Review: Small Preaching by Jonathan Pennington

by Jun 15, 2021Books, ChurchLife, Preaching2 comments

Small Preaching: 25 Little Things You Can Do Now to Become a Better Preacher, by Jonathan Pennington (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021). Very few pp.

Great little title. Punchy and short. Genuinely full of wisdom.

The three things that stood out to me most:

  1. The very genres of Scripture demonstrate that not all of Scripture is meant to be—or even can be—preached expositionally, in sequence. Think Proverbs. And even Galatians, Pennington points out, just keeps hitting the same point in various ways. Unless you want to preach essentially the same point 12 times in a row, perhaps it’s best to suit the sermon to the genre. I’ll be chewing on this one. It’s a relief, honestly. It’s not that I’m eager to skip portions of Scripture in preaching/teaching in the church; it’s that I sometimes wonder if we’re really justified in doing so, because we all do it. Some portions of Scripture are more suited to topical coverage (Proverbs, again) or to one-off sermons ( respective minor prophets?). It was helpful to hear this advice from a confident and skilled preacher whose homiletically flavored commentary on the Sermon on the Mount I have found immensely helpful.
  2. When someone praises your sermon, “It is not humility to dismiss or deflect the compliment.” That hit hard. Pennington says that to say, “Oh, it’s not me! Only God gets the credit!” is to “dishonor your gift and God’s structure of the universe. When someone thanks you for your sermon, receive this good and beautiful gift, completing the cycle of giving and receiving that God has created.” He suggests saying: “You’re very kind. Thank you for taking the time to encourage me.”
  3. “The unexamined sermon is not worth preaching.” This is tough for a small church assistant pastor whose only feedback basically comes from his wife (not to denigrate the value of that feedback; I treasure it). But Pennington says that in order to improve and to be sure you are serving people well, “You will need to regularly seek out intentional and meaningful evaluation of your preaching by others, uncomfortable as it may be.”

    Little things that also stuck with me:

    • The first and last moments of your sermon are perhaps the most important and memorable. Don’t waste them by fumbling to a start or apologizing to a “close.”
    • It’s not extra holy to refuse ever to preach to the cultural calendar, things that are happening right now, from Mother’s Day to Veteran’s Day.
    • Sermons should have a narrative arc, a feel of push toward a climax and a denouement.
    • Writing is often the best way to think. You should manuscript at some point in the homiletical process, even if you don’t take the manuscript into the pulpit.

    This short book is full of lots of great little pieces of advice like this. It reminds me of H.B. Charles’ book, On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching, also a Lexham Press title! I really appreciate short books, I do. I haven’t read a great many preaching books, but I feel certain that there are plenty that contain less wisdom and yet more words than Jonathan Pennington’s Small Preaching.

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    2 Comments
    1. Brian C Collins

      I’m not sure about this: “The very genres of Scripture demonstrate that not all of Scripture is meant to be—or even can be—preached expositionally, in sequence. Think Proverbs. And even Galatians, Pennington points out, just keeps hitting the same point in various ways.”

      It’s not that I think that lectio continua is the only proper way to preach. I recently read this in Crawford Gribben’s little book on John Owen, “He moved away from the extended topical and exegetical series that had featured in his earlier ministry to instead preach on different themes and passages each week. Perhaps many members of his new congregation had grown tied of the preaching of extended series of sermons–after all, [the previous pastor Joseph] Caryl’s exposition of Job had lasted for more than two decades” (An Introduction to John Owen, 39).

      I could see a topical series through Proverbs or a doctrinal series through Galatians being profitable. But I’m not sure that the genre of either is preventing a sequential exposition. I’m studying Galatians this year in my personal Bible time, and Paul is unfolding a sequential argument. If I were to preach a doctrinal series on the book, I’d probably open with a sermon that sketched out the flow of the book’s argument. But if a preached the book lectio continua, I think the repetition of theme comes in contexts that are varied enough to make each sermon fresh.

      There maybe a better claim that the genre of Proverbs tilts away from a sequential exposition. But even there, there seems to be an intentional structure to the book that could guide preaching. See Kyle Dunham’s session “Sanctification in Proverbs: How the Literary Structure Provides a Rubric for Spiritual Growth” (https://e3pc.org/e3_pdfs/Dunham_Sanctification%20in%20Proverbs%20E3PC%20Handout%202016.pdf; https://e3pc.org/E3_audio_files/WS2-Rm3-Dunham_Kyle-Sanctification_in_Proverbs.MP3), which I think he turned into a BBR article (2019, pp. 229-56). And on a smaller scale it does seem as though the Proverbs are organized in such a way that the inter-link and inform each other.

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      • Mark Ward

        I wonder, though, if anyone has actually done this… Do preachers “vote with their feet” regarding what portions of Scripture can be exposited sequentially? I suspect they do. It would be interesting for someone to do a study.

        Reply

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