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how long should an expositional sermon be? – lynne baab

I’m having a conversation with a friend who I will call Ben. I’m telling him about my heritage of hearing and giving sermons. The church where I worked as an associate minister for seven years, and where I preached a total of about 50 sermons, has a strong tradition of expositional preaching. Sermons there were 25 to 30 minutes long.

During and after my years as an associate minister, I did a lot of guest preaching. The first thing I do when asked to guest preach is find out how long the typical sermons are. I prepare a sermon of the length the congregation is used to. I tell Ben about this.

Ben talks about his conviction that the church in New Zealand desperately needs expositional preaching. I agree with him. Then he talks about his preaching heritage. In his mind, expositional sermons need to be 45 minutes long to adequately cover a passage. That’s what he has experienced, and that’s what he has done as a preacher.

I tell him about my observation that people in congregations get used to sermons of a certain length. When a preacher goes over that expected length, people turn off. I have no desire, I tell Ben, to keep talking when people aren’t listening.

Ben says that preachers need to stretch the listeners. If a sermon is deeply engaged with the biblical passage, he believes listeners will grow to appreciate the spiritual food they are receiving in the sermon, and they will make peace with sermons of 45 minutes.

I tell Ben the sermons in the church where I worked were outstanding expositional sermons. They lasted only 25 to 30 minutes. He says he thinks it’s not possible to adequately cover a passage in anything less than 45 minutes.

I am adamant that I don’t want listeners to be frustrated by a sermon that feels too long to them. He is adamant that good expositional preaching helps listeners pay attention to sermons that are longer than they are used to.

Neither of us convinces the other. At all. At the end of the conversation, we agree to disagree. We affirm that we are still friends, we give each other a hug, and I walk way wondering what I could have said to change his mind!

I think of my all-time favorite sermon that I’ve preached several times in various churches. This passage is Mark 2:1-12 about the man who is lowered through the roof by his friends and healed by Jesus. In the sermon, I tell the story three times using three different points of view. I describe the events from the point of view of an onlooker, one of the friends, and the man being carried. The main point of the sermon is that sometimes we get to watch Jesus at work in other people’s lives (like the onlooker), sometimes we get to facilitate Jesus’ work in others’ lives (like the people carrying the man), and sometimes people help us meet Jesus (like the man being carried). We need to be open to all three and pay attention to what God is doing in various situations.

I believe that sermon of mine is an expositional sermon, and I’ve preached it in a 15-minute version in churches where the people are accustomed to 15 minute sermons. I’ve stretched it to 25 minutes by giving more detail in each of the three retellings of the story and by giving more examples of how to be open to which role God is calling us to play.

What do you think? Is there an optimal length for expositional sermons? Can a 15 minute sermon be expositional? Is it important to stretch listeners by preaching sermons that are longer than they are used to, or is it important to preach the length of time they are used to so they will listen well?

anatomy of a sermon – lynne baab

Sermon: Staying Motivated in Caring for Creation
Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31 and 2:15 (read earlier in the service)
Psalm 104:1-13
Comments from Lynne about this sermon: My husband and I attend Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle. (We lived in New Zealand from 2007 to 2017, so that’s why I write for the Kiwimade Preaching blog.) The senior minister at Bethany, Doug Kelly, asked me to preach a sermon on stewardship of creation in October 2017. He preached the other three sermons on stewardship in the series. He wanted me to use Genesis 1:26-31, which he also used for one of the other sermons.

So this was a topical sermon. I wanted to make it as expositional as I could, and I was happy with the depth of engagement with Genesis and Psalm 104 that I was able to achieve. Still, the sermon lacks one of the major characteristics of an expositional sermon – the structure of the sermon did not emerge from the passage(s). Instead, the structure emerged from some interviews I’d been doing about motivations for caring for creation.

I wanted to post this sermon on the Kiwimade Preaching blog to show that even when a sermon addresses a topic, and even when the structure of the sermon comes from something outside scripture, it is still possible to engage with biblical passage(s) in a way that attempts to honour the main themes in the passage(s). It is still possible to attempt to “linger in the text,” at least a little bit, which is a major characteristic of expositional preaching. I hope you felt I did that, at least to some extent.

 

Sermon

Will you pray with me? Creator God, you made such a beautiful universe, and you sustain everything with such care. Help us to be faithful stewards of this beautiful world you have made. Amen.

Many of you will know of John Stott, the English Anglican priest who wrote numerous books about the Christian life. You may not know that he was passionate about caring for creation. John Stott called Psalm 104 one of the earliest ecological documents we have. We have the privilege of reading from that early ecological document this morning.

[Ask congregation to stand and read Psalm 104:1-13 responsively, with me reading the odd numbered verses, while they read the even numbered verses.]

I love so many things about Psalm 104. Animals, plants, trees, hills, mountains, and streams are described with love. Maybe there’s no duck billed platypus mentioned [described earlier in the children’s sermon], but we can imagine that if it were, it would be described with affection. God’s care for what he made is so evident. The complete dependence of the creation on God is described so vividly.

C.S. Lewis referred to the writer of Psalm 104’s “gusto for nature.” That gusto for nature has always been my primary motivation for caring for creation. In this sermon I want to lay out four different motivations for caring for creation. Just so you don’t get worried about the timing as I go along, I’ll spend quite a bit of time on the first two motivations, and I’ll talk about the last two more briefly.

The first time nature spoke to me of something beyond myself was when we moved to Tacoma when I was 15. I fell in love with Mount Rainier. It spoke to me of something holy. At that point, I didn’t know who that was, but my heart was tugged. I became a committed Christian at 19, when I was a biology major at university.

A few months after I came to faith, a biology professor asked us to collect some green scum from a ditch, and we looked at it under a microscope. The algae was vivid green with beautiful geometric patterns. I remember my awe as I looked into the microscope, full of wonder at the beauty of what God had made.

I didn’t know Psalm 104 at the time, but the awe and wonder at what God made that I experienced in the biology lab parallels the words of the Psalm. God made something incredibly beautiful. I love God. So of course I want to take care of something God values so much.

It’s like when my daughter-in-law makes me a birthday card. Aki, my daughter-in-law, is one of the truly precious people in my life. She is so creative, and she makes me these gorgeous birthday cards. I love Aki, I love receiving something she took so much time making, so I treasure her cards. When I get a card from her, I display it on the mantle over the fireplace. Then, after a while, I put it on the bulletin board in my office. When the bulletin board gets too crowded, I put it in a box with all the other cards she’s given me. I open the box and look at the cards from time to time, marveling at her creativity.

I’ve tried to care for God’s creation over my lifespan. In the past few years I’ve gotten discouraged. It’s hard to know what to do at any given moment. How important is it for me to ride my bicycle to run this errand, versus taking the car? Which chemicals are okay to use in the garden? How important is organic food? There’s so much contradictory information out there about plastics, water, food, shelter, resource consumption, chemicals, and personal health.

In addition to the confusion, I am heartbroken that Christians disagree about global warming, whether it’s happening and what causes it. I long to see Christians speaking up for God’s beautiful earth in so many areas like chemicals, clean water, habitat for endangered animals, but instead it seems we’re stuck disagreeing about climate change instead of acting in areas everyone agrees about.

Because of my discouragement, I decided to talk to people who are motivated in caring for creation, and I’m going to tell you about three conversations I had.

I want to introduce you to my friends Bill and Daphne. They view their careers as a part of their call to be stewards of God’s creation. Daphne is a geologist who researches the history of the land, plants and animals. Bill is a conservation ecologist who does research for two different agencies.

Both Bill and Daphne were Christians when they chose their careers, but at first they didn’t see their work as connected to God’s call to steward creation. Both of them met other scientists who were Christians who helped them integrate their work with their faith.

When I told them that I was having trouble staying motivated in caring for creation, Bill said, We have to go back to Genesis and ask: what was the original intent of human creation? Gardening, making a home, to look after and shape and enjoy creation.

So for Bill, here’s another motivation for caring for creation. It dates back to our original purpose as humans.

Let’s look at little more closely at the parts of Genesis that was read earlier in the service. At the end of Genesis 1, on the sixth day of creation, God creates the animals first. Then God creates humans, the man and the woman. They are created in God’s image. Twice in the passage God says that humans will have dominion over creation. God also commands the humans to fill the earth and subdue it.

The first account of creation, which goes up to Genesis 2:4, mentions the creation of man and woman at the same time. In the second account of creation, when begins in the second half of Genesis 2:4, there’s a gap in time between the creation of the man and the woman. God puts the man in the garden and tells him to till and keep it.

There are four key words in these verses: dominion, subdue, till and keep. These are the words that lay out the command to Christians to steward the physical world that God made.

“Dominion” and “subdue” have been used in lots of ways, including a sense that nature is here for humans to exploit and plunder. I’m going to argue that we have to think carefully about “dominion.”  It means rule, like a king or queen, and there are two key passages about rulers in the Old Testament. Psalm 72 is a psalm honoring the coronation of Solomon as king, and praying that he would be just, righteous, caring for the poor, having pity on the weak, saving the oppressed. This is not a picture of a king who exploits or plunders.

The second significant passage on kingship and leadership comes from Ezekiel 34, where the leaders of Israel are compared to bad shepherds who have not fed the sheep, cared for the sick, strengthened the weak, and sought the lost sheep.

When there’s a word like dominion, which can be interpreted several ways, it’s important to think about it in the context of the whole Bible. God’s view of ruling and being a king, as presented in the Bible, is all about taking care of people. Taking care, not exploiting or plundering.

Taking care is the meaning that lies behind till and keep in Genesis 2:15. So we don’t really have to go to the Psalms and Ezekiel to understand that having dominion includes taking care of the earth and plants and animals. All we have to do is look at Genesis 1 and 2 together. Humans are called to have dominion over the created order by caring for it like a good king cares for his subjects. Humans are called to subdue the creation in order to be sure that it provides food for people. Humans are called to till and keep the earth so it will be fruitful, which includes all sorts of careful work with and for creation.

This is part of our call as humans, and it will be a challenge like all forms of obedience. Bill and Daphne were adamant about the rewards of obeying God in this area, as well as the cost.

So, that’s two motivations to care for creation, (1) because it’s beautiful and God made it and (2) because we are called to do it as a part of our original purpose at creation.

I’ll quote from Daphne, who said, “We’re going to be called into account for destroying the home we have been given.” Then I’ll quote from friend Denise. She said, “God gave the earth to us. We’re like spoiled children who take it for granted.”

A third motivation comes from Denise. Denise and I were leaders of our campus Christian group way back when I was 21. I haven’t seen her much in our adult lives, but I got to visit with her and her husband in July. Denise has a passion for garbage. Her dad used to take her to the landfill when she was a kid, and she saw how much gets wasted. They way we deal with rubbish and other things we don’t want can impact others, and that’s Denise’s primary motivation for caring for creation – to take care of people.

She used the example of kerosene (paraffin in the U.K.). Maybe I’ve got some kerosene I don’t want. If I pour it down the sink or put it in the toilet, it goes into the sewage. Even though the sewage is treated, not all of the kerosene will be removed. In her case, in a small inland town in California, it goes into a river. It compromises the water supply for others. Denise said, “We are getting sick from what we’re doing. To love our neighbor, we don’t throw our kerosene down the drain. We still live here.”

Denise teaches children with disabilities in an elementary school. When she started teaching, there wasn’t any recycling at her school. She helped get a recycling program established, and she loves to teach children about deal with garbage well. She leads field trips to the landfill to let children see the implications of how waste is dealt with.

Denise is motivated by caring for others. How we treat the earth has impact on others on a local and global scale. It is impossible to love God and our neighbor without thinking about how we care for creation. We till and tend this earth so all people can experience health and life. Denise’s motivation brings us right back to the Genesis passage.

I want to give you a fourth motivation for caring for the earth which comes from my friends Phil and Claire. They lead the A Rocha group in Dunedin. A Rocha is a Christian creation care group that was founded in 1983 by British people in Portugal. A Rocha is now active in 20 countries.

A Rocha ministries tend to be grounded at a specific place. The first A Rocha site is in Portugal, and currently there are sites in many different countries, including on the North Island.

When establishing the A Rocha group in Dunedin, Phil and Clair looked around for a place where the group could focus, and they found a Presbyterian conference center, Tirohanga, about a half hour from town, built at the bottom of a hill, with their property going up the hill. The A Rocha group has worked on that hillside, bringing in native plants and trying to restore the land.

Their pattern of work is fascinating. They commit one Saturday a month to the group, and they spend half those Saturdays working on their own project at the conference center. Alternate months, on Saturdays, they join with other conservation groups around town, such as a center for endangered species and a beach habitat group. They have built relationships with people in those other groups.

For Phil and Clair, staying motivated to care for creation is all about doing it together with others. With other Christians, and also with others outside the church who care for this beautiful world. God commanded Adam to till and tend the garden, and Phil and Clair would argue that command was never intended to be exercised alone, as individuals. They have experienced such joy in tending to native plants on a hillside in the company of others.

Another example of the relational component of creation care comes from a friend of mine, Janette. She’s a Presbyterian, and she has worked with her session, her presbytery and the national church in the area of creation care, and she’s currently working with her session to create an overture for the next General Assembly.

So, four motivations for caring for creation: God made and sustains a beautiful world, caring for creation is a part of our original purpose as humans, caring for the earth helps others, and caring for the earth helps us connect with others both inside and outside the church.

I’d love to say more about the how-to in caring for creation, but there’s plenty of information out there about that. I want to encourage you to think about what motivates you and what God is calling you to do in response to that motivation.

Today is World Communion Sunday. Christians all over the world will be celebrating communion and remembering that we are part of a worldwide church. Each communion service will have some sort of bread, made from a grain grown from a seed in the earth, nurtured by rain from God, tilled by humans. Each communion service around the world will have juice or wine from fruit tended by humans and nurtured by earth and water created by God.

We are dependent on the produce of this abundant earth. We live side by side with others who are impacted by our actions.

[Closing prayer]

praying for your sermon – lynne baab

What does it look like to pray effectively as a part of sermon preparation? What kinds of things do I typically pray for? What possibilities am I missing in my prayers before preaching?

I’ve been pondering these questions recently, and I noticed several different patterns of prayer for my sermons. Perhaps reading about these patterns will help you evaluate your own patterns of praying for your sermons.

  1. Prayer for before, during and after. This scheme for prayer considers three different aspects of a sermon based on time.
  • I pray for before the sermon: for my own preparation and for the preparation of the hearts of the hearers.
  • I pray for the delivery of the sermon, that God will give me smoothness and good pacing as I speak, and that God will guide what I say to add or subtract words or ideas according to God’s will. The “during the sermon” prayer also includes prayer for the receptivity of the worshippers.
  • I pray for the response after the sermon. I pray that listeners will remember something I said that will enable them to draw near to God and serve God during the week. I pray the same for myself.
  1. Prayer for the “big idea.” In my preaching classes in seminary, the teachers emphasised that every sermon should have a “big idea,” a main point that can be expressed in one or two sentences. I pray that God will give me a clear and helpful main point for the sermon that comes clearly from scripture. I usually begin to pray for the “big idea” early in the sermon preparation process, perhaps long before the main point has become clear to me. I pray that all the subpoints and illustrations will undergird that main point and help it to become real to worshippers.
  2. Prayer for my goals in preaching. The other day I listened to a recorded sermon by a friend. She is a deeply faithful stay-at-home mother who is invited to preach once every year or two in her congregation. She opened her sermon with this thought: “Whenever I have the privilege of preaching, I always hope that you’ll come away with a deeper love for the scriptures. I always hope you’ll feel called to read the scriptures often.” She then went on to read the passage she would be preaching from.

If I were to say my primary goal in preaching, there would be two components: “Whenever I have the privilege of preaching, I always hope the listeners will come away with a strong sense of God’s invitation to draw near with all of our deepest thoughts and feelings. I also hope listeners will hear and respond to God’s call to serve and love with joy in this hurting world.” I would very seldom, if ever, say those words during a sermon, but I can pray that each particular sermon would serve those goals.

  1. Prayer that the good news would be clear and inviting. A sermon is different from a talk. When we preach, we have the great privilege of being a transparent window that gives a view of something beyond the window: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I can pray that this particular sermon would present the gospel clearly and in a way that draws people closer to Jesus, wherever they are and whatever they are bringing into worship.

What do you pray for before you preach? How could you deepen your prayers for your sermons?

spiritual practices for preachers – lynne baab

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I had the enormous privilege of being a keynote speaker at Carey Baptist College’s recent conference on preaching, alongside William Willimon. I loved Will’s talks. He portrayed God as wild and free, always surprising us, always speaking to us in ways we aren’t expecting. He told great stories to illustrate the ways God had spoken to him and to others. He said the biggest challenge in preaching is that this God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is not always the God we would have chosen.

My talks at the conference centered around spiritual practices, the things we do to make space for this God to speak to us: many forms of Bible study, many forms of prayer, and other practices like Sabbath keeping, fasting, journaling, walking a labyrinth, pilgrimage, spiritual direction, simplicity, hospitality and service. I pointed out that all Christians engage in spiritual practices, so these practices are not just for the extra spiritual people. The language of “spiritual practices” helps us think about what we do in the life of faith and why we do it.

Here are some thoughts about the why question. These practices help us draw near to the God who already loves us. In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen writes, “Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper.” We draw near to God because we are loved, not to prove ourselves worthy of love or to get God to do our bidding.

Nouwen continues, “The word ‘digging’ might not be the best word since it suggests hard and painful work that finally leads me to the place where I can quench my thirst. Perhaps all we need to do is remove the dry sand that covers the well. There may be quite a pile of dry sand in our lives, but the One who so desires to quench our thirst will help us to remove it.” Spiritual practices help us return to the well over and over. They help us remove the dry sand. And, as Nouwen points out, the “One who so desires to quench our thirst” helps us return to the well and remove the dry sand. We don’t engage in spiritual practices apart from the God who loves us, calls us to draw near and empowers us to do so.

I suggest to preachers and to all people in ministry that it’s helpful to think about having two different sets of spiritual practices. The first set of practices serves our ministry: studying the Bible for the purpose of preaching or leading groups, and praying for the people and issues in our congregation. The second set of practices is just for us, as a child of God. For me, memorizing scripture and then reflection on the passages I have memorized is just for me. I have seldom preached or taught on the passages I’ve memorized. Those passages simply help me draw near to God as a beloved child.

The Sabbath is another spiritual practice that nurtures my life as a beloved child of God. The Sabbath allows me to set down the tools of ministry even though the work isn’t finished. In doing that, I remember week after week that the ministry belongs to God, not to me. In fact, God is God and I am not. The Sabbath inscribes that truth on my heart in an experiential way.

I hope that these spiritual practices “just for me as a beloved child of God” also help my teaching and preaching to be more authentic and real. But I hope I will continue to do them simply because God made me, Jesus redeemed me and the Holy Spirit draws me into the great dance of the Triune God. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

commending an excellent preacher – lynne baab

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For the second half of 2015, I had the privilege of attending worship at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where Doug Kelly is the senior minister. (I was on study leave from my lectureship at the University of Otago.) One of the highlights of worship was Doug’s sermons. He preached probably three quarters of the Sundays we were there, and week after week, my husband and I found his sermons to be helpful, challenging, stimulating and solid.

I wondered if I could identify the factors that contributed to his excellence as a preacher, so I started listing them. Here’s my list.

  1. He lingers in the biblical text. He keeps coming back to the events or principles described in the text. The biblical text is clearly at the center of his sermons.
  2. He uses lots of stories from everyday life so the listener has a sense of what it looks like in real life to respond to this specific text.
  3. He quotes from interesting books he’s read. A lovely, vivid quotation at the right place in a sermon gives depth. Too many quotations are mind-numbing. He hits the right balance, maybe 1-3 quotations in a 25 minute sermon.
  4. His sermons have a clear main point. He often lays out that main point early in the sermon and returns to it at the end. Sometimes he mentions it several times during the sermon.
  5. His sermons are well structured. Often he uses numbers to describe his 3-5 sub-points. “Secondly . . .” “The third way to describe this is . . .” He moves intentionally through his points, so you don’t find yourself wondering if he’ll ever finish talking.
  6. He appears to speak from notes, not from a manuscript. Sure, he reads quotations sometimes, but mostly he talks conversationally, which is easy to listen to. He looks at the congregation most of the time, so you feel connected with.
  7. His convictions and his heart come through. You know he cares about what he’s talking about.

This list bears a lot of resemblance to the marking sheet we used when I helped teach preaching at Fuller seminary when I was a PhD student. In fact, these are the basics of expositional preaching, and Doug does them very well. (If you’d like to listen to Doug’s sermons, they are available here.) In this wonderful blog we talk about so many aspects of good preaching. I thought it might be good to list the basics one more time, the fundamental skills that good preachers continually try to nurture.

Are there additional basic characteristics of good preaching that you think should be on my list? If so, feel free to comment below.

Questions for personal reflection or for discussion with family or colleagues:

What are your strengths as a preacher? If you look at the list of seven characteristics above, which one or two are you best at? In what ways do you build on your strengths when you preach?

What are your weaknesses as a preacher? In the list above, which are hardest for you? In what ways do you work on growing in your weak areas?

How much do you focus on working on your weak areas? How much do you focus on your strengths? Do you think you have a good balance between building on your strengths and working on your weaknesses?

what’s your “one main sermon”? – lynne baab

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In our early adult life, my husband and I attended one church for seven years. After about five years of listening to the senior pastor’s preaching, I got bored with it. I said to an older friend of mine, “I’m getting so tired of his preaching.”

She replied, “Sure it’s a bit repetitive, but he’s got one main point that he says over and over: ‘God loves you and wants to use you in ministry.’ If there’s going to be one point that we hear most Sundays, I’m glad it’s that one. Part of why I go to church every Sunday is to be reminded of exactly that. It helps me go into my week with the right attitude.”

When I did the interviews for my book on listening (The Power of Listening), one of my interviewees talked about a past minister of her church, who frequently mentioned in sermons the need to pay attention to God’s voice and God’s guidance. She said:

That might have been his one main sermon. He stressed that listening is intentional. You can’t just assume you’re a good listener. He stressed that listening is connected to your own prayer: “Show me, help me see what you’re doing.” Listening requires a posture of humility, an emphasis that it’s not about me, it’s about taking in what God is doing.

When I think of my own preaching, I suspect that my “one main sermon” might be this: God wants us to bring everything to him in prayer, no matter how messy, no matter how embarrassing, because God desires honesty.

I invite you to think about what might be your “one main sermon.” After you have identified it, you might want to ponder these questions:

  1. Where in your life does your major recurring sermon theme come from? What events and relationships shaped that major conviction you talk about frequently? If you know where the theme comes from, you’ll be less likely to talk about it as a knee-jerk impulse. You’ll talk about it when appropriate.
  2. How has the major idea in your “one main sermon” impacted your own spiritual life? In what ways do you live out that one major idea? In what ways do you need to live it out more? You’ll talk about it more authentically when you have thought through the impact of that one idea in your own life.
  3. How does your “one main sermon” compare to the overall sweep of the biblical story? Which biblical writers talk most often about your main idea or illustrate it? I think my “one main sermon” is illustrated best by Jeremiah and the Psalms.
  4. How does your “one main sermon” relate to the specific biblical text you are working with for your next sermon? Before we talk about our main idea, we need to be sure the text actually supports that idea.
  5. If you are the minister of a congregation, or if you preach frequently in one place, be careful how often you talk about your most common sermon theme. People really will get bored if you say the same thing over and over, no matter how important that idea is. Letting each biblical text speak its own message helps us moderate our repetitive use of themes that we love.

(Lynne’s book The Power of Listening is available from here)

the challenge of beginning a sermon – lynne baab

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I’m working on a sermon focused on the Apostle Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1. My sermon is part of a sermon series on the connections between prayer and mission. I chose Paul’s prayer because I think it shows the upward spiral of the Christian life when we pursue knowledge of God coupled with obedience in actions. Paul prays that the Colossians may be “filled with the knowledge of God in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good word and as you grow in the knowledge of God” (verses 9 and 10).

For my sermon, I’ve got my main point: that as we pray for ourselves and others, we need to pray for knowledge of God that urges us into fruit-bearing actions, which will help us continue to grow in the knowledge of God. I’m planning to explain some things about the prayer. Then I’ve got two longish stories and a couple of small stories that show what this looks like in real life. I’ll have a bit of congregational participation: one of the main stories is about a mission experience my husband I had, and I’m going to ask people to raise their hands if they’ve been involved in mission that has helped them grow in knowledge of God. I’ve got a nice twist for the last few minutes, which I think helps makes a sermon lively. Toward the end of the sermon I’ll bring in verses 11 and 12 of the prayer and go back to the stories I’ve told to illustrate why, when we pray for mission, we also need to pray for an attitude of endurance, patience and thankfulness.

So the sermon is almost ready.

But I don’t have a good opening story. I want to talk about this spiral upward, which contrasts with the endless circular and repetitive cycle that is a common view of life in many philosophies and religions. Should I talk about repetitive circles in my introduction as a contrast with an upward spiral? Or maybe I should tell a story that illustrates how good things often build on themselves. After all, upward spirals happen in all sorts of arenas of life. Or I could bring in a visual aid of some sort that illustrates a spiral, or use a photo of a spiral. None of these options feels right, and I’m glad I have some more time to ponder how I will open the sermon.

When I hear sermons, I watch for how the preacher opens them. Some preachers dive into the text immediately. Some tell vivid opening stories that engage the interest of the listener but really don’t connect very much with the sermon topic. Sometimes I hear an opening story that I think is ideal. It engages the listeners because it’s interesting and well told, and it touches on the main theme of the sermon in a way that acts as a bridge between real life and the passage. But it doesn’t jump the gun; it doesn’t illustrate what the passage looks like in real life, which in my view should usually happen later in the sermon.

So I’m still struggling to find an opening story for my upcoming sermon. Will it be ideal? Or just okay? Or will I be tempted to jump right into describing the upward spiral I see in Colossians 1? I find it interesting that so often for me, some parts of the sermon fall together very quickly and other parts take so much pondering and praying.

philippians 4 & preaching for an audience including youth & young adults – lynne baab

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In my years as an associate minister in Seattle, and in the past seven years preaching several times a year in the congregation I attend in Dunedin, I’ve had parents tell me quite a few times that their children like my sermons. In a couple of cases, the children were late primary school and intermediate school, and in several other cases the “children” have been teenagers or young adults.

I (mostly) find this to be a compliment. There’s a little part of me that wonders if my sermons are overly simplistic and perhaps that’s why kids like them. But mostly I’m simply grateful that some kids, teens and young adults seem to like my informal style and propensity to talk about the way the biblical passage speaks into my own life.

A few weeks ago I preached at my own church on Philippians 4. The heart of the passage is, I believe, verses 6-8: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

The person who, in my experience, most lives out these verses is an old friend of mine, Steve Hayner, who is the president of Columbia Seminary in the United States. On his recent birthday, he posted this on Facebook:

“Every day is an opportunity to be attentive, grateful and joyful about God’s call. But on my 66th birthday it seems to be a particularly appropriate time—not to ‘seize the day’—but rather to surrender to whatever seemingly foolish, tantalizingly creative, or audaciously loving work that God has for me. While I yet have breath, I have purpose, hindered only by my limited vision and small ambitions.”

Steve’s words in that Facebook post are all the more vivid when you take his situation into account. Steve is currently battling pancreatic cancer.

As I prepared my sermon on Philippians 4, I went back through all of Steve’s posts on the Caring Bridge website,  a site where cancer patients and their family members can describe their journey. I was in tears as I read his posts. Over and over he writes about his desire to continue to serve, love and obey God even in illness. For the sermon itself, I extracted numerous entries from Steve’s Caring Bridge posts.

Steve is a 66-year-old man. Would the teenagers, university students and young adults in the congregation that day be able to relate to his words? Should I have chosen a younger person to illustrate the passage in Philippians?

I realized the compliments I had received about children, youth and young adults liking my sermons had become a bit of a millstone around my neck. Rather than an encouragement, in my mind they had morphed into some sort of impossible standard I had to live up to. Preparing a sermon involves thinking about our audience, yes, but even more it involves listening to God’s voice to us about how to make scripture come alive. And Steve’s journey definitely makes that passage come alive to me.

In addition, I was falling into the temptation of believing that the only stories relevant to teenagers or young adults will focus on people the same age. I remember being in my twenties and loving stories about faithful people who were much older than I was. Finally I got the courage to ask a high school student about whether she learned anything from Steve’s story in my sermon. She said she doesn’t think the age or circumstances need to be the same in order to gain something from a story. She said, “I don’t have to be old and have cancer to appreciate it.”

Whew! I was relieved that I followed God’s leading to tell the story that made the passage come alive to me, and one teenager at least got something from it.

adding to or subtracting from the gospel through our stories – lynne baab

whats_your_story_off

Sociologist Nancy Ammerman did some interesting research recently, recounted in her 2013 book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes. She found that the people who demonstrate the greatest commitment to their faith or religion are the people who talk easily and frequently about the overlap between their faith/religion and their daily life. Ammerman has seen evidence that people who can talk comfortably about this overlap are the people most likely to be involved in mission. Ammerman’s research helped me articulate something I had known instinctively: that one of the central tasks of Christian pastoral ministry is to help people learn to perceive and talk about the ways that the Triune God is present and involved in daily life. In other words, to help people notice that overlap between their Christian faith and their everyday lives, and to grow in confidence in talking about it. We do that in many settings in congregations, and preaching is one of those settings. When we preach, we want listeners to hear about and think about the ways God, as described in this passage from the Bible, makes a difference in everyday life.

In sermons, one of the major ways we make the connection between God and daily life is through stories.

Stories really matter. I preach only six or eight times a year, and on the other Sundays I attend church with my husband. On the way home from church or over Sunday lunch we almost always talk about the service and the sermon, and one of my husband’s most common complaints about sermons is that the preacher didn’t tell a good story to illustrate the principle he or she was talking about.

Yet stories are always open to multiple interpretations. When we think about ways sermons add to or subtract from the truth of the Gospel (the theme of this kiwimade preaching blog for 2014), one of the ways that happens is through stories. Here’s how it happens:

1. We study a passage from the Bible in preparation for preaching.

2. We come up with the major point we want to make, or several points we want to make.

3. We think about situations in our life or others’ lives that illustrate what those major ideas look like in practice in everyday life.

4. We try to illustrate the overlap between faith and daily life by telling a story.

5. The listeners hear the story and interpret it.

6. The interpretation of the story in the minds of the listeners may or may not be the same as the interpretation we give to the story. In fact, the interpretation the listeners give to the story may be very different, or even opposite, to the meaning we were trying to convey and may add to or subtract from the Christian Gospel.

We can avoid multiple interpretations by explaining very clearly the point we’re trying to make in a story, and that works sometimes. Often, however, constant explanations of stories make the sermon seem heavy and weighed down by too many abstract words. Jesus was a master at telling stories that were alive and vivid, and his stories usually didn’t include a lot of interpretation for his listeners. He seemed to be comfortable with the reality that his listeners might not give his stories the same meaning he gave to them.

I am less comfortable with ambiguity than Jesus, and I’m trying to grow in that area. But I also increasingly see the significance of abundant prayer during the sermon preparation process, asking God for help in choosing stories and telling the stories, because I don’t want to add to or subtract from the Gospel. The need for prayer continues during the delivery and after the sermon, because the interpretation process in the listeners’ minds continues after the sermon is preached.

Stories in sermons are essential for illustrating the overlap between the Gospel and everyday life, and the ability to see and talk about that overlap is a key to Christian faith commitment and mission. We can’t be scared that people will misinterpret our stories – Jesus wasn’t – but we do need to carefully pray and ponder the stories we tell.

advice-giving in sermons – lynne baab

Advice

My friend was telling me about the new minister at her church: “He’s a great preacher. He really digs into the passage and makes it come alive, and he tells good stories. He has this habit of going off on tangents sometimes, but he always ties everything together at the end.”

That sounded good to me.

Then she said in a tentative voice, “Well, there is one thing about his preaching I don’t like. Sometimes, in one of those tangents, he gives advice. And sometimes I don’t agree with his advice. A few weeks ago he gave some parenting advice. A bunch of us were talking afterwards and most of us disagreed with what he was advocating.”

My friend’s comments got me thinking about giving advice while preaching. In every sermon I preach I try to include some practical suggestions for how the biblical passage might apply to everyday life. Do those suggestions fit into the category of “advice”? How can we preachers know when something we want to suggest comes from the passage we’re preaching on or when it comes from our own opinions? How can we know if the suggestions will be helpful to the listeners, or whether congregation members will stand around afterwards talking about why they disagree with what we’ve said? And is it a totally bad thing for people to stand around and talk about their disagreement? At least they’re interacting with the sermon!

In the instance my friend was talking about, it sounded like the parenting advice given by this preacher was only tangentially related to the passage from the Bible. That seems like a warning sign to me. If I’m going to give suggestions of any kind during a sermon, I want to be sure they are clearly rooted in the passage. A lot of reflection and prayer is necessary to discern what exactly the Holy Spirit might be saying to this congregation through this particular part of the Bible.

It seems to me that in most cases, the prior question is, “What exactly is the Holy Spirit saying to me through this particular part of the Bible?” Perhaps part of what the Holy Spirit is saying to me relates to a parenting practice I engaged in (or am engaging in). Perhaps the Holy Spirit is validating that practice, and perhaps I feel nudged to talk about that particular practice as a part of the sermon.

When my friend talked about the sermon she heard, she indicated the minister seemed to be saying, “Here’s what parents should do.” Compare that to a different approach: “Here’s what we did as parents and how we benefitted from that practice, and here’s how that practice relates to this passage.” The second, and generally preferable approach in my opinion, focuses on describing behaviour as a part of telling a personal story that illustrates how a scripture has spoken into my life. Screeds have been written on guidelines for telling personal stories in sermons, and such stories can undoubtedly be overdone. But I find myself wondering how the conversation after the sermon at my friend’s church might have been different if the minister had talked about what he did (or is doing) in his family, rather than using “parents should do this” language.

A good sermon involves a specific passage from the Bible and a specific life (sometimes mine, sometimes someone who’s story I’m telling) that illustrates what that passage looks like in practice. That’s where we should start, and I presume that some suggestions and advice will come from that intersection. As preachers, we can be so afraid of giving bad advice or too much advice that we don’t describe that intersection of the Bible and real life. But we can also go further than that intersection calls for. A hard but important balancing point to find, I believe.