Shortly after I arrived at my first pastorate in rural Minnesota, I realized I faced an interesting challenge. The farmers in my congregation had a difficult time staying awake during the sermon, especially in the winter time. Up early for chores, frost-bitten by frigid winds, they found sleep hard to resist in the warmth and relative comfort of the church sanctuary. No amount of poking and nudging from their embarrassed wives made a difference.
How could I preach in a way that would cause these men to stay awake — or at least to feel they had missed something if they fell asleep? The answer I found was sanctified imagination.
Some pastors are reluctant to consider imagination because they fear anything that smacks of the imaginary. Even though the words “imaginary” and “imagination” are distinctly different, they share a common origin. Imaginary implies a substitution for the truth. This is unacceptable in preaching. On the other hand, imagination takes the truth and makes it memorable.
Imagination helps in a number of ways to keep a congregation awake and interested. These include:
1. Creating a variety of approaches to familiar passages.
One sure-fire method of lulling any congregation to sleep is to exposit a familiar passage in a way they have heard a hundred times before. A fresh yet biblical approach is an absolute must.
For example, in dealing with the familiar story of the prodigal son, I chose to make the unprodigal son the focal point. Another possible alternative is preaching this passage from the viewpoint of the father, or even the servants.
2. Creating conversations.
Conversation — interaction between characters — is one of the reasons we find a novel more interesting than a textbook. Conversations make your sermon more like a story and less like a lecture. Used judiciously it will spark new interest in your preaching. Sometimes the text itself provides the conversation. In these cases it may suffice simply to paraphrase what is already there.
Other times conversation can be supplied. This requires stepping into the feelings of the passage. By way of your imagination, you can create a conversation that reflects these feelings. In a sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14, I wanted to convey the depth of God’s grace. I took this approach: “Can’t you just imagine an angel coming to God and saying, ‘God, how are you going to reveal your grace to us so that we can understand it?’ God replies, ‘You see those sinful, wretched human beings down there? I’m going to make them part of my family.”
“So the angel says, ‘That’s great! How much are they going to have to pay to be a part of your family? A million dollars? Climb Mount Everest? Do a fire walk in Fiji?’ God says, ‘They don’t have to pay any- thing! All they’ve got to do is accept my Son as their Savior and He’ll pay it for them.’ Suddenly it becomes clear to even the angels in heaven the depth of God’s grace.” Hopefully it will become equally clear to the members of your congregation.
You can impart these facts in a straight-forward fashion but chances are few will listen. Conversation, on the other hand, grabs their attention.
3. Supply background information.
In preaching on Jonah, I wanted to give my people a feel for the impression Jonah probably made when he showed up in Nineveh. Scripture does not give us these details but it does say he spent three days and three nights soaking in the gastric juices of a large fish. The fish then vomited him up on land. With a little imagination you can guess what condition he was in. I asked my people to imagine what they would think if they saw a “bleached-blond prophet smelling like fish vomit.”
On yet another occasion I preached on Philippians 4:11 where Paul says, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” I reminded the congregation that Paul was in prison when he wrote these words. I also wanted to impress upon them that Paul’s prison was not like our well-lighted, well-ventilated jails today. Instead, his cell was “cold and damp, lighted at best by a tiny window, reeking with the odor of unwashed bodies and human waste.” This makes Paul’s admonition to be “content in all things” take on new meaning.
4. By arousing emotions.
Emotions are highly suspect with some preachers. Admittedly, this approach has been abused. However, God did not find it unworthy. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan the prophet goes to King David. He tells him the piteous story of a poor man robbed of his only dearly loved lamb by a rich man who had many. David’s emotions were aroused first by righteous indignation and then by remorse. Nathan turns to David and declares, “you are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7).
Frankly, some issues are dealt with more effectively through the heart than the head. In a sermon on death, I used the story of a little girl to kindle an emotional response to our eternal destiny. According to the story the little girl approached the gate of a cemetery at dusk. An old man was seated by the gate. He asks, “Little girl, aren’t you afraid to go in there at this time of evening?” “Oh, no!” she replies, “You see, my home is just on the other side.” The application is obvious.
5. Creating a hypothetical situation.
Hypothetical events are stories made up to shed light on a particular point. Because they are hypothetical, they can speak more closely to a specific point than an actual event. It should be clear, however, that these stories are fictional. Never pass off a hypothetical story as an actual event. Phrases such as “Imagine, if you will …” or “Let’s pretend …” and numerous others can clue your listeners that this is not a factual story.
Halford Luccock in his book, Communicating the Gospel, demonstrates this use of imagination by quoting from a sermon of Dean Inge concerning Christ’s rejection.
“Suppose, ” he said, “Jesus were to come to Ellis Island, seeking admission into the United States as an immigrant. For one thing, the quota from Palestine would have been exhausted. Jesus would not have the one hundred dollars demanded from some immigrants. It could easily be proved that he had made many radical statements in his talk. His chance would be slight!”1
No one would consider this to be a true story but it encourages people to look at a situation from a different perspective. One word of caution — use these stories sparingly. A preacher is not a fiction writer.
6. By selecting dynamic words.
R.E.O. White wrote, “Words are things and imagination hurls them like thunderbolts, sharpens them like knives, polishes and sets them like gems, builds great arguments with them like solid stones, caresses them with lover’s hands.”2 Words are the building blocks of imagination. Imagination helps select just the right words and string them together to form vivid phrases or figures of speech.
Jesus was a master with words. His expressions, such as “the kingdom of God is like leaven” or “faith as a mustard seed,” are unforgettable. I still remember a sermon in which the pastor referred to a “lie burped up from the pit of Hell.” While our every word may not go down as immortal, more of our speech will be remembered if we apply imagination.
Imagination is not meant to be a substitute for thorough exegesis or for fervent prayer. I cannot even say that I was a hundred percent successful in keeping everyone in my rural congregation awake. However, one farmer did say, “It sure is harder to sleep through one of your sermons than the last pastor.” Imagine that!
1. Halford E. Luccock, Communicating the Gospel (New York: Harper & Bros., 1953), p. 138.
2. Reginald E. O. White, A Guide to Preaching (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1973), p. 162.

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