The One Vital Ingredient Your Preaching Is Missing: Imagination

“What if you’re not tapping into the power of the imagination and your ministry is suffering because of it?”

Recently, I was attending my home church and listening to the guest speaker’s message. He started out by asking everyone to close his or her eyes. He said, “Picture a used car salesman. Picture a librarian. Picture a sumo wrestler.” Then, he said, “Picture a spiritual person.”

He went back and addressed each one. He asked the congregation, “What did you see when you pictured a used car salesman … a librarian … a sumo wrestler …?” And with each one, he described the stereotypes and asked people to raise their hands if they pictured the same thing.

Then he asked, “What does a spiritual person look like? How many of you pictured Billy Graham? How many of you pictured Mother Teresa?” Then, like a brilliant communicator, he asked, “How many of you pictured yourself when I asked you to picture a spiritual person?”

He went on from there, but I was so proud of the preacher and here’s why: Over the past 12 years when I have spoken at pastor and leadership conferences, I have urged pastors to, “Paint a picture with your words. Don’t underestimate the power of imagination.”

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important that knowledge.”

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This reality really hit home for me several years ago. I was doing some consulting with Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. I had done a seminar and training for their entire creative, worship and tech leadership team. Their worship pastor at the time, Todd Bell, invited me back to speak to their entire teaching team (they had several teaching pastors plus interns), including Pastor Jack Graham, who at that time was the President of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I had prepared a class based on using visual aids, video clips and illustrations to enhance your message and was ready to go when God interrupted me the night before. God, in his gentle whisper, reminded me that Jack Graham is heard on the radio all over the world, and all of what I was prepared to teach on wouldn’t apply to those simply listening on the radio and not able to see a video clip.

God laid it on my heart that I should include the part on imagination I had taught at previous conferences. I added it in at the last second and thanked God for redirecting my good intentions. Something I said to them and I say at every conference I speak at, is to not be afraid of having your video screens go black and then saying something like, “Close your eyes and listen as I read this story,” or, “Close your eyes and listen as I read this passage of Scripture.”

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The honest truth is that too many communicators rely too much on tech; they’re lazy in their preparation and it shows. If you were to preach on a Sunday when the power went out and you couldn’t use any visuals, PowerPoint or videos, and your sermon fell apart, you’re basically admitting you had nothing to say. Videos and graphics are supplemental enhancements—they can’t be the meat of what you communicate. Read those last two sentences again.

Please know I’m all for using media and have taught on it widely, but I always caution my audience to not let the “tail wag the dog.” You should never say, “Hey, I found this cool video clip. Let’s build a message around it.” This way is backwards. Plan to preach what God has laid on your heart and rooted in Scripture, and if there happens to be a video clip that supports or illustrates one of your points, great! But it must be in a supporting role.

However, you may find that asking people to close their eyes and imagine what you’re describing is more powerful than any picture or video you could show.

Not only is Jesus the perfect model for leadership, he is the perfect model for communication. Jesus was the greatest preacher who ever lived. You only have to read the gospels once to see how Jesus captured the imaginations of all who came to hear him. Jesus understood that if you can capture one’s imagination, it will take them on a glorious adventure and have far greater impact than a picture or video ever could. Jesus, through parables, led people on a journey of discovery and insight by using words and illustrations that got across the message he was trying to teach.

Often, I’ve used the example of Moses parting the Red Sea. I’ve asked classrooms full of people to close their eyes and picture the giant walls of water on each side of them, with fish, whales and sea creatures swimming about, but not breaking through the walls of water. Then, I would show them a drawing of Moses parting the Red Sea that some artist came up with and I’d ask: “Which was better? What you saw in your mind or this picture of a drawing?” It was always what they had pictured in their mind.

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David Enyart said, “Frequently, creativity and imaginativeness are casualties of ministerial education. Ministers start to mistrust or ignore their own creative impulses; they come to view imagination as a child’s play toy rather than an essential tool for vibrant communication.” What a shame.

Mark Batterson wrote an article titled “Postmodern Wells.” In it, he said, “Don’t get me wrong: The message is sacred. But methods are not. And the moment we anoint our methods as sacred, we stop creating the future and start repeating the past. We stop doing ministry out of imagination and start doing ministry out of memory.”

Are you doing ministry out of imagination or out of memory?

Michael Card believes having a “working, gut-level understanding of the imagination is vital.” Not only this, he thinks it can be “our greatest strength or our greatest weakness.” Wow! What if you or someone on your team has this glaring weakness that has never been pointed out? What if you’re not tapping into the power of the imagination and your leadership, team, service and ministry are suffering because of it? What if …?

My prayer for pastors everywhere is that they become better and more effective communicators of the gospel. How have you used your words to paint a picture for your people? Is God speaking to you in this area, and will you allow him to tap into the power of the imagination of your congregation?

Some parts of this article were excerpts from my book Strange Leadership.

Greg Atkinson is a leadership coach and guest-services consultant with more than two decades of ministry experience. This article was originally published on Greg’s blog at GregAtkinson.com.