Baptizing the Imagination

Our Good Friday this year included no sermon, no worship team, no cutting edge technology or lavish drama. And still people lingered for hours to pray, teenagers returned later in the night with their friends, and children begged their parents for the opportunity to stay longer. Why? I believe it's because our church chose to nourish the most emaciated aspect of people's spiritual lives - their imaginations.

Traditionally discipleship has focused upon two areas - knowledge and skills. Churches have poured enormous energy into communicating knowledge about God through preaching, classes, and small groups. In recent years an increasing number of voices have challenged the effectiveness of information based discipleship. That has resulted in churches shifting their focus to skill driven formation - "how to" have a healthy marriage, share the gospel, or parent difficult teenagers.

However, knowledge and skill based models, while necessary components of spiritual formation, both miss the imaginative aspect of the human spirit. And by ignoring the intuitive capacity of the mind the church has essentially surrendered people's imaginations to the pop secular culture without a fight.

In his stirring book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann says, "We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness [popular culture] that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought." Those filling the pews every Sunday may be full of information about God, and they may be expertly trained to obey God, but without an imagination enraptured by God they will be powerless to live the life he's called them to. They simply cannot imagine living any differently than the culture around them.

Without significant re-cultivation and sanctification of the imagination, aided by God's Spirit, a disciple will be incapable of weeding out sin and living obediently. Oswald Chambers understood this reality. He knew that if "your imagination of God is starved then when you come up against difficulties, you have no power, you can only endure in darkness."

Thankfully many are coming to recognize the importance of imagination in spiritual formation. Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, author of The Drama of Doctrine and professor of systematic theology says:

"Imagination has been a dirty word for too long?The imagination enables us to see the parts of the Bible as forming a meaningful whole. But we can go further still. The imagination also enables us to see our lives as part of that same meaningful whole. This is absolutely crucial. Christians don't need more information about the Bible, trivial or otherwise. What the church needs today is the ability to indwell or inhabit the text."

Displaying 1–10 of 15 comments

Hal Moran

October 20, 2006  1:15pm

Art is metaphor! And metaphor is a vehicle through which truth is revealed in Scripture. If it's good enough for Jesus it's good enough for me! -H-

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October 18, 2006  10:55pm

Good Post! I think that engaging the imagination is very important to keeping up a commitment to Christ. We need to keep our eyes on God's Big Picture. The story of Jesus is the most shocking and dramatic story there is, and even if we know it backwards and forwards, we need to step back and acknowledge that every once in a while. It helps us keep focus when the day to day obedience becomes tedious.

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Mark Goodyear

October 18, 2006  9:18am

Nathan, you said, "People that think that post-moderns want MTV-style videos on big-screen televisions are completely missing the point." I agree. I think Skye's point is that using our imagination in worship is an interactive experience. Too often worship ministers–myself included, though I'm just a volunteer drama guy–create interactive and imaginative experiences for the people leading worship. The congregation then just becomes an audience.

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October 17, 2006  7:55pm

Just another cleverly devised scheme to commodify the life of the church. It all sounds so post-modern and spiritually sexy, but all it seems to amount to is another means to capture, allure and manipulate people. When will the books come out: "How to stir up your imagination and inspire others?"; "Reading the Bible Imaginatively: The Sky is the Limit" or "Rationalize Anything from Scripture with Your Imagination?" I don't deny that the Good Friday service was a meaningful time for that particular body. But once we start to sell 'it' as a means we have taken the Spirit out of the equation, essentially stealing His copyright. The prophets of old were not stirred up by their own imaginations: they were impacted by, and conduits of, God's imagination. We have become too proud of our own abilities, but all they seem to amount to in the end is sex without love.

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October 17, 2006  8:46am

You say, "True spiritual formation requires more than Bible knowledge and skills" - It does; it requires obedience. Jesus said, "if you love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:16) It takes very little imagination to do that but it takes a lot of self-denial. It's not mystical or very imaginative but it is the truth. Sadly, not many wish to do it though.

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October 15, 2006  6:49pm

Sounds somewhat similar to an Eastern Orthodox Good Friday service. You should go to one some time. You'll be blow away ;)

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Nathan Woodward

October 14, 2006  11:40pm

Skye's use of the word "multi-sensory" is interesting. It sounds like his service was VERY multi-sensory. People that think that post-moderns want MTV-style videos on big-screen televisions are completely missing the point.

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October 14, 2006  12:39am

Great Post! Over the past few months, God has been teaching me about the use of the imagination in relating to Him - worshiping Him! And this is what the youth ministry I am involved with in Singapore wants to explore in 2007. Pray for us ... Enough of eclipsing God!

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October 12, 2006  6:24pm

Thanks so much for this post. I completely agree on the need to include evocative experience and imagination in our churches. The Good Friday service at my church this year consisted solely of a 'reader's-theatre'-style dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. The most stirring and humbling moments for me were those in which the whole congregation read aloud. Our part? The words of the crowd in Jerusalem, demanding that Jesus be crucified. What a powerful way to remember our own frailty and culpability, and the grace that saves us from both. Thanks again.

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October 12, 2006  5:44pm

Skye, Great post! I think your comment that discipleship is more than just information retention is apt. I do see knowledge as foundational to imagination, however–not saying you'd disagree with that. Folks can just run off with the notion of "imagining" and start imagining things that are decidedly un-biblical, if we aren't firmly grounded in the revealed Word of the triune God. Hence Paul's prayer in Ephesians 1 that their hearts would be enlightened–dare I say it, that they would imagine?–to understand, grasp, seize and be "enraptured" (as you put it so well) by what is become reality in Christ, our hope. May we have such an imagination that glories in God's salvation of His people in Jesus! Again, great post. Blessings.

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