Part III: Listening to Imagination
The Spirit’s work in preaching is always rooted in Scripture; and yet every sermon is an imaginative act. At their best, sermons help the congregation experience God’s presence through a fresh encounter with Christ who is the Word of God. That requires engaging the Scripture as a treasure trove of sights, smells, sounds, and experiences that linger with our congregations long after the sermon is finished.
Vibrant sermons leave the congregation longing to mine new depths of Scripture between Sundays, coming to worship with fresh insights that have informed their lives and seeped into their habits.
Here are some habits that help preachers listen well to their imagination:
- Stroll into the text (and the world): It’s hard to listen to anything when you’re in a hurry. Although your sermon preparation might be squeezed into less time than you’d prefer, you’d be surprised how much you can notice if you take a slow reading through the text. Amble through the details:
- What sights, sounds, and smells do you notice?
- Where might you have been sitting if you were on the scene?
- What might the ancient audience have thought as they listened?
- How does that differ from your reading?
- What might someone from a different country, state, ethnic group, profession, or a different economic class hear from this text? (Consider sending them a text about the passage and asking them, or meeting with them over lunch!)
- Forced associations: Pick an object in your office (or on the roadside while you’re driving). It can be a picture, a water bottle, a “yield” sign, or a billboard. Whatever it is, force yourself to use that object as a metaphor for the passage you’re considering. Forcing associations often opens up new organic associations.
- Wordplay: In your car, in your office, or in the sanctuary, try a bunch of different ways of saying the same thing. After you’ve written the content of your sermon, try out a bunch of styles of introduction. Try vignettes (little story snippets), tell a parable, ask a tension-building question, say something your congregation will initially agree with, then examine things from a different angle. Say it as if you were telling the person you’re closest to (you’ll get deeper insight if you do, because you’ll know how your heart wants to say it); boil it down to a sentence, then expand it to a paragraph. Then start all over and try a different style. Have fun, explore, use language to your advantage!
- Go to creative space: Whether it’s nature, a movie theater, a concert venue, an art museum, a coffee shop, a painting studio, or a potter’s wheel, go somewhere that inspires creativity. Sometimes being around people who turn raw materials into stories can inspire creativity (and can remind us that we’re far from alone in the creative process).
- Read fiction: Whether you read Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Rowling’s Harry Potter, or Ellison’s Invisible Man, you’ll walk away with a greater understanding of how words can create worlds we could not have imagined ourselves. You’ll also learn new skills for writing out words and phrases that help people understand their own feelings, anxieties, and longing for God’s presence. Though writing for the eye is different than writing for the ear, the skills of writing you’ll learn by reading good fiction will make you more competent with words, and more clear in your presentation of the Gospel’s ministry to human needs.
- Try something crazy: Especially if you’re struggling with writer’s block, doing something off-the-wall can inspire creativity. Set a time for 10 minutes, and draw a picture, jot down some notes, throw a stress ball against the wall, go on a quick run or walk, then get back into the thick of writing again.
This is an incomplete list, but these practices can help you listen more fully to your creativity. Maybe the most important tip we can give is to do these things even when you don’t feel like it. Imagination in creative work is not primarily about inspiration (though the Spirit does that, too!) It’s about showing up and listening well to the raw materials of Scripture, of your community, and of human experience, and helping those things find voice in your congregation in a way that rings true. As much as “a creative mood” helps, more often than not, good imaginative work just feels like worthwhile hard work. And it is.
© 2019, Ethan Linder
Ethan Linder is the Pastor of Hospitality, Collegians, and Young Adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and the Editor of The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development writing staff.