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)

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