciate Brahms or Shakespeare with a moderate degree of effort (106), but this won’t happen so long as a congregation continues to “run its minister ragged with clerical, administrative, and other duties; and as long as a congregation expects the minister to be out five or six nights a week visiting or at meetings, the minsiter will not have time in his schedule to read, write, or reflect” (106-07). One place to challenge and change congregational expectations is in the calling process. Most calling committees have no idea what they actually expect of the minister. Were one to add up the expectations it may run to 75 hours a week.

Our current media culture will not develop the sensibilities necessary for good preaching. Congregations also will likely have to be taught what it is necessary. Johnny is an image-bearer and can preach better but he will “cultivate them only if he makes some self-conscious and deliberately counter-cultural choices about how he wishes his sensibilities to be shaped” (108).
— mdash; mdash;


I’ve surveyed this volume with relatively little comment. It’s brief and I hope that all pastors and congregations will take the time to read it carefully and consider what Gordon is saying. At least one review of the book that I read recently did what reviewers often do: criticized the book for not being the book the reviewer would have written. This review also claimed that Gordon has completely missed the problem, to wit: that most who are in the pulpit today are not spiritually qualified. Gordon can defend himself but the second of these criticisms is wrongheaded but I suppose he speaks for a good lot of people. First of all, it’s not a binary choice. We must insist on having both sets of qualities: spiritual qualification for ministryand literacy. To set them against each other is a false choice. The Apostle Paul did not commend himself on the basis of his literacy and persuasive speech. True enough, but the context of those remarks was a culture that valued rhetoric for its own sake, for entertainment. Does that describe our setting? Further, the Apostle who downplayed his rhetorical abilities was a highly trained, most literate, and a most careful reader and expositor of texts. The power of preaching is the work of the Holy Spirit and he is quite capable of using bad preaching but this is no recommendation of bad preaching! Yes, the Spirt is capable of using Balaam’s ass, (and he still does) but we ought not to make this a goal. Rather, our goal ought to be that ministers should be both spiritually mature and literate. We’re not gnostics. We’re not dualists. The ministry comes to us embodied in humans speaking to and communicating with other humans. “Good letters” or “humane letters” is not mere artifice, it’s an act of charity by the minister toward the congregation. It’s a mercy to the people whom God has entrusted into his care to take the time to learn to read and speak well.

Gordon is right. We cannot expect the broader culture to help us. The ugly truth is that our primary and secondary educational systems are collapsing and they have been imploding for decades. The rate of decay increases with the speed of electronic communication. As the new dark ages descend upon us, as the volume and frequency of electronic Babble increases, we must take it upon ourselves to be sure to preserve learning and, in that way, our humanity is preachers, as readers, and as expositors of the Word. In our Medieval-Reformation course, one of the sub-themes I pursue is that the Renaissance did “drop out of the sky,” All the great teachers in the church were not only theologians but they were also students of the arts and letters. They all studied the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and most of them studied the Quadrivium (math, astronomy, music, and geometry). During the darkest intellectual periods of the west, the church kept learning alive, not merely for the sake of learning, but because it reflects our nature as image bearers, as rational creatures, and for the sake of the ministry. If it was possible to keep alive the liberal arts and to put them to the service of the kingdom in the 6th century, how much more so now?

I’m grateful to David for writing this book. It took courage to tell the truth, but truth-telling is the first step toward Reformation. I hope all our students at WSC will read it and I hope that seminarians and pastors everywhere will read it and take it to heart.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    I agree with your comments on Gordon’s book (and my review/rant – which was why I made sure I included rant in the title, so no one would think it was a straight review). It is not a binary choice, yet many churches make it such. I cannot recall a book I have read on the recovery of proper preaching that deals with both issues (other than Eric Alexander’s small booklet on the subject). Perhaps I’m reading the wrong material, but I can’t think of a recent (last 20 years) book on the recovery of biblical preaching that has dealt with the unction issue. They all seem to deal with everything but, thus making an unconscious binary choice from silence.

    I have sat through ordination exams and seen calls issued to men who were very literate and erudite, but couldn’t preach to save their necks. One such ordination of an associate pastor ended is less than two years after the candidate had so butchered the text (multiple times) that the congregation asked him to leave. Upon hearing this, one of the presbyters who voted for his ordination was dismayed, saying, “I only voted for him because he would be serving under Rev. ****. If he’s on his own, there’s no telling how this will end.” This presbyter was and is a very well-liked and respected professor in a prominent Reformed seminary. Yet to hear these words come out of his mouth shocked me. As I probed further, I learned that, while most of the presbytery thought the candidate could craft a great sermon (his education from prep-grad schools read like the pedigree of royalty), what was lacking was, as one man put it, “the Spirit.”

    In my humble opinion, those who are anointed by the Holy Spirit can be taught how to preach (be it comprehension, linguistics, etc.), but those who are not so anointed will never be able to preach with authority no matter how many classes they take. Yet this seems to be the paradigm in a great number of the churches I have been to. Should it be a binary choice? No. But in reality, too often, it is.

    • SD,

      I think we’re analyzing similar problems from different paradigms. I don’t know exactly how to measure “unction.” I’m not the Holy Spirit and I don’t get direct, immediate revelation. I’m just a Christian who reads the bible, with the help of the Holy Spirit working through the Word and sacraments. I read the Scriptures with the church, with the confessions. I look for objective criteria. If a man has no desire to preach, he should not be in the pulpit, but one’s internal sense of calling develops over time and is manifested in different ways in different men.

      As a sem teacher what I see is a good number of men with desire to preach but without the training or the structure or the background. I can’t do anything about “unction.” That’s the Spirit’s business. I can help influence training and preparation.

      I guess we don’t disagree about everything. No one should be called to ministry by the church because of his academic pedigree and yet may I be so bold as to say that mere “unction” is not enough. Surely you’ve heard the old story about the farmer and PC in the clouds.

      As I say, it’s not an either/or choice. I think we agree about this. We should be cautious, however, about setting up tests to determine whether someone has sufficient unction before he is called and ordained. The church has a high (the highest) and holy calling to evaluate men thoroughly and honestly. If we fail to do our duty at the local and regional levels we fail Christ and his church.

      • Dr. Clark,

        We do agree. I am not arguing for tests of the Spirit or trials of anointing. I am, however, arguing that a man’s internal sense of the call should be recognized and affirmed by the church as true. This is what the church did in the case of Stephen in Acts 6 and, while none of us can do anything about unction (which is the Spirit’s business) the business of a church is very much to recognize that unction as part of the calling and ordaining process. And I agree, “unction” is not enough – which is why I have great respect for you and those you work with. It is not an easy job you undertake to accomplish. However, my concern is (which I have seen multiple times) that once a man has the M.Div. in his hand it seems as if the church too often accepts him as a preacher without question or much effort in the way of discernment, sometimes (unconsciously) falling into the either/or trap that should be avoided at all costs for the life and health of the body of Christ.

  2. I agree with most of what is said here. The only thing that I wonder about is this: I am a firm believer that prepares men, calls them, and sends them into his work. Why then do we have men who do not fit this paradigm (i.e., they are [i]not[/i] prepared) in the ministry? How is it that we can send a man, who is not able to preach, into the pulpit? Isn’t there something wrong with that? I think there is.

  3. SD,

    Dr. Clark is not saying that a minister need not be called by the Spirit, but need ONLY a classical humanist education to be a good preacher. That’s not what he’s saying at all. I’m troubled that that’s what you think he’s saying. I can’t imagine why.

    Rather, he is saying that GIVEN the fact of the man’s calling, his preaching can still be complete crap without a proper education. The ministry brings with it all sorts of temptations to cut corners and be lazy as it is; temptations that are made only more powerful by all the demands on the pastor’s time. How many preachers do you suppose are even giving 100% on their sermons every week? Many are, but many are not. Even the ones that are giving 100% might not be well trained, so that 100% doesn’t mean all that much.

    This is who Gordon and Clark are addressing. Men who truly are called, men who belong in the pulpit, but who could be doing such a better job than they are. This is who is being addressed.

    Dr. Clark suggests that you and he are looking at the same problem, but I would humbly disagree. Dr. Clark is addressing the man who is called but lacks, while YOUR concern seems to be someone who isn’t called and doesn’t belong in the pulpit regardless of his skills or expertise.

    To be sure, sometimes men who have no business in the pulpit nevertheless end up there. And sometimes they end up there because presbyteries are possibly not guarding that pulpit closely enough. Just ask Dr. Clark – it’s hard to be the bad guy. No one wants to be the only one to stand up and say, “Hey, this guy doesn’t belong in the pulpit!” That takes a lot of courage sometimes, especially when others in the presbytery don’t feel that way.

    I think your experience that you relay is troubling. You are right to be outraged by it. If someone is not called, they’re not called.

    However – I’d just like to give you some food for thought. There can be such a thing as a man who is called to preach who is nevertheless sort of sleep walking before his ordination because he hasn’t really been taught how to preach properly.

    What I mean is, some guys are sort of…late bloomers. Some guys go to seminary, and for some reason, probably because seminary goes by SO quick and you just don’t have time to stop and think about what you’re learning, things just don’t really sink in. So they graduate seminary, but they’re still not really sure what they believe. Then suddenly, one day, something strikes them, and boom, something finally clicks. It can happen.

    Since that can happen sometimes, I suspect that in the story you relate, the presbyters felt like the guy was going to be under another pastor’s supervision. I think perhaps some men think of an assistant pastor position as a glorified intern. That’s a shame, but it’s true. So they don’t really look at it like a full blown ordination. I think that’s regrettable. Nonetheless, it’s not hard to see that how they might say to themselves, “Hey, maybe he’s just a late bloomer. Something hasn’t clicked yet. This assistant pastor position is just what he needs to get a little seasoning before he’s ready to be a REAL minister.” And just like that, a man has rationalized a wise and pious reason for sitting on his hands and not speaking up about a guy’s crap preaching.

    I’m not justifying it. Nietzsche said that people can endure suffering so long as they understand WHY they’re enduring it; but if their suffering cannot be explained, then it’s absolutely maddening and unendurable. What I’ve said explains, it does not justify.

    If you really want to do something about it, then get ordained as a minister or an elder and be the one with the iron set to stand up on the floor of the presbytery and be the bad guy that says, “Mr. Moderator, I’d like to speak against the motion. That sermon was pathetic. We shouldn’t act like this ordination is some lesser ordination just because he’ll be an assistant pastor. If we vote to ordain, then we are certifying him to take his own flock, and I think he’s clearly not ready for that.”

    I’m a seminary student. I want to be a minister. Outrage such as yours is a big part of my motivation. It’s one thing to sit in the pew and complain. It’s quite another to put your money where your mouth is, so to speak, and do something about it. If you feel this passionately about it, then do what needs to be done to correct the situation. Obtain a voice on the presbytery by becoming a minister or an elder.

    Are you willing to do that? I don’t know if you’re one of those guys or not, but there are many who only want to criticize others without doing anything to pitch in. In my humble opinion, if a man isn’t willing to serve, then I fail to see how he has the right to an opinion. But I’m sure you are willing to serve. You sound like it. So serve!

    • I am and I have.

      Dr. Clark and I are looking at the same problem – why Johnny can’t preach. If the assumption going in to the argument is that the calling is already confirmed and supported, then we have absolutely no disagreement. But such an assumption is not stated, either by Gordon or Clark. Therefore, my contention is that, in order to avoid the binary choice or either/or argument, engaging the full issue is warranted – that includes unction. And while it’s true that the unction is the “Spirit’s business,” as Dr. Clark points out, it is very much the church’s business to recognize it (see Acts 6 and the selection of Stephen). Too often the old adage in society, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” finds truth in the churches, “those who can, do; those who can’t, preach.” This is not an indictment against calling, education, the pastorate (of which I am a part), or anything else other than the recognition of a sad reality in our churches.

      I applaud your desire to be in the ministry. So I say to you in the spirit of your comment, if you are truly called, please study hard and finish quickly. You are much needed. But if you are not actually called, please find another line of work and save the church from another educated pontificator who can’t actually preach.

      • SD,

        Gordon’s book and my comments assume the spiritual qualifications to preach.

        Remember, in the Reformed approach to calling there are two parts, the internal and the external. The latter is often neglected. The internal develops over time, but if the church (congregation, consistory/session, and classis/presbytery has done due diligence and has confirmed an external call then that is very important. Remember that Gregory the Great, Augustine, and Calvin were all called externally into pastoral ministry more or less against their personal inclinations! Who would say that Calvin didn’t have a “call” to preach and yet he might not pass all the tests with which you seem to operate.

      • SD,

        When you are taking a look at the finished product (i.e., the preacher in the pulpit), you are only getting a very narrow window into the complex set of factors that lie behind that man’s entering the pulpit (a fact which I am sure that, as a pastor, you yourself know well enough).

        Perhaps the zeal for God’s Word and the love for the people are actually present in the man, but they are offset by other factors so that they do not shine through in the eyes of others. What will you say to this man? To be sure, in the case I have described, something is wrong. But how will you go about fixing the problem?–by automatically challenging his sense of call and sending him away, or by also being open to the fact that there might be other factors that weigh down his pulpit activity and appear to overwhelm a call which, perhaps, is really there?

        As well, for some who really are called to the ministry, the best advice might not always be to “finish quickly,” but instead in at least some cases, to take your time, soak it up, and to approach your education in the spirit of slow and reflective meditation.

        • I’m with Junker J on this. For most pastors in training, seminary is not something through which a man needs to “speed.” I’ve seen a few men about whom it could be said, “He’s ready now…” before they graduate. There are a few of whom I’ve thought, even after graduation, “He’s not ready.” Most fellows need the mentoring time with the faculty, time in the classroom, time in internships, time with other students. Many of our students do not have much experience (if any) in confessional Reformed churches. They need time to learn, to adapt, to grow and mature. Even then, most of them need an internship after graduation where they can be mentored by a confessional senior pastor.

          Most fellows only go through seminary once. It’s important that they do it well.

      • SD,

        I’ve always thought that the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” to be very unfair to teachers. I lament your application of it to ministers. I guess I see preaching as doing. Sunday morning worship is the true work of the Church.


  4. Thanks for reviewing this book. I for one, really appreciate that Gordon wrote it and found it extremely helpful in understanding why the preaching is the way it is sometimes.
    As for unction, the man has to have a desire to preach, but the local church is supposed to have some input also or does that come only after seminary and the student/licentiate gets a call?
    If after and not before, could explain why men get all the way through seminary and into the churches, even seriously believing in themselves that they are called, when they aren’t.

    • Bob,

      Yes, the local church should be involved in several ways:

      1. The local congregation should nurture carefully future preachers by teaching them the Word, by teaching them and modeling for them the Reformed confessions (it really helps to produce Reformed pastors if churches will be Reformed in theology, piety, and practice).

      2. The local congregation should pay attention for young men who might have the gifts for ministry. Not every articulate young man is called to ministry. Not every young man with academic gifts is called to ministry, but some of them are. Do parents ever say, “When my boy grows up, I hope he’ll be a pastor”? They used to do but do they any longer?

      3. The local congregation recommends (through it’s consistory or session or pastor) men to Presbytery to “come under care.”

      4. As noted below, the congregation (pastor) recommends them to seminary.

      5. If the student goes away from his home congregation to study they can support him (this part often gets neglected!) with prayer and with financial support.

      6. The local congregation in which a student worships and serves during seminary has a CRUCIAL role in shaping future pastors. I’ve only realized how important this is in recent years. A congregation that contradicts what a student is being taught makes his training mere outward formality and, in effect, makes his training “dead orthodoxy.” If what he is learning isn’t put into practice in the local congregation during seminary then a great tension is created because he doesn’t get to see the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. It makes his education purely theoretical and cuts it right in half. It makes his education that much less plausible.

  5. At WSCAL, you have to have an ecclesiastical recommendation in your application. So your pastor has to say that he thinks you’ve got the stuff.

  6. I find BC’s comments to be both wise and fascinating, and would love to see an expansion on the point about the complexities involved.

    Isn’t it true that we sit in the pew and listen to a young man preach who’s fresh out of seminary, whose preaching is far less than ideal, and isn’t the first question, “Is he really called at all?”

    Just what makes for good preaching? Perhaps I should ask this question. Why, when a sermon is bad, do we think it’s bad?

    My complaint about a bad sermon is almost always one of these three:

    1. First and foremost, if the sermon is moralistic, it’s a bad sermon, and I’m squirming in my seat.

    2. My number two complaint about a sermon is that it misses the point of the passage.

    3. My third complaint is that the sermon was hard to follow.

    If I can’t make any of these complaints about a sermon, I usually don’t have a complaint. As a student, I listen to a lot of student sermons. I have been in many churches before becoming a student, and have heard a wide variety of preaching. I still say that the above three reasons are the primary reasons for botching a sermon.

    My first complaint about moralism needs no expansion.

    My second complaint, though, might be somewhat subjective. Even though I’m a seminary student, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the man in the pulpit might be getting the passage wrong. For many people, this thought never crosses their mind (sometimes quite tragically). But there’s always somebody in the congregation who thinks that this or that sermon got this or that part wrong or whatever.

    Before you raise this complaint, however, stop and think. The man in the pulpit has been studying the passage in the original language all week. He’s been reading commentaries. He’s been thinking about it all week, probably losing sleep over it, waking up in cold sweats and stuff. If you think I’m kidding, I’m not. Ask your pastor.

    Meanwhile, the people sitting in the pew have been thinking about the passage for about a half an hour, or however long the sermon is. Furthermore, the man in the pulpit has been to seminary and has been trained a great deal, whereas the man in the pew often doesn’t know what languages the Bible was originally written in.

    So I would just ask, who is more qualified to say how the passage should be interpreted: the man in the pulpit or the man in the pew?

    Despite this, sometimes the man in the pulpit still can get confused about the passage. All I can say is, preaching is harder than it looks. It’s very easy to lose track of the forest of the passage because of the trees of exegetical details. Sometimes, especially in the case of students, we think we’ve seen something in the passage that no one else has ever seen before. The temptations are huge. Sometimes our study of the passage is unbalanced. Some men spend an entire day trying to figure out how one verb is being used, only for it not to matter much in the end. Some men spend their whole week reading some seemingly relevant popular Christian books on counseling or whatever. Unbalanced preparation can lead to an unbalanced sermon, and striking just the right balance can be very difficult.

    My point is just that it’s FAR, FAR easier to make mistakes in interpreting the Scriptures than it seems. Not because the Scriptures are unclear, but because we’re sinful. I often find myself patting myself on the back that I’ve written a great sermon, only to be knocked off my high horse once I’ve given it. I’ve succumbed to the prideful desire to be exegetically unique. But don’t worry, the Lord doesn’t let me get away with it.

    All I’m saying is, just because a guy got the passage wrong, even if he botched it, that’s not sufficient evidence to say that a man isn’t called. Far from it. ESPECIALLY if he’s young and just starting out. Have mercy on preachers you listen to. Listen to them charitably. It’s harder than it looks.

    But don’t get me wrong – a bad sermon can never be anything other than that. A botched sermon is a botched sermon. The best solution is to talk to the guy and ask him why he interpreted it the way he did. But call him on Wednesday, don’t do it right after the sermon. He’s somewhat fragile just then.

    Anyway, my third complaint is probably what’s most related to the things Dr. Clark is advocating, namely that the sermon should be done well. It should be understandable, the people should be able to follow it. It should be focused, it should have a structure.

    Some say that you should have that structure, but you don’t need to point that structure out to the congregation (e.g., “My first point is…my second point is…”). Others say that the more you point that stuff out, the better.

    Meanwhile, some say that you should not have a structure at all, that even having main points is silly. Suppose you say, “Well, but people are used to that sort of thing. People are used to clear transition statements, clear thesis statements, etc. That’s what people know, and if you don’t do that, they won’t understand the sermon.”

    These people who say that having main points is silly might respond, “Well, they only THINK that they don’t understand because there weren’t three main points all beginning with the letter P. In reality, however, if you start asking them questions about the sermon, they’ll be able to answer just fine. In other words, they understand it better than they think they do.”

    I can’t for the life of me figure out where I stand on these things. I think some people need the Mickey Mouse recitation of main points and transition statements. However, I will say that my own pastor doesn’t do that, and I can prove that the children between say 6 and 12 can understand the point of the sermons just fine. I know it for a fact.

    At any rate, I think I can capture what makes or breaks a sermon’s intelligibility in one word:


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