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


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


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.


receptivity and preaching – lynne baab

My favourite word these days is “receptivity.” I have always been a self-directed person, pretty reluctant to receive advice or guidance. I’ve made a lot of decisions because they seem logical or (sadly) because they flow out of unresolved issues from my past life.

I’m trying to be more receptive to God’s gifts to me; I’m trying to notice the good things God gives me and be thankful. I’m trying to be more receptive to everything God brings into my life, not just the things I would consider good gifts. I’m also trying to be more receptive to God’s priorities and values, and to God’s guidance for my life.

How does this relate to preaching?

I’m a university lecturer, so I only get to preach when invited. For most of my guest sermons I am invited to address a specific topic. I like to have an expositional aspect to those sermons but I also need to keep the larger topic in view. I have been longing to dig into a section of the Bible over more than one week, and I had that opportunity last month. I got to preach three Sundays in January for my own congregation, Leith Valley Presbyterian Church in Dunedin.

I knew about those dates several months ago. So my first step of receptivity was to pray about what section of scripture I might focus on. John 15 kept coming to mind, and it divides nicely into three parts. When things keep coming to mind in answer to a prayer, I usually assume God is placing them there. I was recovering from a surgery in November, and in the moments when my brain was functioning, I enjoyed pondering John 15, reading it often, trying to figure out what “big idea” might come to mind for each of the three sermons I would preach on the passage.

The Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17) is so incredibly rich. For my three passages in John 15, any number of “big ideas” might have been appropriate. I tried to be receptive to the way God might be leading me for these specific sermons for these specific people, and indeed with time, three major themes became clear to me.

The first sermon of the three came together quite easily. I was surprised that I struggled mightily to produce a coherent sermon on John 15:12-17, the verses about Jesus being our friend. Ironically, I wrote a book on friendship a couple of years ago, with an entire chapter on Jesus as our friend. (

Maybe the book was an impediment to my receptivity of the Holy Spirit’s guidance for that passage for that specific congregation on that Sunday. I was quite absorbed with a drama going on in Seattle among a group of my friends involving one of them recovering from a stroke, and I couldn’t get their situation out of my mind. Finally, I decided to talk about it in the sermon because it was so real to me. I don’t usually talk about current emotional issues in sermons (I’m usually happy to talk in sermons about past emotions and describe how they were resolved), but in this instance it felt right.

The need for receptivity doesn’t end for me when the sermon is prepared. I don’t script my closing prayer at the end of my sermons. I like to pray extemporaneously, based on what I sense God is doing right then. So throughout the delivery of a sermon, I try to stay receptive to God’s guidance so I can pray at the end in a way that’s alive and vibrant.

Then afterwards, I sometimes get comments about the sermon. How will I respond? I still need to be in an attitude of receptivity to truly hear the comments of others. Sometimes a response is required. Other times it’s a compliment, which I tend to brush off internally. Am I willing to be receptive to affirmation? Am I willing to let it sink into my heart and believe God has used me? Receptivity and preaching is a never ending journey, as is receptivity in every area as we journey with Jesus.

lynne baab – preaching about friendship

Alert!  Blatant, unashamed (but brief) self-promotion coming…

My book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, was recently released and is available in bookstores and from online book sellers. It focuses on friendship as a Christian spiritual practice in this Facebook age, and I hope and pray it will help people grow in showing love to their current friends and potential friends.

When I did the research for the book, I paid careful attention to magazine articles, blogs posts, sermons and adult education opportunities that focused on relationships. What do they say about friendship?

Very little.

Evidently when Christians think about relationships, they focus mostly on dating, marriage and family. Yet for most people, friendships are a significant place for learning how to reach out, listen, care, and forgive. In recent years, Facebook, Twitter and texting have gotten a lot of attention, but the focus has been either on expressing reservations about new communication technologies or on defending them. Very little nuanced thinking is being done about friendship and the many ways our friendships – even friendships that involve electronic communication – help us learn Christ-like love.

I want to advocate friendship as a relevant and timely topic for sermons. How might someone committed to expositional preaching go about focusing on friendship?

Several friendships can be observed on the pages of the Bible, such as Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, Jeremiah and Baruch, Mary and Elizabeth, and Paul and Barnabas. Each of these relationships can teach us some lovely lessons about friendship. But their usefulness as models for friendship is unfortunately limited. Each of the biblical writers who told these stories was focused on something other than friendship as the main emphasis of the stories. First and foremost, the writers were trying to convey the acts of God in human history. Therefore their descriptions of the friendships between individuals were a secondary emphasis, and the friendship details are frustratingly limited.

In somewhat the same way, the admonitions about life in the body of Christ so common throughout the epistles focus on building up the fledgling Christian communities of the first century. They don’t address friendship in and of itself.

Despite these limitations, I believe preachers could engage with issues about friendship far more often in sermons. One option is to use stories about friendships more often to illustrate sermon themes.

Many sermon illustrations centre on marriage and family life. This makes sense, because preachers often have partners and children. However, many people sitting in the pews are divorced, widowed or never married. Many parents have children who are far away. Their primary relationships on a daily basis are with friends, neighbors or work/volunteering colleagues. Even people who live with a partner and children will engage in countless interactions with friends and colleagues over the course of a week. Therefore, it makes sense to use illustrations that focus on friendships as well as illustrations that focus on family life.

I long for illustrations in sermons that focus on the real, everyday challenges of friendship. What does it look like to support a friend who is many miles away or who seems to work 24/7? What does it look like to confront a friend about something we’re concerned about or to work to forgive a friend for an act that felt like a betrayal? In what ways can the new communication technologies be used to show love and support for friends? On a daily basis, what are the ways our friendships help us grow into the image of Jesus? Many passages in the Bible raise issues that relate to these questions.

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Lynne M. Baab is lecturer in pastoral theology at the University of Otago. She is a Presbyterian minister and the author of numerous books, including Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, Reaching Out in a Networked World, Sabbath Keeping and Fasting. Many of her articles and information about her books can be found on her website:



lynne baab: using the lectionary

Recently someone asked me if it is possible to use the lectionary and also preach expositionally. I have served in associate roles in two churches where the lectionary was used part, or all, of the time and where the preaching was largely expositional. I preached once every month or six weeks in both churches, so I saw the process from the inside.

In both churches, the sermon usually focused primarily on one of the lectionary passages and would expound the passage and try to apply it to life today. In both places, sermons were 20-25 minutes. Few sermons attempted to discuss all the lectionary passages for the day, although sometimes the preacher would refer to one (or two) of the other passages, if it related in some way to the main passage. Very occasionally, if two or three of the passages fit together in an interesting way, the preacher might talk about those two or three passages equally, but still have one main point to the sermon.

One of the churches always used the lectionary. The minister there treated the lectionary readings like a series of sermons. He always preached on the Gospel passages during Lent and then always preached on the Acts passages between Easter and Pentecost. Other times of the year, he might choose to preach on the Old Testament passages, or the Epistle passages for several weeks or months in a row. So, for example, when Galatians appears in the lectionary, he might choose to preach only from Galatians in the weeks it is there. Or Esther. Or Isaiah.

He usually let the congregation know ahead of time what he was doing. The lectionary passages were advertised in advance on the church website and in the newsletter, and he would often say, I’m going to be focusing on Galatians for the next few weeks, so when you read the lectionary passages ahead of time, be sure to read that passage carefully.

This practice doesn’t cover the whole book of Galatians, Esther, or Isaiah, but it’s not a lot different from a sermon series that picks a few significant passages from a long book of the Bible, which is a common practice in some churches with expositional preaching.

In the other church where I served, the senior minister used the lectionary during Lent and Advent. (For the rest of the year, he planned sermon series based on books of the Bible, and occasionally on topics.) In that church, the sermons during Lent and Advent might draw on the Gospel passage one week and the Old Testament passage the next week. But just like in the other church, most sermons focused on only one lectionary passage and addressed the passage expositionally.

I’ve seen varied practices about which passages are read aloud when only one of them is going to be preached on. Sometimes I’ve seen all three passages read out loud. Anyway how can it hurt to have Scripture read aloud? Other places, only the passage that would be preached on, plus perhaps one other one that was going to be mentioned, would be read aloud.

I like the lectionary because it exposes a congregation to wide swaths of the Bible in a three-year rotation rather than the preacher’s favorite passages, which happens all too often. And because the lectionary is widely available online (for example, the ‘Revised Common Lectionary’ used in many Protestant denominations –, congregation members can easily read the passages ahead, and preachers can confer with other preachers who are engaging with the same texts.

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Lynne M. Baab teaches pastoral theology at the University of Otago. She is a Presbyterian minister and the author of numerous books, including Reaching Out in a Networked World, Sabbath Keeping and Fasting. Many of her articles and information about her books can be found on her website:

lynne baab: personality type, spiritual gifts & preaching

What do you enjoy most about the preaching process? My favorite part is the preparation. I love reading and rereading the passage, trying to figure out what God might be calling me to focus on and identifying the thought blocks that might shape the sermon. I love figuring out the best way to illustrate the major points.

I don’t mind the delivery. I like watching people’s faces as I speak. The hardest part of preaching for me is the talking before and after the service, meeting people I don’t know, listening to their concerns and responses. I’m an introvert. My joys and challenges in the preaching process make sense given my introverted personality. (more…)

lynne baab: sermons in a visual culture

I Inmobiliaria just returned from a research Project trip to Melbourne and Sydney, where I conducted interviews about visual communication and visual wholesale nfl jerseys arts in congregations. Some of the interviews touched wholesale nba jerseys on the role of visual components in preaching. I heard practical Writing ideas as well as questions and deep reflection. Much of what I heard is relevant for New Zealand preachers who desire to exposit the Bible in their sermons. (more…)