We don’t preach to entertain; we preach for transformation. But doing so may require us to use and preach to the imagination.
By Mike Leake
Two point two billion hours. That is, as of July 2023, how many hours people have spent watching Squid Game season 1 on Netflix. Yet, you look at your online metrics and find the average watch time for your sermons is somewhere around 17 seconds. The latest blockbuster has your local movie theater bursting at the seams. But your latest sermon series leaves plenty of empty spaces in the parking lot. What gives?
We might chalk this up to a culture that would rather be entertained than informed. In doing so, we might even glory in our inability to compete with Netflix or the movie theater. And in one sense, I’d agree. This is an apples-and-oranges comparison. We don’t preach to entertain; we preach for transformation.
Yet, I wonder if something else is to blame. It’s a discipline in which children naturally engage, yet we preachers seem to have forgotten—how to use and preach to the imagination.
Why imagination matters
I’ve often said we shouldn’t fault people for not being engaged when we treat Scripture like a refrigerator manual instead of the greatest story in the world. You only read that manual when your fridge is on the fritz. Preachers can treat the Bible similarly, and it’s why our people are so fond of checking out.“We shouldn’t fault people for not being engaged when we treat Scripture like a refrigerator manual instead of the greatest story in the world.” — @mikeleake Click To Tweet
Eighteenth-century author Andrew Fletcher once said, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” That has been tweaked to become the more common: “Let me write the songs of a nation; I don’t care who writes its laws.”
Peter Drucker, renowned business guru, is known for quipping: “Culture will eat strategy for breakfast.” Both Drucker and Fletcher are telling us if you captivate the imagination or shape the cultural imaginary then you’ll be in a position to influence and transform others. You will get a hearing.
We preachers, though, have an uncomfortable relationship with the imagination. Who of us hasn’t sat through an awkward Bible study where someone gives a wild explanation of “what this Scripture means to me”? Saying that we need to “preach to the imagination” feels like saying we need to preach without rails. It feels untethered and like a foolish invitation to slip into wild and empty speculation. Shouldn’t we be tethered to reality and not the imagination?
When I speak of preaching to the imagination, I mean something different. Sinclair Ferguson defines it well:
Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, feel its power—to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, grips the mind, will, and affections so listeners not only understand the words used but feel their truth and power.
We aren’t talking about the fancy or the imaginary. Instead, this is the prophet Nathan coming to the unrepentant David with a story instead of a lecture (2 Samuel 12). He preached to David’s imagination. He hooked him with a story. And he captured his imagination—and with it, his emotions. But David, as we are so wont to do, placed himself as judge over the story. When Nathan connected the dots for David, it was a powerful and convicting sermon.
Why preach to the imagination
As we see in the story of Nathan and David, preaching to the imagination can be powerful. It’s powerful because it gives ownership of the story. And when we own a story, rarely does it stay housed in the mind. As James K. A. Smith argues, “our action emerges from how we imagine the world.” He continues:
“When we preach to the imagination, we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus.” — @mikeleake Click To Tweet
And that shaping of our character is, to a great extent, the effect of stories that have captivated us, that have sunk into our bones—stories that ‘picture’ what we think life is about, what constitutes ‘the good life.’ We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us. Thus, much of our action is acting out a kind of script that has unconsciously captured our imaginations.
Are we not called by the living God to be the ones who are—through the gospel we proclaim—painting those pictures and shaping those imaginations? Yes, it is true you can’t argue people into the kingdom. Neither can you “story” them into the kingdom. The Spirit does the work of captivating hearts. Sometimes He uses the bare-naked truth. More often, He seems to pull us in through story. That was certainly the preferred method of the Lord Jesus. When Jesus told stories, He engaged the imagination. When we preach to the imagination, we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Preaching to the imagination doesn’t only benefit the hearers; it also assists us pastors. We are using the imagination to enter into the world of our hearers. We labor to imagine how they might be receiving not only our words, but more importantly the words of Scripture. What does this text look like for a single mom? What does it look like for a skeptic? A blue-collar worker? A business person? A person battling depression? We use our imaginations to enter into their world and receive the text.
What does such a thing look like?
What preaching to the imagination kooks like
In the story of Nathan and David, there wasn’t a literal lamb, poor man, or rich man. It was all imaginary. Except it wasn’t. It was connected to a deeper reality. And that is what it means to preach to the imagination. We aren’t making things up as we go along. We are using our imagination to connect us to deeper realities.
The religious leaders of the day knew what the text said. They even, at least in part, understood what the text meant. But the people weren’t engaged. It felt like a hammer rather than a life-giving gift. The Sabbath laws were meant to be burden-lifting. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day used it to load down the backs of the people. When Jesus stood before the people, He engaged their imaginations through story. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God through parables, inviting them to enter in and peak through the window at what God’s kingdom is really like.“Preaching to the imagination helps us not only know the Scripture but to feel it.” — @mikeleake Click To Tweet
Jesus showed us the difference between standing before people and saying, “Here is what the text says” and standing before them and showing, “This is what the text intends.” It is the difference between identifying yourself as a vague “sinner” and being pinned into a corner and hearing the thundering, “You are that man!” Likewise, our people can either know about justification or they can feel it in the depth of their being. Preaching to the imagination helps us not only know the Scripture but to feel it.
Can you imagine how such preaching could lead to transformation?
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