Ministering to the Imagination
It's often neglected, but the imagination is critical to discipleship.

by David Swanson

The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful. –John Piper

I begin with two assumptions. First, John Piper is correct about the magnitude of the imagination to the Christian life. How else can we relate to our spiritual ancestors, distant in time and culture? The teachings of Jesus demand his hearers to imagine a different way of living; his parables draw us into worlds we've never experienced. Scripture is filled with the poetic, apocalyptic and prophetic along with nail-biting and head-scratching narrative. Imagination helps me participate in this active Word of God; it's what moves me from an observer to an accomplice. Through a Christ-centered imagination history becomes my story, poetry becomes my prayer, and the coming Kingdom of God becomes my reality.

Second, Christian imagination is either stimulated or sedated by our surroundings. Having recently made the transition from the suburbs to life and ministry in Chicago, I'm convinced that our environment either hinders or stimulates this overlooked facet of discipleship. Consider a few generalizations from my previous and current zip codes.


Music, theater, visual arts and film all prod us to consider the world in new ways. Chicago has dozens of small theaters, film festivals and galleries of all kinds. A woman from our church recently staged a series of one-person Bouffon clown shows; something I didn't even know existed until she invited my wife and I to a performance. With few exceptions, suburbia's artistic exposure comes from one place: the megaplex. The movies consumed at these theaters generally reflect Hollywood's interest in the box office bottom line. The aesthetic quality of standard megaplex fare can be argued, but there is no comparison with the myriad of imagination-provoking artistic venues found in the city.


The suburb we moved from was 90% white, reflecting well my own skin color. Our new Chicago neighborhood is mostly made up of Polish and Mexican families. The ethnic and cultural diversity of city life exercises my imagination. I can't help but wonder about my neighbors' lives, customs and values. How does the priority of extended family held by some of my neighbors differ from my values of independence and autonomy? How does the immigrant experience of other neighbors affect their view of God?

January 13, 2009

Displaying 1–5 of 5 comments

mike rucker

January 16, 2009  9:45am

how ironic that someone like piper, the america pope to the reformed / calvinist types, would argue for imagination - when according to their crowd there's only one way to believe, one theology that's right, one specific well-worn path to God, one way that spiritual gifts are given/used, one way to understand the acts in acts, etc. etc. etc. my point for years has been that this approach makes ANY imagination complete irrelevant. so to this view re: imagination, i have two words to jp: if only... mike rucker fairburn, georgia, usa

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January 15, 2009  12:57pm

Of course, there will always be the challenge of convincing people that imagination - creativity, difference - is not a bad thing. As an artist, I've been keenly aware (well, I'm sure most Christians are) of the vortex that's become the definition of "Christian art" - stuff like Thomas Kincaide and Precious Moments (and all their imitators), with room for little else that's acceptable. Sure, there's Makoto Fujimura and the International Arts Movement - but who's heard of them? Cornelis Monsma, anyone? And consider the trials of Christian musicians who try to create outside the CCM formula on a "Christian" record label, and the shrunken definition of what makes a "Christian band". Until the church at large can ask and respond to the artist's questions ("what if?" "how about?") without the base reactions being "inappropriate!" or "un-Christian!", until we move beyond that, more genuine imagination is going to be a tricky sell. Not that this is anything new, of course! Regarding your notes on needing imagination to engage Scripture: something I have always been averse to (and come to greatly dislike) is in-service Scripture reading, especially when the congregation says it all together. Inevitably, it is a toneless drone, a soulless sounds empty, boring, dead. In the first "Cadfael" novel, our hero comments on a young monk who makes others uneasy because he reads the Living Word as something that's, well, living - with passion, and emotion, recounting Old Testament events the way any tense, high-drama, high-adrenaline story should be told. I've been to many churches that could learn a thing or two from Cadfael's Brother John. When we simply engage in our duty to stand and drone, no wonder so many people think Scripture is boring.

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prophetik soul

January 14, 2009  4:24pm

i would even go as far as to say that in the city, u have no choice. i have met neighbors under good and bad circumstances. Either way, i must walk by faith instead of fear.

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David Swanson

January 14, 2009  1:02pm

It does make sense Prophetik. One of the pleasant surprises about living in Chicago has been the people we've met. I know this happens in the burbs as well, but my own experience was generally one of isolation from my suburban neighbors. Thankfully there are plenty of exceptions to this and plenty of Christian folk who are intentional about their neighborhood relationships, but the city's climate and layout does seem to make these relationships a bit easier to develop.

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Prophetik Soul

January 13, 2009  7:55pm

As a born and bred city native of color, I can identify with your ideas. I am sure the suburbs can be a colorful place. But there is a problem: the suburbs creates many rules to ensure the blandness. Many know what they are getting when they move there: they trade creativity for uniformity on some level. In live in the city and from what I see, the suburbanites come into the city for culture. I noted something to my wife the other day. Every year, we receive Christmas letters complete with pictures from relatives who live in suburbs in another state. In the letter, they tell us about their lives, their kids and their church. One thing I never hear is about their neighbors. Me, my wife and kids live on a diverse block and continue to pray and ask God to open hearts. Some have been easy and some have been hard. As I was writing our New Years letter (because we missed the Christmas letter), I am talking about our two summer block parties, my Dominican neighbors and others. It is rare to hear my suburban friends talk about spending time with their neighbors or simply engaging them. I believe relationships display this creativity that you speak especially when it is somewhat unpredictable and exciting as city life. Does this make sense?

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