What We Believe
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Small Preaching: 25 Little Things You Can Do Now to Become a Better Preacher by Jonathan T. Pennington. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021, 119 pages, $18.99, hardcover.

Preachers need books on the theology of preaching, works that demonstrate its biblical warrant. Preachers also need how-to books on the preparation and delivery of sermons. Carelessly crafted sermons dishonor the Savior, as does a delivery that fails to compel attention.

But there is a third kind of book on preaching that preachers will do well to read. These books offer the mature reflections on the intangibles of preaching—matters of pastoral bearing, mental attitude, and habits of preparation. Jonathan T. Pennington, preaching pastor at Sojourn East Church in Louisville, Kentucky and associate professor at Southern Seminary, provides just this kind of book in Small Preaching.

The book’s twenty-five brief essays fall under three headings: the person of the preacher, the preparation for preaching, and the practice of preaching.

In section one—the person of the preacher—the author clarifies important interactions that take place between congregation and preacher. The pastor must be able to receive both praise and criticism with grace. On the one hand, ministries are crippled when preachers seek the affirmation of men instead of the approbation of God. On the other hand, the inability to receive criticism has left many ministers angry, hurting, and wracked by doubt. Pennington’s counsel is sound: “The wise pastor will look at praise not as an idolatrous source of life but as a gift that enables a healthy life” (12) and will view criticism as “an opportunity for growth” (15).

Other topics in this section include identifying the distinction between preaching and teaching, and the benefits that come from preparing sermons with a group of fellow preachers. The latter idea raises the question: Is this common or even doable? The author shares his own experience of a group of pastors in his city who concurrently preach from the same texts each week, an arrangement he knows will not work for most pastors. Therefore, he proposes that ministers in the same geographic area share constructive ideas together either in person or by virtual meeting platforms.

Section two—the preparation of preaching—offers much common sense advice. The author reminds that “when it comes to preaching content, less is often more” (54). For each sermon, hardworking preachers gather far more material than should be used—and risk overwhelming their congregations with too much information. They leave the place of worship knowing less, not more. A fine Christian man once put it to me like this: “My preacher tries to pour twelve ounces of content into my eight-ounce brain. What spills over is wasted on me.”

In the previous section, Pennington counseled preaching shorter sermons and saving more extensive teaching for other venues (29). Preaching is by definition monological; teaching can be dialogical, providing opportunities for questions and clarifications (31). Discerning how much is too much is an art all preachers must learn.

Homiletics textbooks debate the merits of taking a manuscript into the pulpit. But who can argue with the author’s counsel that “writing is thinking” and “the means by which thought is created”? (40). So, whether you take a manuscript into the pulpit or not, there is value to writing out your sermon prior to entering the pulpit. I point out to my students that when a preacher’s explanation of a text is unclear, the fault is frequently his, because he himself lacks a clear understanding of the text. Clear writing facilitates clear thinking and clear preaching.

Section three—the practice of preaching—covers a wide range of topics: the first and last minute of a sermon, the use of the church and cultural calendars, the benefits and challenges of lectio continua preaching.

I found especially helpful the chapter titled “The Power of Predictions.” The preacher is encouraged to “learn to ask thoughtful questions that invite [his] hearers to ponder and anticipate what [he’s] discussing” (87). The author points to studies demonstrating the value these questions play in promoting both the understanding and retention of instructional material (86–87).

Pennington is serious about the preacher and his work. A book of this kind is provocative in the best of ways. It compels the preacher to look at his work through the eyes of a seasoned preacher. It serves as a corrective by revealing areas for improvement that might otherwise escape his notice.  And in areas of disagreement with the author, the book forces the preacher to sharpen his positions. The goal of this book is to make us better preachers, and to that end, the author has succeeded.

Charles Malcolm Wingard is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi (PCA), and professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Ordained Servant Online, November 2021.

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Ordained Servant: November 2021

Long Term Care

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The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 5, “Death, Leviathan, and the Martyrs: Isaiah 24:1–27:1” (1986)

A Study in the Structure of the Revelation of John

Covenant Theology Today: A Review Article

Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicals by Timothy Padgett, ed.

On Imagination

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