Sunday, July 22, 2007

Preaching and Imagination

Too often when people join these two words they mean something speculative, preaching about things we don’t really know. That is not what I am talking about. I have in mind preaching in such a way that you draw your hearers into the biblical world so that they see, feel, experience it anew so that the text impacts them powerfully. I found this well expressed in a collection of sermons by James S. Stewart entitled Walking With God (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1996; recently republished by Regent College). The memoir of Stewart contained at the beginning of the book quotes John McIntyre describing Stewart’s preaching. This is a good description of what we ought to aim for in preaching.

“At a conference in the Pollock Halls, attended by members of the Presbytery of San Francisco, he gave an address of Jesus’ use of imagination in his life and teaching as we encounter them in the Gospels. Here for me was the clue to his own preaching and teaching that I had missed all these years. For I have known expository preaching which was dull in excess, being little more than flat commentary; as I have known pastorally-oriented preaching which did not rise above counseling. But, by the use of imagination, Dr. Stewart gave exposition and pastoral perception new power and relevance. As he described so graphically the situation of the biblical passage, he gradually incorporated his hearers in the situation. They so became part of it that they identified with the persons of whom, or to whom, Jesus was speaking. The nearest analogy I know is the ability of a great artist to draw the viewer into the action he is portraying.
But there was more. It was not merely an exercise in empathy. Embodied in the situation, the hearers could not escape the urgency of the words of Jesus directed to them. The Gospel appeal, or challenge, or invitation, was not a codicil [i.e., supplement] to the descriptive passages going before. Each one of them was an integral – an inescapable – part of the whole presentation, directed at each listener.” (7)


Dana Olson said...

Dr. Ray, are you familiar with Warren Wiersbe's book "Preaching and Teaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Preaching"? That may not be the exact title. Dr. Wiersbe's preaching changed over the years as he learned to pay attention to the images in the text and preach them, like unlocking the creative juices of the text. His outlines often follow the images of the text. It is well worth thinking about as we consider how to unlock a passage for our hearers.

Ray Van Neste said...


I am not aware of this book. Thansk for mentioning it. Increased awareness of the literary dimensions of the text is so important.

Adam Winters said...

This is a good point, Dr. Van Neste. Do you have in mind any more examples of preachers or sermons that accomplish this art of imagination well?

Dana Olson said...

I'll add a comment in light of Adam's question: think of the teaching of Jesus himself. What vivid images! I have been working today on "Salt & Light" and looking again at the Sermon on the mount. Vivid imagery that is so easy to remember because it ties the teaching to common life images. Sheep, goats, light, darkness, salt, water, bread, gates, narrow roads and wide ones, lost coins, two brothers, a farmer, a vineyard, seed, weeds, and on and on we could go.

I think John Piper is masterful in his connecting with images in the text and his imagery while preaching. Many years ago, John Stott mesmerized an entire generation of us with his vivid, yet simple, preaching at Urbana. My dear friend Gregg Heinsch, whose daughter is at Union and Cornerstone (Mary's friend), is truly masterful at it as well. One of the very best I've ever heard.

Ray Van Neste said...

Adam, good question. As always you ask questions I am not prepared to answer. :) I have heard good examples of this but I did not have specific ones inmind as I posted this. I really was thinking of trying to do this myself, preachign to myself.