Why Johnny Can’t Preach

Why Can’t Johnny Preach? That is a good question. And it is a troubling question too. To try to get at an answer, the Christ the Center panel interviewed Rev. Dr. T. David Gordon, minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College. Dr. Gordon is former pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashua, NH and associate professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA. The panel discussed with Dr. Gordon the reasons why preaching has fallen on such hard times in our day and what can be done about it. Along the way, issues of media ecology are also discussed as they bear on the challenges various media present to the task of preaching and the task of listening to preaching. Listeners will find much food for thought in this provocative episode.


  • T. David Gordon
  • Jeff Waddington
  • Jim Cassidy
  • Nick Batzig
  • Camden Bucey

Help the community out by contributing to the wiki entry for this episode.


Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny can’t preach : the media have shaped the messengers. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2009.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage. New Ed. Gingko Press, 2005.

Phillips, Richard, and Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology. Precious blood : the atoning work of Christ. Wheaton Ill.: Crossway Books, 2009.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th ed. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2005.

Reynolds, Gregory Edward. The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program and learn how to subscribe.

33 Responses

  1. Thanks Tim, we had fun with this one.

    I want to apologize to everyone up front for the audio quality. For various reasons, I’ve had to use different equipment for this episode (and the next). The excessive noises won’t be an issue in the future (at least after the next episode).

  2. Pingback : T. David Gordon on Reformed Forum to discuss “Why Johnny cant Preach” « Relentless Grace

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  4. Pingback : Why Johnny Can’t Preach (1) « Heidelblog

  5. […] You can hear a good interview with T. David Gordon by the guys at the Reformed Forum here. I highly recommend listening to this lecture, because he has as much to say to laypersons in the pew as he has to say to ministers in the pulpit. […]

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  7. Camden and others,

    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’m surprised this issue didn’t come up in the interview (or I don’t remember it being mentioned).

    I don’t think the import of this would be that Paul is encouraging preachers to 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 (in various NAPARC denominations) the preaching is so poor because these the preachers 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.

    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.

    I’d love some feedback on this.

    1. Ian Watson

      The irony about what Paul says about his preaching is that if his letter writing is anything to go by then he was a very skilled rhetoritian. What Paul is getting at to the Corinthians (I think) is that the power of his arguements didn’t depend on rhetoric. In their culture they were more concerned with style than content. Paul’s point is that what counts is the content of the gospel. He refused to employ certain techniques that were dishonest (flattery for example). But I have no doubt that he used the science of rhetoric. It’s all over his letters.

      Generally speaking, I want to support the idea of reading poetry. This advice was given to me by a very liberal preacher when I was a young man. It was probably the only good advice he could give! Since then I have read poetry regularly. Not to quote (though sometimes I do) but more to stimulate the mind, to open the mind to description and terseness of thought. If you don’t know where to start just buy an anthology of the classics.

    2. Agreed. Gordon is arguing for something that suits him quite well. Not a bad thing in itself…if you’ve got it, use it! Yet, this is certainly not the case that the Apostle Paul is making.

      Nonetheless, I so appreciate his assessment of Reformed churches today…in too many cases being equivalent to mainline Liberal churches with their moralistic accent. The ol’ Law-Gospel-Law paradigm in action.


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    1. ruth

      I’m just an old English teacher, so take this for what it’s worth. The British poets are tops–including John Donne, Milton, George Herbert, Wordsworth, Christina Rosetti, W.H. Auden and (though he was very close to being a universalist), George MacDonald (Diary of an Old Soul). T.S. Eliot’s later works. Mystics: Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The older I get, the more poetry (Christian poets) speak to me. Of the Americans, I really love Longfellow.

  12. T. David Gordon

    I suppose I should offer some help. Any anthology of poetry will do, but of course the more-comprehensive ones are better than the narrower ones (e.g. Oxford Book of 17th Century Verse is too narrow). Harold Bloom, the virtual dean of American poetry criticism from Yale, edited an anthology that includes many of his own interpretive essays also. If you had to own one volume of poetry, purchase Bloom’s 2007 The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Robert Frost.

    T. David Gordon

  13. Pingback : More on preaching from Dr Gordon « The Wanderer

  14. Frederic Putnam

    If you want to hone your understanding of poetry, the best book (which is also a good anthology) is Perrine’s Sound & Sense, by William Arp. There are 12 editions (the 13th is coming); any will do; I have found many at used book sales for $1 or less. It is also the center section of “Perrine’s Structure, Sound, & Sense” (same editor). The great advantage of a broad anthology (the kind that Dr Gordon recommends) is that you will meet a variety of poets, among whom you will almost certainly find favourites.

    I highly recommend “The Oxford Book of … “… Children’s Verse”, “… English Verse”, and “… American Verse”, all of which I have found at used book sales for less than $5.

    A final note: poetry is best read aloud, preferably more than once; it is helpful to hear how the “sound fits the sense” (apologies to Alexander Pope).

    Fred Putnam

  15. Thanks for this interview, people.
    I enjoyed the demolition of the use of PowerPoint during sermons.
    It is important that people are not distracted from the preacher.
    “The human neurology does its best work when it’s does a single thing.”
    ie. listening to one preacher with ears and not being distracted by pictures or other visual stuff.

    1. steve

      Disclaimer – Have not read the book

      but on the use of media to enhance communication (namely PowerPoint)… what about all the learning theory that tells us to use as many different modes of communication as possible in order to enhance learning and increase retention/application etc

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  17. Josh

    I’ve thought about using PowerPoint slides to mark the sections of the service. For example, when doing announcements, there would be a slide that simply says “Announcements”. During the sermon, I would have a slide with only the biblical reference on it, e.g. “John 1:1-4”. It is mainly a help for guests to follow along the order of the service.

    Any thoughts? Do you think this would help or hinder the flow of the service?

  18. I prefer not to have PowerPoint, but I wouldn’t say this is a terrible idea. In our “Luther and Media” episode Carl Trueman made a few comments about PowerPoint as well. He likes having PowerPoint for showing pictures of their missionaries before they pray for them. I believe they do take the picture down before the prayer though.

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  22. Great episode and interesting thread. Camden, I believe we met at PCRT at the White Horse Inn event, correct?

    Just want to add that Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC will have T. David Gordon out to speak as a part of our “Preaching in the Capital” series this October, along with Gene Veith, Marva Dawn, and a speaker to be named later. Gordon will speak on Thursday, October 14, at 6:30 pm on the topic of Why Johnny Can’t Preach, but if we manage Q&A right we might get him to hold forth as well on Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns.

    Look us up on Facebook to get our event updates. Thanks.

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