Small Preaching by Jonathan Pennington works off the premise that preachers can significantly improve their skills by attending to small skills and strategies without having to entirely reinvent their preaching styles. Author Jonathan Pennington equates small preaching with small ball in baseball and exhorts his readers to attend to the small things so that their sermons can carry a big message to their hearers. In 25 two-to-three-page advice sections, this book offers some golden nuggets that inexperienced and experienced preachers can return to in order to ground their preaching preparations.
Despite his denominational expectations that a sermon should be twenty-five minutes long, much of the advice the author offers in this book is as applicable in a homiletical eucharistic context as in his own Southern Baptist seminary context. There is a potential roadblock to reading this book. One must get past the section that describes the “Band of Brothers Preaching” and the assumption that all preachers are brothers. If one can get past that limitation, Pennington offers some truly valuable insights, particularly into what it means to engage in the artistic creative work of preaching.
Many of Pennington’s examples grow out of the arts, and he makes comparisons
between preaching and encaustic painting, sculpting, and conducting an orchestra. He discusses the power of storytelling in preaching. He reminds his audience that preaching is not teaching, it’s proclamation. He emphasizes the importance of the opening and closing sections of the sermon and helps preachers consider what needs to happen during those sections.
Perhaps my favorite section was “Be God’s Witness Not His (sic) Lawyer.” Quoting Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, “The Christian minister is to be, not God’s lawyer, to argue well for God; but he (sic) is to be God’s witness, to tell what Grace has done for an unworthy life.” At times preachers may be tempted either to offer a purely intellectual argument in order to defend God, or to serve as prosecutors telling the congregation what they are guilty of in hopes of encouraging repentance.
What Pennington encourages is to instead be a testimony to God’s grace so that hearts may be touched, and lives changed. That’s a big vision for our small preaching that Christians of all denominations can together embrace.
Review by the Rev. Dr. Sylvia Sweeney is the Episcopal Preaching
Foundation book editor and a faculty member of Bloy House,
The Episcopal Theology School of Los Angeles
Small Preaching: 25 Little Things You Can Do Now to Become a Better Preacher
Jonathan T. Pennington. Bellingham, WA, Lexham Press: 2021. $18.99