They called him the golden voice. He was tall and dressed to impress in his patent leather shoes and swanky tailored made suit. He carried a well-worn bible and displayed a formidable stride when he walked that seemed to be in concert with his serious demeanor. After the choir finished their selection he stood up to the podium to address the capacity crowd that had gathered to hear him preach. With skill and precision he moved from introductory remarks and pleasantries into a masterful exposition of scripture in a sermon he titled “What a little chicken saw.”
The point of the sermon was the simple message that we need to embrace life and not run from it. But what made this sermon special was the smooth and creative way that this preacher told the story. I shall never forget sitting there that night listening to his booming voice tell the story of the prodigal son. It was as though he had the whole congregation waiting with bated breath to hear what was going to happen next in a story that many of them had heard countless times before.
The high point for me was when he paused after telling the biblical story of the prodigal son and then said with a touch of dramatic flair “…and I tell you my friends, as I look through my sanctified imagination I can see a little chicken in an egg.” From this he went on to tell a story about a chicken hiding in its egg as a metaphor for showing how humanity is hiding in the world today. It was simply masterful.
Listening to the Reverend Jasper Williams that night was first time I’d ever heard a preacher call upon their “sanctified imagination” but since then I’ve heard be called upon many times in pulpits across the land.
Admittedly in my earlier years when I would hear a preacher beckon their “sanctified imagination” I would say to myself, “oh here comes the part where they start lying on God and adding to the Bible.” But as I’ve gotten older and become more informed and preached my fair share of sermons as a pastor and itinerant preacher, I have a very different view of the sanctified imagination.
Now I understand that the sanctified imagination is not the act of simply making things up that sound good but rather it is a preacher’s way of using a moment of creative license to help better tell the gospel story and make sense out of what the Bible says. Just as Reverend Williams used the story of a chicken hiding in an egg to help make clear the biblical message of the prodigal son, all preachers in their own way should seek to use the manifold resources of their imagination to help make the gospel plain to those whom they preach.
I think this is without question one of the key ingredients of great preaching. In fact, I would argue that preaching with sanctified imagination is what separates memorable preaching from mere preaching. It’s what separates sermons that become a part of us from sermons that bounce off of us. Simply put, it is the thing that makes preaching impactful.
But what really is preaching with sanctified imagination?
For me preaching with sanctified imagination is the art of preaching with theologically inspired creativity. It is the process of the preacher’s mind being aroused by the possibilities of the Living word. It is how a preacher attempts to rhetorically and visually paint a picture of the gospel that is clear for all to see.
Practically speaking, in my practice of preaching I employ sanctified imagination mostly after I have finished an extended period of reading and meditating on the words of a biblical text. At this point my imagination is ready to explore the possibilities within the world of the text and it is also ready to consider how the world of the text intersects with my lived reality. In my experience this point in sermon preparation process is the most fertile ground for preaching creativity.
For most preachers, the sanctified imagination manifests in the practice of storytelling. However, when I say storytelling, I don’t mean storytelling for storytelling sake. There are few things more problematic in preaching than haphazardly putting stories in sermons where they don’t belong. In contrast, storytelling with sanctified imagination is about creatively identifying narratives that will connect the living Word of the text with the living world of the sermon hearer. It is the process of discerning what stories from our own experience and the experiences of others help the preacher tell the grander story of the Divine.
Another element of the sanctified imagination is visualization. This is the process of the preacher using imagination to provide a visual image of the sermon’s primary message. Typically this manifests in the use of props or maybe a video that illustrates a main point. Sometimes it even means preaching in full costume as a bible character or allowing a visual artist to paint a relevant image while the sermon is being delivered.
Whatever the method, finding ways to creatively provide images that make the point of the sermon is vital to preaching with sanctified imagination. Moreover, statistics say over half of the population is made up of visual learners which means in most settings sermons without visualization will have difficulty being memorable much less impactful.
Lastly, it’s important to understand that sanctified imagination in preaching isn’t just about creativity it also about courage. It’s about finding the courage to use our imaginations to develop a new vision for the communities we serve and then preaching that vision with creativity and conviction. It’s about having the courage to imagine the world without many of the social issues that continually plague it and then having the homiletical imagination to help others see what you see. It’s about having the courage to do as Jesus did and use our sanctified imaginations to preach messages that inspire the weak to become strong, the poor to become rich and the lowly to be exalted. This is our creative mission as contemporary preachers, should we choose to accept it.