Stretching the Pastor’s Imagination
In a recent piece I made a case that imagination is an important and perhaps neglected tool in the church reform toolkit. On one level, imagination is simply applying faith to thinking. You may not see how your church could ever embody anything like biblical health, but God is the God of the impossible.
Which means that pastoral ministry is the art of the impossible. Which means that many pastors could afford to stretch and strengthen their imaginations. But how?
IMAGINATION TRAINING FOR PASTORS
In this piece I’ll offer a few suggestions for stretching and strengthening pastors’ imaginations. They won’t apply to all pastors equally, but I hope these will be broadly useful.
There’s more to say about pastoring and the imagination than I’ll say here. For instance, Cornelius Plantinga’s book Reading for Preaching makes a good case for how literature can enrich a pastor’s view of life and language. I’m more focused here on expanding a pastor’s ecclesial imagination—his intuitive sense of what is and isn’t possible in the church. Without further delay:
1. Read the Bible.
Yes, pastor, I know you’re the one saying this to your people all the time, but you need to hear it too. And remember that the God you meet in Scripture is the God who rules your life and your church.
What kinds of things does this God do? He speaks the universe into existence with a word. He causes an ancient, barren woman to conceive. He squeezes his people between the sea and slaughter and then splits open the deep. He sends thirty thousand soldiers home so he can win a battle with three hundred.
Over and over again God backs his people up against the impossible to show that he alone can save, and he will. He alone can win our battles, and he will. He alone can raise the dead, and he will. As Paul learned by painful experience, God does this by design, to teach us to rely not on ourselves but on God’s death-defeating power (2 Cor. 1:8–10).
Let the Bible draw for you the massive, mighty shape of what God can accomplish by his Word and Spirit. Let Scripture train in you the reflex, “I can’t, but he can.” Let Scripture condition your imagination to respond to human impossibility with, “Let’s see what God can do.”
Pray whenever you come up against something you want to make happen but can’t. Pray for the hard-hearted husband to repent of denigrating his wife. Pray for the stubborn seeker who has no reason left not to believe but still won’t. Pray that loyalty to God’s Word would uproot and displace loyalty to unbiblical traditions.
When you can’t do anything, the one thing you can do is pray. And the more you pray, the more you’ll remember that God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.
3. Make friends with other pastors.
My prayer is that more and more pastors would open themselves up to the possibility that God’s Word dictates a way of doing church that bursts the bounds set by our current culture of consumerist authenticity. So if you can, make friends with pastors from other cultures. Christians in other cultures operate under their own social givens, but those givens will differ enough from yours to show you that another way of life than the American dream is possible. More importantly, they show you that another way of doing church is possible.
Second, make friends with pastors whose strengths complement yours. If you’re a red-blooded ecclesiology hound who’s deeply committed to getting church right, be sure to befriend the missional pastor across town who’s equipping his people to share the gospel and serve the community in bold, daring ways. If you’re deeply burdened that Christians recapture a radical passion for Christ, befriend the sixty-year-old pastor who’s kept the flame burning thirty years longer than you.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion….In each knot of Friends there is a sectional ‘public opinion’ which fortifies its members against the public opinion of the community in general. Each therefore is a pocket of potential resistance.”
So forge friendships that will resist the foolish constraints of unbelief. Make friends who will help your thinking take full account of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. Make friends who will push you and prod you into obeying God’s Word wherever it leads.
4. Hop into history.
I can think of few better ways to fuel pastoral imagination than reading church history. Read biographies of extraordinary ministers like Lloyd-Jones and Whitefield. Read forensic accounts of how evangelicalism got to be the way it is, like Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism and Evangelicalism Divided.
Read historical ecclesiology, too, to discover how Christians in other times and places did church. Superb primary sources include Polity and Iain Murray’s The Reformation of the Church. These two are a steep hike but worth the sweat. Or let a skilled historian take you inside the lives of churches in another era, like Greg Wills in Democratic Religion or Geoffrey Nuttall in Visible Saints.
Ask what Christians used to know that we’ve forgotten. Ask not just what they did but why, and how they argued their views from Scripture. Let dead pastors and churches disciple you, just like living ones have.
I’ve often heard Mark Dever respond to the charge “But who actually agrees with you!?” by saying something like, “I know I’m in the majority—if you count everyone who’s come before.” Just as with living friendships, making friends with dead Christians can show you that you’re not crazy for breaking off from the pack. So let the history of God’s dealings with his church remind you that the present moment does not have a monopoly on the possible.
And that’s just the point: no one has a monopoly on the possible except God, the one for whom nothing is impossible.