Imagine That!

If you were to ask what I think is lacking in contemporary preaching, I would be hard-put to answer; there are so many failings. But, certainly, one factor that grows high on the trellis is the widespread tendency to neglect imagery.

Too much of the preaching that we hear sounds like lectures given in the chilly halls of the theological schools or, worse still, like the dusty commentaries lining the shelves of the preacher’s library. Seldom do you hear preaching even remotely akin to the warm sermons of Christ, replete with parables, illustrations, examples and figures of speech that cause them to sparkle, that make them memorable, and help even the simple listener to understand.

But it is not just in the preaching of Christ and the apostles that we find such vivid imagery; throughout history, imagery has been one of the hallmarks of great preachers—Chrysostom, Luther, Spurgeon, all made truth live by picturing it to their readers (see my book, Sense Appeal in the Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon for one example of this).

But what is imagery, and how does one develop the ability to use it in preaching?

Imagery has to do with imaging, or imagining. Until a preacher can picture for himself what he is talking about, it is very doubtful that he adequately understands what he is trying to tell others. At any rate, it is almost certain that, apart from imagery, few, if any, of his congregation will understand—even if he does.

Imagery has two dimensions: first, it is the ability to sketch the picture mentally for one’s self. Then, imagery is the ability to verbally sketch it for others to see. In the fullest sense of the expression, a listener ought to be able to say after a sermon, “Ah, now I see.”

But how does one acquire and develop the skills that are needed to picture truth for himself and for others?

First, let me stress the importance of working harder than ever at learning how to picture truth. In biblical times, the listeners’ imaginations were much more highly trained than the average listener’s is today. They had to be because they had to use their imaginations so much more frequently than we do. They had no photography, no TV, no movies, no picture books, etc., to do the job for them. Instead, they themselves had to picture in their minds what they heard. Biblical writers and preachers were well aware of this and fairly freckled their messages with imagery of every kind. If in that day they recognized the necessity for imagery, how much more so is imagery in preaching needed today when the listener’s imagination is weak and flabby from disuse? In this day of untrained imaginations, we must work all the more to assist the listener; otherwise, he will not be able to fill in the gaps for himself. Indeed, we see him bored, dozing, and wavering in the pew. He complains that the sermon was “dry.” Such complaints are not altogether groundless.

Two factors are essential to good imagery in preaching:

  1. An ability to see;
  2. An ability to make others see.

This picturing of the truth for one’s self and for others involves a number of prerequisites, three of which have been given all too little consideration by preachers and by those who teach them. You too may have failed to notice them as they came floating by.

  1. It takes time to sketch mental and verbal pictures and hound down imagery that adequately portrays a truth. Most preachers are in a hurry. They work on their sermons under pressure. They, therefore, allow too little time—if any—for putting their feet up and letting their minds wander over fields, hills, valleys, beside brooks and streams; they seldom walk mentally through cluttered city streets, stroll up dingy alleys, climb fire escapes, or peer out of the windows of a skyscraper. Their imaginations are dull and sluggish because they are so seldom given free rein to roam and romp. To do so takes time. That is the first and most important prerequisite.
  2. The imagination must be exercised at other times than when looking for apt sermonic images. If it is not frequently given opportunity to range far and wide, it will not know where to go in search of those compelling pictures that are needed. Instead, when you send it out to fetch an image for you, it will cower timidly at the front door, like a new puppy that does not feel at home in the neighborhood. One way to exercise the imagination is to read books that make demands upon it. If a preacher works with commentaries and with the sort of fare that, typically, is written for preachers all the time, and never reads anything else, he is likely to find his imaginative powers drying up quickly.
  3. Prerequisite number three is effort. Even when the mind has had opportunity to explore and discover, the work is not complete. Proper structure, sequence, and descriptive terminology must be developed as the vehicles for conveying to others the imagery that the mind has dragged home. Otherwise, it will be bottled up in the preacher, who can’t ever seem to get others to see things as he does. This is a common fault. There must be work, work roughing in each picture, giving it depth and perspective, choosing colors, refining each feature until—at last—there it hangs, finished and framed, a fair representation of what the preacher wishes to convey, in form that makes its message immediately intelligible.

So, imagery is where it is at in preaching. Let me suggest two daily activities that, if followed regularly for a time, will get you started:

  1. Every weekday, locate at least one image in the Bible. Examine it. Try to understand what it conveys to the reader and how it does so. Make a note of your results.
  2. Next, think of at least one other image that might be used to portray the same truth. Try to think of a modern situation and audience with which it might be used with equal power. Again, state why you think it would do the job. Keep rereading your notes. You will notice improvement as time goes by.

Preacher, don’t continue to fail your congregation because you have never understood the place and the power of imagery. Take the time to study the subject; learn all that you can about it. Do the simple exercise that I have suggested above, and start right away. If you do, I can almost guarantee that in time you will begin to receive compliments on your sermons—imagine that!—J.E.A.

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