Review: Preaching in Plenty and in Want

January 13th, 2012

With Preaching in Plenty and in Want (Judson, 2011), author Matthew Tennant offers a simple suggestion: since economic realities dominate the daily lives of so many people, preachers should both understand and preach about those realities.

Tennant knows his subject well. Prior to entering seminary, he worked as a vice-president for a Chicago brokerage firm. His previous career mandated an understanding of the markets, their movements, and the effects market changes have on real people’s lives.

As a pastor and doctorate student in philosophy, Tennant seeks to connect wisdom from his earlier career with his current vocation in order to help his parishioners better cope with an economy in constant flux. A pastor who serves forty years, he reminds us, is likely to go through numerous periods of economic growth and decline. Recognizing these inevitable fluctuations and preparing for them—as Joseph did while working in Pharaoh’s court—is vital in the lives of both individuals and churches.

In order to be of any real help, however, pastors must have a basic understanding of the way their local economy works, and how that economy fits into the larger American economy. Tennant offers a “pastoral primer on economics” to help them educate themselves. He defines key terms like Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) and durable goods orders. He then goes on to explain how each of the things he identifies might translate into realities for the average churchgoer.

But understanding the economy is only part of the issue. In the final section of his book, Tennant grapples with how to fit together modern economies and the ancient biblical teachings about money. He offers several of his own sermons to illustrate how to present a gospel of subversive sacrifice to a culture obsessed with prosperity and wealth.

Tennant’s greatest success is in his insights into how larger economic movements affect individual lives. He is adamant that preachers think about how what they might say from the pulpit could affect the people sitting in the pews. Celebrating a record stock market rally, for example, automatically leaves out those who lack the capital to invest in the markets to begin with. In every situation, Tennant insists that a preacher must put himself in the place of those who will hear the sermon before making a hurtful comment.

His laudable compassion and extensive knowledge of his subject are not quite enough to offset the flaws within Preaching in Plenty and in Want, however. Tennant’s writing is well-reasoned, but the language is often stiff and rarely engaging.

Also, it is also sometimes difficult to follow the book’s main thread of preaching and economics. Tennant, for example, spends quite a bit of time early on defending the notion that preaching should be culturally relevant. Though his positive answer to the issue may be important undergirding for his later arguments, it is also an answer that many of his readers will take for granted. Following this less than vital path detracts from the book’s overall message.

Still, the content of Tennant’s first book is solid, if not spectacular. Preachers with little knowledge about the economy or little experience preaching about it may find some helpful thoughts within its pages. For more economically savvy and experienced preachers, however, the book will offer only  minimal returns.

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