Imagination: The Preacher's Neglected Ally
When listeners are starving for a meal, creativity is what ensures there will be more than a recipe
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Few speeches are as monotonous as the average stewardess's flight announcements. When I hear, "This is Helen, your chief attendant …" I either settle down for a long nap or open my book to read. I could make the speech myself.
But Frank was different. "My name is Frank," he began as we left Detroit, "and this plane is going to Chicago. If you aren't going to Chicago—well, you're going anyway!"
After a dramatic pause, he continued. "Please be sure your seat belts are fastened. If they aren't, and I discover it, I will belt you into your seat upside-down." A chuckle rippled throughout the cabin.
"There will be no smoking—I emphasize, no smoking in the aisles or the lavatories. If I catch you smoking in either place, I will take your lavatory privileges away from you." We laughed out loud; but we got the message.
At the close of the flight, we bounced hard on the runway as we landed. But Frank was ready: "That was our Easter evening hippity-hop landing at O'Hare Field. The Easter Bunny says, 'Welcome to Chicago!'" Almost the entire plane broke into applause.
Frank reminded me of something that Easter night: no matter how important your message, people will miss it unless you get their attention. Information needs imagination if there is to be communication. And no area of communication has a greater need for imagination than preaching.
Imagination: friend or enemy?
Whenever I mention imagination in a homiletics class or a preaching seminar, people glare at me as if I had just denied the Virgin Birth or the responsibility of a church to pay its pastor. The fact that we misunderstand imagination is one reason why we neglect it. People tend to confuse imagination with fancy or the imaginary. We are so wedded to the historic faith that we want to defend it against anything invented by humans. To most people, imagination belongs to the Brothers Grimm, Walt Disney, Tolkien, and little children who have no playmates.
But imagination and fancy are not the same. Fancy helps me escape reality, while imagination helps me penetrate reality and understand it better. Fancy wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb," but inspired imagination wrote Psalm 23. Fancy creates a new world for you; imagination gives you new insight into the old world.
Great preachers have, for the most part, valued imagination as an ally. Alexander Whyte called it "nothing less than the noblest intellectual attribute of the human mind." He even felt that the imagination was stronger than the will and could be used to reach the will. The blind preacher George Matheson prized imagination as "the highest power of man."
Listen to the testimony of Henry Ward Beecher in the first series of Yale Lectures on Preaching: "And the first element on which your preaching will largely depend for power and success, you will perhaps be surprised to learn, is Imagination, which I regard as the most important of all the elements that go to make the preacher."
But our misunderstanding of imagination is not the only cause for its neglect. Another factor is our emphasis on content rather than intent. In recent years, the preacher has become a lecturer, and the sanctuary has become a classroom. The most important preparation for hearing a sermon is not a keen mind and a clean heart, but a clean notebook and a sharp pencil.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me make it clear that sermons must have biblical content. But if that is all they have, they are not sermons. The preacher needs to spend time on exegesis, but merely taking words apart will never put lives together. We need to obey the rules of hermeneutics and homiletics, but we also need to use our imagination so our listeners get something more than a recipe when they are starving for a meal.
There are times when preaching must emphasize only doctrinal content. Fine; but even then, let the preacher use imagination in presenting the material. I believe in the immediacy of preaching. I believe God wants something to happen in the hearts of people while the preacher is delivering the Word of God. There may be a place for a cassette rerun or a review from a notebook, but these can never replace the immediate impact of the Word as the sermon is being preached. While I do not agree with Harry Emerson Fosdick's theology, his philosophy of preaching was excellent: "The purpose of preaching is not to explain a subject, but to achieve an object."
It has well been said that the human mind is not a debating chamber but a picture gallery. The prophet Nathan did not approach David with a lecture, complete with charts, on Levitical sacrifices. He told the king a story about a stolen ewe lamb, and he reached the king's heart. Nicodemus wanted information about Jesus and his miracles, but the Lord used imagination and talked with him about birth. The Samaritan woman tried to argue about rival religious doctrines, but Jesus kept talking to her about her thirst and God's living water.
Perhaps the greatest cause of the decline of imagination in preaching is right there: we have forgotten that the Bible is an imaginative book. It contains every kind of literature, from funeral dirges and pastoral poems to epigrams, parables, allegories, and creative symbols that have captured poets, artists, and composers for centuries. For some reason, our views of inspiration and inerrancy have robbed us of a living book, a book that throbs with excitement and enrichment. Instead of entering into the literary genre of the passage, we treat all passages alike. David's poems sound, to our ears, like Paul's arguments, and our Lord's parables like Moses' genealogies. Shame on us!
Let me suggest a final cause for this neglect of imagination: too many preachers refuse to be themselves and, instead, imitate the sermons of better-known preachers. Why fear to be yourself?
God made you as you are and wants you to deliver his message your way. Imagination leads to originality, and originality leads to variety, power, and excitement.
What can imagination do?
To begin with, imagination can help us understand and interpret the Word of God. Imagination is as essential to the science of hermeneutics as the lexicon and interlinear. I once asked D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones if he had any trouble preaching non-Pauline passages. He replied, "Folks said I wouldn't do a good job with the Gospel of John because Paul didn't write it. But I was able to enter into John's mind as easily as I entered into Paul's."
We do not degrade Scripture when we come to its pages with a sanctified imagination. Rather, we accept the Scriptures as they were given to us, in simile and metaphor, in parable and allegory, in poetry and narrative, in song and proverb. The preacher who masters a book like The Language and Imagery of the Bible by G. B. Caird (Westminster, 1980) will discover a new touch to both his hermeneutics and his homiletics.
While preparing a message on Hosea 14, I decided to read the entire book again and especially note the similes. I was amazed to find the brokenhearted prophet painting one picture after another. "Israel is stubborn, like a stubborn heifer" (4:16, NASB). "For I will be like a lion to Ephraim" (5:14). "And He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth" (6:3). "For your loyalty is like a morning cloud, and like the dew which goes away early" (6:4). Simile is piled upon simile! No wonder Spurgeon preached one of his most effective sermons from Hosea. The title is "Everybody's Sermon," and the text is Hosea 12:10—"I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes" (KJV). "In addressing myself to you this morning," said Spurgeon, "I shall endeavor to show how every day, and every season of the year, in every place, and in every calling which you are made to exercise, God is speaking to you by similitudes." The preacher who questions the value of imagination in preaching ought to study this sermon, and then go quietly and repent.
Many preachers try to use their imagination only in reconstructing Bible scenes, and this has its place when done with accuracy and insight. The better the preacher's imagination, the shorter the description and the more vivid the strokes in the picture. But I am not encouraging reconstruction so much as identification: entering into the spirit of the passage, the mind and heart of the writer, and being true to the literary genre. It would be difficult to conceive of an interpreter understanding Ezekiel 1 or Isaiah 40 without the use of sanctified imagination.
Imagination also helps us identify with people and apply the Word to their lives. (If all you want to do is explain a subject, you need not worry about meeting needs.) Halford Luccock wrote, "Nothing is more central to a genuine ministry than the faculty of feeling one's way into the lives of others. … It is more than sympathy; it is empathy, the imaginative projection of our consciousness into another's being."
Imagination helps you anticipate people's questions and objections. As you put yourself in their place, you discover mental obstacles that must be removed, prejudices that must be exposed, and objections that will need answers if the listener is to receive your material. Again, Harry Emerson Fosdick was the master of answering the listener's questions before they were even voiced. As you read his sermons, you note such phrases as "Some may be saying …" "Do not misunderstand me …" "Now, when somebody says …" " 'True enough,' you reply, 'but what about …' " Phrases like these indicate preparation with the congregation in mind.
Your imagination can help you present the truth in ways that encourage reception. "Don't just throw the seed at the people!" Spurgeon said. "Grind it into flour, bake it into bread, and slice it for them. And it wouldn't hurt to put a little honey on it."
Though we often deal with abstract truth, the best way to get it across is to incarnate it in pictures and illustrations. "You may build up laborious definitions and explanations," Spurgeon told his students, "and yet leave your hearers in the dark as to your meaning; but a thoroughly suitable metaphor will wonderfully clear the sense."
It amazes me how some preachers can make Bible doctrine so dull! Each of the key doctrinal words in our New Testament is part of an exciting picture. Justification belonged to the courtroom before it moved to the seminary. Redemption was born out of Greek and Roman slavery. The phrase born again was familiar to the Greeks and carried meanings that would illumine any sermon today. The preacher who does not study words—including English words—is robbing himself of an effective tool for communicating truth. It is not accidental that some of our most effective preachers were students of words, readers of dictionaries, and lovers of crossword puzzles.
Literary critics have led the way in studying the significance of metaphors in human life. I recommend the books by Dr. Northrop Frye, especially The Educated Imagination and The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. If you want to do postgraduate study with Dr. Frye, tackle his classic. Anatomy of Criticism. I also recommend Metaphor and Reality by Philip Wheelwright, and Religious Imagination by Robert D. Young. Perhaps you studied all these in college or seminary. I did not, so I had to get them the hard way—or maybe the easy way, now that I see how important they are.
Imagination enables you to see the universal in the particular, and that universal is often expressed in a simile or metaphor. The Bible is saturated with this kind of language. Paul used dozens of different images to describe the church (see Images of the Church in the New Testament by Paul S. Minear), and most of these images are still part of human thinking today.
We must have information; otherwise our preaching is but noise. However, that information reaches the heart and mind of the listener with greater impact if it is coupled with imagination.
Preaching is an art as well as a science. Hermeneutics and homiletics can give us the skeleton, but it takes imagination to put flesh on the bones. Homiletical scientists may be good at textual autopsies, but they cannot raise the dead. As Goethe once remarked, "The artist who is not also a craftsman is no good; but, alas, most of our artists are nothing else!" Imagination is what transforms a craftsman into an artist.
This means preachers are more than organizers of ideas. They are not carpenters who nail together a number of miscellaneous boards, the doctrinal driftwood that has floated ashore during their studies. Sermons grow; they come from the seed of the Word, planted in the mind and heart, nurtured by meditation and prayer, cultivated by sanctified imagination. A sermon is a living thing that produces fruit, and that fruit has in it the seed for more fruit. Some sermons can be preached (or read) over and over, bringing blessing and opening up new horizons of thought each time.
"The sin of being uninteresting," wrote Bishop Quayle, "is in a preacher an exceedingly mortal sin. It hath no forgiveness." If you want your preaching to be both interesting and penetrating, learn the power of metaphor and the genius of imagination.
Cultivating your imagination
Children seem to be imaginative by nature. True, their imagination usually runs to fancy, but even that is not all bad. Once you get a grip on reality, fancy and imagination can live together and even help each other.
Why does the passing of years destroy imagination? I am not so sure it does. I think it is a fable that children have great imaginations but adults do not. So perhaps the first step is to rid ourselves of this defeatist notion that our imagination is dead and cannot be revived. Perhaps it is only hibernating. What happens when your grandchildren show up? You think of all sorts of fun things to do! Novelist W. Somerset Maugham wrote, "Imagination grows by exercise and contrary to common belief is more powerful in the mature than in the young."
The preacher, of all people, has the greatest advantages when it comes to developing his imagination. To begin with, he is expected to be a student, a reader. Imagination must be fed. The mind grows by taking in just as the heart grows by giving out. The preacher who reads only the approved books and never faces truth on many fronts will have difficulty developing his imagination.
Read widely, especially those classics to which time has given its seal of approval. Read poetry and children's stories as well as history, biography, and theology. All truth is God's truth, and (as Phillips Brooks reminded us) all truth intersects. You cannot confront truth without gaining some new insight into your Bible.
But the ivory tower bookworm will never meet the needs of people. Education is important, but so is experience. The preacher must live! He must mix learning and living, the library and the marketplace. He must be among his people, with the publicans and sinners as well as the preachers and saints. Emerson said, "If you would learn to write, 'tis in the street you must learn it. … The people, and not the college, is the writer's home." Substitute the word "preacher" for "writer," and take it to heart.
Martin Luther used to say that prayer, meditation, and suffering made a preacher, and he was right. Sermons are not made from books so much as from battles and burdens. Hermeneutics professors take note: some in the Bible who suffered most gave us the most imaginative pictures of spiritual truth—Moses, David, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, John, and Paul … not to mention our Lord Jesus Christ.
Certainly an important part of living is creative communion with people who truly live. Every preacher needs to be a part of a brain trust where ideas are debated and neat systems shattered. The minister who has all truth filed on pages in a notebook needs a fellowship like this to help him turn some of his periods into commas, and perhaps some of his exclamation points into question marks.
Cultivate a sense of humor. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking, creative people have a sense of humor. After all, a humorist has been defined as a person who can see more than one thing at a time—and that is what imagination is all about. If you know how to laugh—and why you laugh—you can feed your imagination on humor.
Most of all I recommend a childlike sense of wonder at life. Spend your days with your eyes and ears open, your mind constantly inquiring. Beware of coming to a place in life where you feel you have learned it all and done it all. When you come to that place, you are entering a dead-end street." What is experience," asked advertising magnate Alex Osborn, "but a wealth of parallels upon which our imagination can draw?"
It takes time to develop a creative imagination, and most preachers are too busy to work at it. Creative people need times of incubation as well as times of investigation. Your best ideas may come when you least expect them, provided you have been doing your homework. We must get away from things in order to see them clearly.
This means the busy preacher, who often cannot use his time as he wishes, must set aside periods for relaxation and meditation. Each person must know his own creative cycle: when to study, when to get away from the desk, and how to make the best use of free time. We need parentheses in our lives. This means setting priorities. Creative people know how to say no.
Imagination is the preacher's neglected ally, waiting to serve if we will let it. If we determine to be creative, there is a price to pay; but there is a greater price to pay if we are not.
Our listeners will know the choice we have made.
Warren Wiersbe is a writer and speaker. He is author of many books, including Preaching and Teaching with Imagination (Baker). He served as pastor of Moody Church in Chicago and was the distinguished professor of preaching at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary in Michigan.
This article appears in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, a comprehensive encyclopedia of preaching. Click here to purchase a copy of this book to have this invaluable resource on hand as you preach the Word!