Not too long ago I found myself chatting with a group of lay folks about preaching. The conversations turned to the topic of imagination. These were mature, intelligent Christians who appreciate good preaching, but told me that a lot of what they hear tends to be wooden, thus failing to engage them.
Their comments resonated with me. After four decades of ordained life, I moved into seminary work before finally retiring. During the last ten years I have been on the receiving end of more sermons than ever in my life, circumstances that mean I share my friends’ assessment of contemporary preaching. Few preachers manage a zinger every week, but too many seem content with mediocrity. The content may be solid, but the format is bland and colorless, failing to reach the heart and soul of the listener. What is often lacking is imagination.
Nourishing apostolic preaching is a critical part of pastoral care, and what comes from the pulpit sets the tone, vision, and direction of a congregation’s life. The starting point must be seriously opening up the Scriptures, not the shallow religious rambling that too often is palmed off as “relevant” preaching. Eugene Peterson writes, “The scriptures are not a textbook on God; they are access to the living word of God that speaks a new world into being.” Preaching is perhaps the primary key to help Christians hear what God is saying.
The starting point when preaching is not the audience but prayerful solitude, in the study with the Bible. It is then delivered in the context of worship, providing all present with the opportunity to listen to the Word proclaimed within a believing sacramental community. There, God’s grace may drive us afresh to our knees, committing our lives once more to Christ’s service before going out again into the arena of a waiting and often hostile world.
No preacher speaks from a position of personal spiritual strength, but as a redeemed sinner sharing a message from God that we have initially preached to ourselves. We have God’s treasure in earthen vessels, and speak out of our own stumbling encounters with the Lord, his Word, and his mysterious ways. A preacher who is not daily nourished by God’s revelation (1 Tim. 4:6) lacks the capacity to “be constant in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).
As with prayer, imagination is a vital component of the preaching task; imagination is God’s gift. Speaking imaginatively to our congregation obliges us to know who they are, and demands from us the ability to understand what it is like to sit in the pew while we speak. Preaching is less about performance than reaching for inner resources so that those listening can hear what God is saying. Imaginative preaching is about fanning the flame in our listeners’ hearts so receptive imaginations willingly respond, “Lord, here am I, send me” (see Isa. 6:1-8).
Imaginative, engaging preaching within a congregation is a cumulative process. It is like the construction of a building, a holy temple to the Lord (1 Cor. 3:9-17), every week laying brick upon brick. This requires not just adequate time set aside every week for preparation, but also a longer-term preaching plan so that you know where you are going and are able to do the groundwork, the reading, thinking, and praying, not only to prepare but to keep yourself fresh.
In the pew on Sundays or in the seminary chapel, I have listened to far too many sermons that are quite awful, not only because there was little that grasped my imagination, but because it has been so blatantly obvious to this seasoned preacher that preparation has been minimal at the best. The late Bishop John Coburn of Massachusetts used to tell the story of the young priest who became fascinated by the preaching in the Acts of the Apostles. It seemed that the apostles stood up to speak and on the spot the Holy Spirit told them what to say. The priest decided to give this a try himself, so the next Sunday he took to the pulpit, opened the Bible, then asked the Spirit to speak to him. The Holy Spirit did and told him, “You’re not prepared.”
For the priest whose excuse is that there isn’t enough time for preparation: that priest ought not to be preaching. Preparation and imagination go hand-in-hand, and require hard work. What was striking about the late Steve Jobs was the time and effort he put into preparation before launching a new product. If he went to such lengths merely to sell smartphones or computers, how much more should those of us called to preach God’s Word.
Then there is the issue of application. On both sides of the Atlantic, too many messages leave the listener hanging. The message may be biblically and theologically sound but it fails to answer the question “So what?” We all need help to know how what has been said can be made to work for my own life, but the preacher gives me few clues and little guidance. Application is not telling folks what to do, but enabling them to see how they can enable the Word of God to go to work in the humdrum world of their daily lives.
Just as the best golfer regularly needs to revisit stance or grip, no preacher ever arrives, and I have discovered that what might have been appropriate in one generation has little leverage with the next. Preaching is a lifetime spent learning and then relearning the spiritual art of proclaiming (and living) God’s message; this happens within the context of the ups and downs of our own pilgrimage. Preaching is a byproduct of our journey of faith, requiring application, study, prayer, and tons of imagination.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Reverse Thunder (1988), p.24