Finding the Narrative: Seven Sermon Series Examples

This morning I had my fourth creative meeting for an upcoming series on doubt. For some reason, this series has been particularly difficult to nail down, but has led to some fruitful conversations with colleagues about the practice of finding the narrative.

What I mean by that is, one of the biggest challenges for a storyteller in church environments is shaping a series of ideas, as expressed in a sermon, into a cohesive arc. Ideas are better absorbed and put into practice when they’re received in a narrative context. Story’s unique power to connect with people has been well documented, by me and others. Here’s one recent post on the power of narrative as a communication device.

The difficulty is putting theory into practice. It’s similar to the work a documentary filmmaker does when researching a subject – the filmmaker must capture a collection of perhaps seemingly random of ideas, review them as a set, find how they relate, and shape them into a cohesive storyline. This is a particular skill.

Our difficulty with doubt led me to review our narrative work since arriving at Peachtree. How have we done since I’ve arrived in finding the narrative? Here’s a review of the seven sermon series we’ve designed during my first go around the Peachtree windmill. While our planning process has been a little turbulent as I’m getting Peachtree’s creative plane off the ground, we’ve had some real wins and are, so far, ahead of the developmental curve.

A review of these seven concepts includes some commentary about what works, what doesn’t, and why.


Gold: Achieve the Faith Life You’ve Always Wanted

July – August 2012

Easy, low hanging fruit for the Olympic – and the summer – season. Creative applications were mostly limited to design, but a good early planning session helped us to drill into the metaphor a bit and come up with some good angles comparing athletic training and spiritual disciplines. It lacks a single arching narrative, but the tie-in and the imagery were good, and resulted in a good early design win. (Here’s a review of the series.)



Classic Calvin

August – September 2012

My senior pastor is a car buff and last fall began what is likely a new annual tradition by hosting a classic car show on campus. While the car show was a success for our Buckhead-based congregation, the series was a stretch. The idea of “classic” collectible cars was meant to describe the theology of John Calvin. If you don’t see the connection instantly, then you have just discovered the limitations of designing metaphors after the fact. (After the fact means we had a series theme in place on the theology of John Calvin, and we had a big event coming up, so we tried to make them fit together.)

Here are a few guidelines for finding a core image for a series. The best metaphors:

  1. Make instant sense
  2. Explain the core idea
  3. Create a sense of intrigue and possibility
  4. Bring new meaning to the core idea

Metaphors don’t just illustrate the idea; they embody the idea. In the best cases, they arise naturally from biblical and theological study, team brainstorming and collaboration, and a thorough knowledge of culture. They’re a form of image exegesis, just as we exegete, or extract meaning, from text.

Metaphors don’t just illustrate the idea; they embody the idea.

Classic Calvin doesn’t pass this conceptual test. This is not to disparage my colleagues or myself; at every stop in my ministry, it has taken 18-24 months to create a more thorough visual approach to series design. This is part of the natural progression, and is not a process you can compress or circumvent. We had not – and have not – yet learned how to design a concept.

So, one of my team’s designers, Lizz Norman, found some great imagery of old cars to put with my ad copy, and we made some nice tasting lemonade.

If you’re in the early stages, remember: True design is inside out. It starts with the soul of the concept. It’s not the last step in the idea chain.



Seven Deadly Seductions

September – October 2012

While it was still early in the developmental process, our series on the seven deadly sins offered an opportunity to flex some illustration muscle. I wrote a poem that captured the basic ideas of the series, and worked with a talented animator in the Atlanta area to craft a fresh visual approach. (My first direction to the animator: more Monty than Dante.) Here’s a review of the series, including my poem.

While it lacked a core metaphor to bring deeper exploration and meaning to the topic, Seven Deadly Seductions was successful in drawing creative attention, and was the first series in my tenure to raise the bar for what is possible in worship design.



Live Wires: Church, Family, Friends

November 2012

A three week series on how we conduct God’s power. I was excited about the electricity metaphor, but couldn’t find a concept that wasn’t too technical for my colleagues’ tastes. We eventually went with a bokeh look, which was a compromise: it was “warm” and “human” enough for some, while still representative enough of light and power to make sense as a look for the series.

While this wasn’t a complete failure, it didn’t pass my personal test, listed above, for a successful sermon series concept. Here’s the difference:

When you use images, embody the concept rather than illustrate it. The difference? Embodied concepts don’t require explanation.

What does this mean?

To recycle a quote from Digital Storytellers, Suger, an abbott from the 14th century, believed that visuals could serve a primarily narrative rather than illustrative purpose. (Kinda like now, this was a simmering debate back in the day.) He believed that scriptural text was self-sufficient in its ecclesiastical function, and not aided by visual aids. In fact, applying to text to scripture was “the heresy of the Greeks.”

Does this mean Suger was anti-image? Nope. Instead, the duty of art was to provide new texts, or different ways to approach the gospel, through storytelling. In other words, text, preaching (orality), and visuals each offer unique approaches.

Here’s what this means to me, and one of the rules I use for metaphor and design:

Can you look at the core image, with no explanatory text, and deduce the theme of the series?

If you can’t, then the image has failed in its function. Good art shouldn’t try to illustrate the concept. Instead, it should hint at the core idea, but rather than offering a final, convergent analysis, suggest any variety of divergent possibilities. It offers a new interpretation in visual form.



Christmas Conversations

December 2012

A cultural series that applied a theological twist to iconic figures of Christmas. In many ways similar to Seven Deadly Seductions (and to my old Midnight Oil campaign Rediscover Christmas), image and art didn’t bring, as Suger said, “new texts” to the core ideas of the series. But at least it was an opportunity to flex some creative and illustration muscle.

This was the first series for our newest team hire, Joe Chaffee, and he had fun crafting new renditions of the iconic figures of Christmas.




January 2013

Now we’re talking. Our senior pastor had the brilliant idea to use the horrific, compelling and ultimately redemptive story of Louis Zamperini, as documented in the book Unbroken, as entrée to the experience of Paul of Tarsus. Here’s my review of the series.

This is story in worship at its finest: we built weekly themes as chapters in Zamperini’s life:

Unbroken Focus – the discipline of the faith life, combining Paul’s writings on discipline with the regimen that a young Zamperini subjected himself to as an Olympic athlete in training.

Unbroken Joy – Paul’s joyous letter to the Philippians reveals little of the difficulties he faced in a Roman jail cell. Similarly, Zamperini’s unshakeable spirit carried a crew of wartime plane crash survivors for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean.

Unbroken Love – The gospel calls us to selfless acts of servant love and sacrifice for others. Unbroken Christians can be counted on to help each other, like the heroic prisoner of war Louis Zamperini.

For the fourth week and final chapter, we brought Zamperini in to speak and let him tell the final act of saving grace in a young Billy Graham’s revival tent in 1949.

I’ve talked about the types of story, and how you can use them in worship. This lovely example shows how the merging of cultural, personal and biblical story can create a powerful experience – one that our senior pastor called “the most electrifying in his 40 years in ministry.”



The Path: Ten Commandments for Our Daily Walk

February – March 2013

What loomed for months as a creativity-free seven week monster exploration of the Ten Commandments became awesome for two reasons.

The first came from social media surfing. During one of my weekly creative times, as I thought about the Ten Commandments, Len Sweet posted an update that zapped me like an, um, live wire:

There is an old saying: “Translation is resurrection, but not of the body.” The translation of Torah is “Law” and its component “commandments” are some of the worst translation mistakes ever made. Torah actually is a relational concept meaning Guidance or Teaching or GPS to God. It’s a directional word that alerts us how to pay attention to God’s purposes and promises and providences (“commandments”). Here is the #1 rabbi of the 20th century complaining about this: “When translated into a different language the thought itself changes as a result of the different cultural background of the language into which the original text is translated. The word Torah is a good example. When the Greek translators rendered Torah as nomos and were followed by the English translators rendering it ‘Law’, they were interpreting the whole concept into the thought patterns of the Greek-speaking Jews and English-speaking Christians with, on the one hand, an enlargement of the application of Torah so that it could find a lodging in the different languages, and a narrowing of the concept to its purely legal connotations.” (Louis Jacobs, Jewish Preaching (Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), 198.)

The second inspiration came as part of my team’s departmental creative meeting the next day. For each meeting we share examples of recent designs we’ve loved. One of our team members brought an amazing typographic treatment where words were composed on city walls, drain pipes, and so on. We loved the integration.

The Path took on a life. Our artist Joe Chaffee created an amazing set of national park styled images, each of which carried the same design while individually interpreting the week’s commandment. The concept of a walking path helped our congregation reinterpret the Commandments from rules, as Len Sweet noted, to its truer meaning as guides and signposts to keep us from the wilderness.

While too long at seven weeks, The Path brought fresh spiritual and visual energy to an old sermon topic, and several members and fellow staffers have commented on its visual impact and effectiveness.



As of this writing, I’m seven series in. We have a long ways to go, but have more “victories” at this stage of development than in many other settings in my career as a church creative. Hopefully doubt will end well.

What are lessons you’ve learned in sermon series visual development?


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).