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Fighting for Your Congregation's Imagination (part 1)

Preaching for spiritual formation means casting a vision for a new way of life.

PreachingToday.com: How did the topic of spiritual formation become important to you?

Skye Jethani: I attended a secular university with a large Christian ministry that was action focused. It was about impact, outreach, and events. As I got into leadership, I had an interesting experience with a guy a couple of years older than me who had been a mentor of mine. I ran into him on campus when I was a junior, and he'd been graduated for a year or two. I had a conversation with him in which he broke down in tears and said his spiritual life had been in absolute ruin since he left college. He said his involvement in our campus group and the events and activities around him were what had buoyed his faith, but the moment he got out of school and didn't have that support structure, he had no deep, internal communion with God or a self-generating faith.

That was a big wake up call for me. I realized I could easily get caught up in believing that all the pizzazz around me constituted my spiritual life, while failing to pay attention to the interior world. That was where the need for spiritual formation first hit me, and that carried on through seminary and into the ministry, where it's so easy to get caught up in all the external elements that they become a substitute for an internal communion with Christ.

Has your preaching changed as you've grown in your understanding of spiritual formation?

My main goal on Sunday morning is no longer that people retain the information I'm presenting—that they would store it away in their brain as a reservoir of facts or truths or principles. My goal is now more toward inspiration. I want to inspire people toward a certain kind of life.

In your understanding of spiritual formation, what inspires people to grow?

Stories are enormously inspiring; and not just biblical stories, but testimonies of people living or dead whose lives have been shaped in a way that reflects the life God is inviting us to. What does not tend to inspire people is giving them lots of concrete to-do's. Often I'll limit application to one thing, and I won't even make it a to-do. I'll just say, "Here's an idea," or "Here's something that occurred to me when God was working on this issue in my life." That approach bothers some people because they've been taught you have to give concrete application so people know what to do. But I'm more concerned with whether they have caught a vision and whether they intend to apply it in their lives.

That's why preaching needs to be integrated with the whole ministry of the church community. If we're speaking about a particular issue over time, presenting a vision for what that looks like in God's kingdom, people have a variety of ways in which they can acknowledge their intention to follow through on the vision. It's not a cookie cutter process.

Is vision, as you're using the word, synonymous with promise—the promises of Scripture—or does it refer to something else?

Vision is imagining your life fully immersed in God's kingdom, or imagining how Jesus would be living your life. For example, we preached a series last January about poverty. We tried to lift up God's character and his compassion for the poor, and consider what our lives would look like if we had God's character regarding the poor.

We all have a vision that's driving us—and often one that has been given to us by the world. When you can identify what that is in your community, it becomes the enemy; it becomes what you are trying to deconstruct in people. Paul would write an epistle knowing what a certain community was up against, and he would present a vision that counteracted it. Most of his epistles are vision at the beginning, and then the latter part of the letter is where he gets to the meat. Children, submit to your parents; wives, husbands, slaves—all those application points come at the end. The vision is at the front.

What has captured people's imaginations in our contemporary setting is the vision of our consumer culture. That's what drives how most people live. So what we need to do is offer an alternative vision for their life, which means deconstructing what people have currently bought into. When it came to the issue of poverty and money, we highlighted the sinister nature of what most of us believe about money and identified where those notions come from in our culture. Then we lifted up the vision of what money looks like in God's kingdom.

My desire is not merely to give people what they want, but to transform what they want.

Until you have a vision, you can't choose it, which is what we call intention. Until you've chosen to follow the vision, you're not going to employ the means to actually get there. In other words, we put the cart before the horse in highly pragmatic preaching. So the vision of my life lived in God's kingdom is very important. Vision makes it possible to imagine life without lust, or to imagine being so generous that you would give away your most prized possessions, or to imagine living with such peace that you could handle the most traumatic events of life without losing your balance.

So vision is another word for theology.

It is, but it becomes vision when it captures your imagination. Until that vision captures your imagination, you're not going to live that kind of life. You're going to live the life your culture calls you to live. When I preach on Sunday morning, I feel I'm battling the culture for the imaginations of these people. Of course the Holy Spirit is the one doing the battling, but my responsibility is to present a vision of life in God's kingdom that they're not getting anywhere else.

And you cast that vision by telling stories?

Yes, the word "imagine" comes up a lot. It may include giving time for people to reflect or even stopping in the middle of a sermon to have people write down on a piece of paper what their lives would look like. I encourage people to come up with concrete ways of applying the vision to their lives, because I can't do that. I can give examples from my life, but I want them to think about the vision in their lives.

What would you recommend for pastors who haven't thought about preaching for spiritual formation in this way before?

First, there's nothing wrong with pragmatics and giving people concrete application, but we often divorce preaching from the rest of the church and think everything has to happen from the pulpit. I think a much healthier approach would be to use pulpit ministry—and every other ministry of the church—for what it's best at. If I present vision from the pulpit, I want a means to fulfill that vision to come in somewhere, such as a small group or a support group. Pastors need to think through the role preaching plays in their church's whole ministry of spiritual formation. Don't isolate preaching from what's going on in the rest of the ministry. When we try to accomplish everything through the sermon, we often cram too much into it or focus on something it's not as effective at addressing. I don't think preaching is best at getting down to those concrete pieces of people's lives. It's much more effective at inspiring a vision.

Second, we pastors try to be too entertaining. We're really concerned about whether people like our preaching. That focus leads some pastors to take surveys in their church to find out what people want to hear about: marriage, kids, work, finances. Then they present sermons that target those felt needs. That's not inherently wrong, but my desire is not merely to give people what they want, but to transform what they want. If people have been primarily formed by the culture around us, what they want is probably not what they should want. Imagination and vision helps people want what they didn't previously want. It's quite beautiful when John and Peter enter the temple, and the beggar's there asking for money. Peter says, "I don't have gold or silver, but what I do have I'll give to you. Stand up and walk, in the name of Jesus." He didn't give the guy what he wanted; he gave the guy what he needed.

This is part one of a two-part series. In part two, Skye describes how sermon preparation and delivery differ when preaching for spiritual formation. He also explores in greater detail how to integrate preaching with other ministries in the church.

Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.

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