poor johnny

You know a book has got under your skin when you go on thinking about it weeks after you finished reading it. Usually novels do this. That Poisonwood Bible ... or, that Life of Pi ... or, the other week - The Children of Men. Ugh!

But this time it isn't a novel. It is Johnny. The Johnny made famous by titles like Why Johnny Can't Read and Why Johnny Can't Write has now made his debut in Why Johnny Can't Preach.

Just 108 pages in length, it sure packs a punch. The author wrote the book while he was receiving treatment for cancer and this “concentrated my mind wonderfully” (9). His view of contemporary preaching is dire, to say the least and “before I die, I must express my opinion on this subject” (13). It is his contention that preaching is “ordinarily poor” (17) with “less than 30% of those ordained to the Christian ministry able to preach an even mediocre sermon” (11). Pretty bleak stuff - from within a basically Reformed tradition!

How can this siutation be improved?
Three simple suggestions from the author.

1. Every preacher/pastor should have an annual review of their preaching performance even though they are "terrified that they will discover that they are failing” (99). It is simply unprofessional not to have a regular review. He would argue that most preachers don't know how bad they are because they don't bother to ask anyone. Plus - very few people are willing to tell the truth to their face!

2. Cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely – with a particular focus on poetry and well-written literature. We need to rediscover the art of being careful readers of texts - and to read “at the pace of the tongue and the ear, not at the pace of the mind’s ability (or the eye’s?) to grasp information”(51). Push back on the influence of ‘electronic media’ and don't accept the way it makes us impatient, filling us with the insignificant and with ‘the buzz of the inconsequential’.

3. Cultivate the sensibility of composed communication, with a particular focus on writing handwritten letters - or a personal journal. Write out your prayers? Maybe take extra care over your blog posts?! This time the enemy is the telephone where conversation lacks unity, order or movement – “we have become a culture of telephone babblers, unskilled at the most basic questions of composition" (67). Interestingly, this guy has moved away from note-free preaching and back to using a full manuscript.

I warmed to his dismissive approach to the short attention span issue. I hear this all the time and have never been convinced. Those preachers who go on about it already seem on the slippery slope to brief and boring preaching themselves. “When something is well done, we do not complain about its length” (28) and this can be true of the sermon. He suggests that sermon length not be measured in terms of minutes, but in “minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers” (31).

He also has a passing word for the "emerging" church and its disdain for traditional churches. Maybe the latter are not so much doing the wrong things – just the right things incompetently. “My challenge to the comtemporaneists and emergents”, says T. David 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).

If the cancer remains in remission, he is threatening to write a book called Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. Oh dear...

[NB - An extended version of this book review - and other books on preaching - can be found by clicking on 'books that engage' at the kiwi-made preaching site].

nice chatting



Ben Carswell said…
I always enjoy reading others' reviews of books I've wanted to read & not had chance yet...glad it was thought-provoking.
Helpful comments to emergents & I'm with you on the attention span issue.
Young people don't complain about a lack of attention span when playing on a Playstation - people have an attention span for what they want & what is done well. I'd be interested to hear what you advise in terms of sermon length.
Appreciate the review Paul, thanks!
Paul Windsor said…
I find questions about sermon length to be difficult to answer.

"How long is a piece of string?" is the classic - and first - response.

Then it goes on to how I have heard some "ten minute sermons that were too long" and some "fifty minute sermons that were too short".

Then I can be naughty and talk about how different denominations have different appetites for sermon length. I now know where 40+min is very acceptable and where 30-min is very necessary!

Then I tend to come back to thinking that preaching through a biblical passage ('exposition' in its best sense) with the right convictions and skills cannot be properly done in less than 25min. I'd tend to aim for this - but can end up being 35min which I think is marginal, very marginal in a NZ context.

But then in the majority world - it is another story altogether.

Having said all this, one of the most energising areas for me as a preacher in the last decade or two has been when I have been given a slot of 15min or less. It forces a creativity, a crafting. I have loved that challenge - and will usually move to a more inductive approach when that is the timeframe I am given.

Ben Carswell said…
I love it!

The denominations issue is definitely pertinent.

I find it fascinating that Uncle John was so often brief in his sermons, but wow, how much he packed into that time!

Look forward to a good ol' Baptist yarn tomorrow!

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