When your sermon needs Greg

I’ve been guilty of it. Probably more times than I’ve realised. And so have you, I’m guessing, if you’re a preacher who has ever tried to be creative; who has tried to do something different in order to captivate the congregation with the truth of Scripture. At some point, we’ve all fallen into the error of allowing our sermon to serve a creative idea, rather than the other way around.

Sometimes that creative idea works wonderfully. It becomes the hook which grabs attention; or the spine which holds the various parts of sermon together; or the dominant image which fixes the central truth of the sermon in your congregation’s mind long after the individual words have been forgotten. Yet other times, that creative idea becomes a distraction, complicating the message rather than simplifying it. Or it becomes an end in itself, its inherent “coolness” constantly pressing its case to remain in the sermon long after it should have been jettisoned. At worst, it can descend into self-indulgence while we remain blind to our true motivations.

So how can you tell them apart? How do you sort the good and helpful creative ideas from those which are distracting and unedifying? How do you let go of a cool idea that, on reflection, doesn’t seem to fit the sermon no matter how hard you try?

That’s where you need Greg.

Who’s Greg?

Who’s Greg? I’ll introduce him in a minute. He works in an advertising agency—an industry with a brief not entirely dissimilar to preaching. (Hear me out.) Its job is to take a brief from a client, then craft and refine a message into a creative yet simple form that gains attention and persuades the audience of its truth. In short, it harnesses creativity to maximise the impact of a message.

Of course, there are key differences, too. As preachers, our brief is given to us from God in Scripture, and the messages it contains are far more important than selling food or fashion or anything else the world wants us to buy. But the concept is still similar: communicating God’s message in a creative way (or “truth communicated through personality” as Phillips Brooks famously put it).

A few years ago, a colleague of mine found himself in a meeting with some advertising executives. At one point they began quizzing him on how sermons are put together. Some seemed quite shocked to learn that sermon-writing has traditionally been a one-person show, coming as they were from an agency culture in which a multiplicity of creative voices is seen as a strength. They found our process odd.

This hit home to me when, at about the same time, I stumbled across a documentary series called The Pitch. In each episode, it showed the inner workings of two advertising agencies competing over the course of a (very pressured) week to put together a pitch—a presentation of how they would advertise the product, in order to win the client’s business.

It would involve a team of “creatives” working together. In larger agencies they’d often form into multiple smaller teams and compete with one another. Ideas would be floated and critiqued, then discarded or refined.  The aim was that the winning idea would have been battle-tested against many others along the way.

And at the centre of this frenzy of ideas stood the marketing director. Their job wasn’t to come up with the ideas, but to evaluate them; to help the creative teams refine them; and to ensure that the ideas served the message rather than the other way around. Their brief was to make sure the strategy remained on point, and wasn’t derailed by a cool concept that didn’t fit the task at hand.

In one particular episode, it became clear how important this role was when the marketing director, a man named Greg, had to be rushed to hospital with a gallbladder condition. Suddenly, the small agency was without its strategic hand on the rudder, and the pitch began to lose focus. (The documentary director masterfully set this in stark comparison with the competing agency working on their parallel pitch). Exciting ideas ruled the day rather than strategy. They came up with a pitch that was interesting, but didn’t do its job. Ultimately, the firm lost the pitch because of this.

It showed how much they needed Greg.

Who’s your Greg?

So who’s your Greg? Who or what functions as a reality check on your creative dreaming? Who asks you to look at your cool idea in the cold light of day and think: is this really doing its job?

Greg might be a trusted colleague. A fellow preacher, perhaps; maybe someone on your ministry team. Choose your Greg(s) wisely: they need to be open to creativity and see possibilities in as-yet-not-fully-baked ideas, but have a good sense of the seriousness business of preaching God’s word. The more “out there” your creative idea, the more you need to run it past one of the Gregs in your life too check that you’re not getting carried away with creativity for its own sake.

You might want a regular group of Gregs from different walks of life—maybe a closed group on social media who can be quickly accessed during the week—with whom you can workshop ideas. In my experience, most people will be quite open to being taken inside the mysterious world of sermon preparation, and offer insights you never would have come up with.

Greg can also be inside you, particularly if you’ve been preaching for a while. Most of the time, if an idea is getting away from the “useful zone,” somewhere, deep down in your gut, you’ll know. That’s Greg. Learn to trust him. Learn to trust your gut. Don’t allow an idea to keep arguing with you that you should keep it alive longer than is warranted—have the mental discipline to pull the plug (or find an external Greg to help you.)

Because there’s nothing worse than a sermon that was written the week Greg was off having his gall bladder removed. It might be full of bells and whistles, and spark great engagement—but it won’t do its job of communicating God’s message to his people.

Trust God. And trust Greg. Ideally in that order.