I have a new favorite preaching word. I think it was probably a favorite word of Jesus as he taught as well, since “he did not say anything to them without a parable” (Matt 4:34). It’s a word that invites people to experience the Bible. It’s a word that excites people about future obedience. It’s a word that has captured our attention since we were two.
The word is: “imagine.” Imagination is incredibly powerful—it allows us to enter into a different world and come away changed. Secular guru Joseph Campbell once remarked that if pastors knew half the imaginative power of the story they held in their hands every week, the whole world would be religious.
So, how do we invite people to use their imagination when we preach? Here are some things that I’ve found helpful:
1. Know your text. The first key to imaginative preaching is knowing your text. You need to be able to picture every rock and crevice where your story occurs, hear every tone of voice and understand where the tension point and climax are. If we’re going to paint a vivid picture for others, in other words, we need to study hard.
2. Use invitational language. When you’re leading people through a passage, teach them to imagine it for themselves. I don’t know of a better way to teach people to read the Bible. As you navigate through, use words like “imagine this … ” or “picture this … .” These words signal to us that we are being invited into another world.
3. Illustrate your text. If you really want people to experience the world of the Bible, you need to illustrate it with our world. I’ll let Bryan Chapell speak here: “Preachers typically think of illustrations as brief anecdotes that accompany propositional statements of truth. More technically, illustrations are stories whose details (whether explicitly told or imaginatively elicited) allow listeners to identify with an experience that elaborates, develops and explains scriptural principles.
Through the details of the story, the listener imaginatively experiences a sermon’s truths. The account does not have to be real or current, but the preacher must tell it in such a way that listeners can identify with the experience. The preacher tells the what, when, where and why of an occurrence in order to give listeners personal access to the occasion. (Christ Centered Preaching, p. 164)
4. Borrow from culture’s imagination. One of the best ways to reach secular listeners is to borrow from their imagination. Culture is already producing 1,000 stories a day—we need to know those stories and use them when we preach. By taking listeners back into stories they already know, we’re teaching them to rewrite the narrative about life they have in their head and trade it in for the true story about Jesus—the gospel.
5. Paint a picture of obedience. Finally, I always find it helpful when preachers paint me a picture of what obedience looks like the next day. Paint a picture of how the church, obeying the imperative of your text, would look. Give people a future vision to be excited about. Teach them to use their moral imagination.