Monday, February 22, 2010

The Church of Sanctified Imagination

Pondering some random thoughts about the nature of church....

I see in many church goers a tendency to lead grace-less lives. It isn’t that they can’t tell you what the Gospel is. It isn’t that they don’t value church. It isn’t that they don’t know their Bibles. It’s just that they aren’t happy about it. They seem, except for a greater knowledge of Bible trivia, just like worldly people. Their faith doesn’t seem to impact their heart. It impacts their calendar and commitments; it impacts their bank account; it impacts their voting; it impacts their parenting; they are “doing” everything they are “supposed to do.” But there is no joy, seemingly little peace, and love seems more an obligation, another chore, than a way of being.

Is there something in the way that we do church that teaches people this? Is it hard for me to see this situation objectively because I think that the church is so very important and that when done right, it is alive, fun, vibrant, life-giving and sustaining and transformative?

I see also in many churches an amazing lack of imagination. There seems to be little creativity or ingenuity. I mean, come on, we’ve got the all time best story in human history to work with and we can’t be more imaginative than 3 songs, some readings, and a teaching? This, in my opinion, then leads to an amazing lack of fun. Oh, I know some people don’t think that fun is a proper value for church to have but I think if you asked Jesus’ disciples they would tell you that following Jesus was all these spiritually deep things and the most fun they’ve ever had too. All you have to do is read Justin Martyr’s history of the early church and you’ll see what I mean. The church was alive, faith was real, and miracles happened. They were forced to constantly innovate because their meetings had to be in secret and they always had to be imaginative in seeking ways to tell the story of Jesus. You were guaranteed that something would happen every week in church.

Didn't Jesus' death redeem human imagination as well?

What I wonder is whether the church intentionally or unintentionally stopped having fun and celebrating the imagination when Constantine made us legal. Since then, if appears, as if a sort of war has been waging between the cerebral and the playful. Luther’s reforms were, on the one hand, biblically grounded, and, on the other, rather innovative because his concern was in getting the message to the people. They weren’t “getting it” from the same old same old. He designed different kinds of services and used illustrations and humor in his amazingly long sermons. In fact, it could be argued that his sermons were his foremost innovation. Heretofore, the majority of priests taught very little from the pulpit. The focus of the mass was the sacrament. Luther’s huge innovation was to make both the didactic and the mystical of equal importance. Luther introduced “new music” into the church and also new ways of communicating - utilizing the printing press to put teaching aids like the Small and Large Catechism in the hands of parents as well as the Bible.

On the other side of the war is the type of “strict” adherence to doctrine which is suspicious of anything new, fun, innovative or imaginative because it isn’t strictly “just the word.” Of course doctrine is important and we should strive to teach and preach it in it’s purity. But I don’t for a moment believe that we can’t make the Good News interesting and relevant.

Those who master doctrine tend not to be the life of the party nor the most imaginative and are suspicious of those who seek to make doctrine understandable using any means other than preaching, which, as we saw, was an innovation itself. Something might be compromised in the process. Oh, and they may have to give up some control. Interesting how often disagreements can be traced back to human control.

I think there is a real lack of lack of trust between the theologically minded and those who seek to take the concepts and make them available to the masses through a process of imagination or innovation.

Case in point: the Puritan movement in England. When Oliver Cromwell was in charge, they shut the theaters, cracked down on minstrels, and outlawed much of what passed for contemporary entertainment. They regulated church services as well. Innovation, imagination, fun, was looked down on. You might say that Calvin accomplished the same in Geneva. Yet neither of these approaches worked. Because when all is said and done, if we in the church cannot captivate the imaginations of our audiences, we cannot expect to capture their devotion to our cause, either.

How do we create churches that are doctrinally sound and also creative, innovative, imaginative, and in a word, fun?

I suppose that one thing to consider is that one man’s fun is another man’s torment. There’s no accounting for taste. Some people will love your new song and some will hate it. So then we have to allow for the fact that not every church will be the same and people will congregate in congregations that best match their learning and personality styles. Which is essentially what we have today. And if we could learn not to judge one another on our styles but rather by the fruit on the trees, we might be even more effective at reaching our generation and perhaps the world with the message we’ve been entrusted with: salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone.

Jesus, by the way, a very innovative teacher. Used all kinds of object lessons. And the most visual speaker in history. He knew exactly how to stimulate not just the intellectual, but the imagination as well. Not suprisingly, he managed to appeal to every style of learning known to man. What else would you expect from God?

And this is where we leave it. Jesus captured people’s hearts but he also captured their imaginations as well. I would posit that is the sign of true devotion, when someone captivates your imagination as well as your intellect. We know that in all things it is the Holy Spirit who creates faith. But we also know something about ourselves. We tend to be more inspired and quicker to commit when the message is delivered to us in a way that so stimulates our heart and soul we cannot help but follow along. Let’s give them Jesus, every possible way we can imagine. Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ


  1. Jesus is the greatest teacher, but at his death, even his disciples had left him. Isaiah 53:3 is about Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

    God requires true devotion. True devotion is found only in God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). We need to receive true devotion by faith through the word of God. This faith will produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Use any method that works.

  2. "Didn't Jesus' death redeem human imagination as well?"

    Only in part. Luther said, "simul iustus et peccator". (At the same time just and sinner.) Rome disagreed with this statement.

    The complete redemption is yet to come.

  3. The gospel is a wonderful thing to the humble. The humble realize that we cannot save ourselves or anyone else. The gospel is offensive to the proud because the gospel demands that we turn away from ourselves and turn to God in everything.

    1 Corinthians 2:5 “that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

    If Jesus Christ is the head of the church and the rest of us are the body, it is a wonderful thing.

  4. “We tend to be more inspired and quicker to commit when the message is delivered to us in a way that so stimulates our heart and soul we cannot help but follow along.”

    Jesus says that if we are inspired we will commit when we hear the message.