An imaginative preacher can take a biblical text and create a sermon that sets the Word of God singing and dancing in our hearts, empowering us to live the gospel more completely.
Common American speech often uses imagination and creativity as synonyms, but both terms repel precise definition. We describe people who are creative as “imaginative” because they have the capacity to envision, to “image” something new and to present it in a way that engages and delights us with fresh insight. Preachers, however, often resist the use of the imagination in their sermons because imagination is an ambiguous word. Although it is often synonymous with creativity, it also can be equated with pure fantasy, as when we dismiss someone’s fear, saying, “It is all in your imagination.” Furthermore, theologians have sometimes attacked the imagination for creating idolatrous understandings of God. But since the imagination, like all the faculties of the human mind, is a gift from God, we should not ignore it simply because it can be misused.
When preachers faithfully use their imaginations in the pulpit, they are doing far more than making their sermons captivating. They are demonstrating to their listeners what it means to be made in the image of God, for the very first act of God that appears in the Bible is that of Creator (Genesis 1). To be made in the image of God, then, is to be created to create, to use one’s imagination. Preachers manifest the divine image whenever they employ the imagination to create sermons that are in harmony with the infinitely imaginative God. This God created fifty billion galaxies, this blue green mossy marble on which we live, and a macramé multiplicity of DNA patterns. This God redeems the whole broken creation through an itinerant rabbi from the wrong side of the tracks who was killed and yet lives, and who is the very Word through whom everything was made in the first place! Biblical preaching is imaginative because the Bible gives witness to an imaginative God.
In the 19th century homileticians began to appreciate imagination as an essential gift for preaching. By the end of the 20th century liberation theologies amplified imagination’s creative role as homileticians worked to re-imagine (re-image) God, the church, and the global community in ways that more fully embody a generous and inclusive vision of the Christian gospel. Homileticians encouraged preachers to develop their imaginations in order to communicate more effectively with people raised in a multimedia electronic culture and to provide alternatives to the imagined world of a consumer society that thrives on images of gratuitous sex and violence.
Preachers need at least three kinds of imagination in order to exercise their creative gifts in ways that are theologically sound: the conventional, the empathic, and the visionary.
The conventional imagination employs the world of Scripture, symbol, and religious practice that is alive in the congregation. Effective preachers honor the conventional imagination of the people to whom they preach because they realize it is the congregation’s imaged/imagined world of holy meaning. It is a world filled with memory and spiritual power.
The empathic imagination is the capacity to step into another’s shoes, to entertain experiences and perspectives unlike the preacher’s own. The empathic imagination empowers preachers to help their people stretch their hearts beyond their own concerns to those of God, the larger world of the human family and of Planet Earth.
The visionary imagination is deliberately attentive to the fresh and unexpected movement of the Spirit so that the preacher is given to see new ways of understanding the Bible and tradition, new worlds, new language for articulating faith in Christ and identifying the holiest dreams of the heart of God.
Creative preaching interrelates these three forms of imagination so that each can enrich, challenge, and correct the other. For example, when the conventional imagination enshrines prejudices and practices that are at odds with the gospel, the empathic imagination can awaken our feeling for those who have been injured by our distorted beliefs, and the visionary imagination can picture what a new church and a new community of healing and hospitality would look like.
On the other hand, the conventional imagination may preserve values and insights that can help us test if it is indeed the Spirit of the living God who is moving us to preach some new vision or insight.
It is helpful in the creation of sermons to view a passage of the Bible from the perspective of each kind of imagination. Consider, for example, Luke 15:11-32, traditionally titled the parable of the Prodigal Son. The conventional imagination treasures this story as a quintessential image of the grace of God. A preacher would want to honor the pastoral and theological significance of that image for the congregation. At the same time, the empathic imagination might ask what is missing from the image for girls and women, and the visionary imagination might ask how to expand the conventional imagination to make it more inclusive of all people.
None of this imaginative work precludes doing careful scholarly work: looking at the passage in its context, finding out what exegetes have to say about the parable, reading it in Greek, Hebrew, and various translations, and using all the scholarly tools at one’s disposal. Far from being antithetical, scholarship and imagination feed and stimulate each other. Preachers blend them together in the act of creating the sermon so as to engage the imaginations of the listeners in ways that renew their faith in Christ and their gratitude for “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom 11:33a).