Why is so much preaching today shallow? Many sermons give a superficial examination of the biblical text in the quest for a sound bite theology with its popular appeal. Why? I just finished reading Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon. Gordon challenges us with his first thesis.
Johnny can’t preach because Johnny can’t read! 
Gordon argues that our culture is not illiterate. It is “aliterate.” “Aliterate” people can read but don’t. The average adult in America reads less than nine books a year but watches television more than seventeen times as much as he/she reads anything. The reading list includes any magazines, newspapers, novels and online sources (pp.35-36). It gets worse. When people do read today, they speed read for information only. They do not read carefully and analytically. Shaped by television sound bites, we have become superficial readers. Gordon writes, “Culturally, then, we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular” (p.49). We preachers are shaped by our culture. Therefore, we too are no longer “close readers of texts, sacred or secular.” Our sermons reflect that reality.
We need to read widely to preach well. We need to learn the discipline of analytical reading of texts both sacred and secular. As we read secular texts analytically, we are training ourselves to read sacred texts carefully. Reading is a skill. Like all skills, we can lose the ability to read well if we do not practice reading widely. I, too, sometimes fall into the trap of reading little, and I know it leads to preaching poorly. Here are some suggestions for all of us to develop better reading habits.

Read historical studies.

I usually have at least three to five books that I am reading concurrently. One category that I try to read regularly is history. One of my favorite historical writers is David McCullough. Last fall I read his book about The Wright Brothers. Before that, I read his books on John Adams and Harry Truman. I am reading right now his book about the Panama Canal entitled The Path Between the Seas. I guess you can tell that I like David McCullough.
Reading good historical authors trains our minds to read for significance (Gordon, p.66). Biblical study requires skill in historical analysis since we are explaining ancient texts to modern people. Writers like McCullough teach us what is significant – what is valuable – for the telling of the story. I look for what they select from their research to use in explaining history. I also stop to consider how they shaped the story. What word pictures did they use? How did he shape that sentence? The turn of a phrase can make a big difference in the power of the text.

Read well-written fiction.

Classic authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Milton teach us to use words well. However, most of us left the reading of classic literature behind years ago, probably to our detriment. If we read fiction, it is more likely to be the works of modern writers. I read fiction on vacation each year. One of my favorite activities when camping is to read fiction. I consume two or three novels in a week on vacation. How does reading fiction help our preaching? Reading fiction helps us learn storytelling skills, an important element for keeping our sermons interesting. Gordon writes, “sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest” (p.31). Learning the skills used in storytelling helps us understand character development, plot, and climax, all important to maintain interest in a sermon.

Read great biographies.

My dad taught me this practice at an early age. He would assign me Christian biographies to read on school vacation beginning when I was just eight or nine. I read biographies of Adoniram Judson, the pioneer missionary to Burma. Stories of Praying Hyde and Praising Patterson graced my childhood. The great Southern Baptist preacher, Robert G. Lee, was another in a long line of biographies I read before I became a teenager. The practice has continued for me throughout life. Winston Churchill, George Whitefield, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Amy Carmichael, and Charles Spurgeon among others have all enriched my life. We need heroes to inspire us. Biographies, both sacred and secular, are a repository of great illustrations to call us to greater aspirations. 

Read news analytically.

All news is biased. If we are going to keep up on current events, we must read news with the keen eye of discernment especially in this day of “fake news!” My dad taught me to read news by his example. Even in his 80s he regularly read U.S. News and World Report and Time Magazine along with Christianity Today. I have multiple news feeds that I check religiously, usually over lunch. It is amazing how one-sided news organizations can become, and we easily fall into the trap of silo thinking. When we read only within our favorite silos, we succumb to silo thinking. Read those with whom you disagree as much as you read those with whom you agree. I check Fox, NBC, CNN, NYT, and BBC to get a balanced perspective. The online news feeds are set up on my smartphone for handy access.
Happy reading my friends!