Engaging the Imagination in Worship

StarsTreeHave you ever considered why it was important for God to give us imaginations? I have.

Our imaginations are one the many aspects of what it is to made in the image of God. Because God has an imagination, a supernatural and infinite one, in fact. The Milky Way galaxy, the monarch butterfly, the double helix DNA, the blue whale, the aurora borealis, the lilies in the field. The Creator God imagines the light, and “there was light.” And because we are made in the image of God, he endowed us with imaginations too. Of course, our imaginations aren’t as vast as God’s. Velcro, Fruit Roll-ups, the West Coast offense, tube socks. But we still have this amazing capacity to imagine and conceptualize and dream, which is a very special and important gift from God.

I think there are at least two reasons why God gave us imaginations.  First, human imagination is necessary in order for us to fulfill the purposes that God intended for us, specifically to fill and subdue the earth as stated in Genesis. In order to fulfill what is known as the cultural mandate, it is necessary to have the ability to create and imagine. Without imagination, there would be no farms and crops, no roads and cities, no systems of government and languages for communication. There would be no civilizations, no institutions, no art, no love. Man would not have survived in the wilderness had it not been for our imaginations.

Second, I think God gave us imagination because He wanted us to have fun, or as the Westminster Catechism states so eloquently, “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Think about that for a second. We are able to know God more fully through our imaginations.

Now let me share a few caveats—I am certainly not saying that God is imaginary. And I’m certainly not saying that we should imagine things that aren’t true or aren’t real or are contrary to the Bible. What I am saying is that our ability to imagine and conceptualize is a necessary part of being able to more fully know the One True God. We can better understand Him and experience His Kingdom more fully because our imaginations allow us to do so. In our worship, in our prayers, in our thoughts about Him, and in our experiences of Him.

Let me give you some examples. Have you ever looked up at the stars on a cloudless night and tried to imagine how big our God is? Have you ever sat on a beach and watched the crashing waves and imagined how powerful God is? Have you ever stood in the midst of a worship experience and felt God’s grace raining down on you, or felt God’s arms enveloping you? Have you ever listened to a Bible story, and imagined being there in the story—with David against Goliath, or with Moses crossing the Red Sea? These are examples of how our imaginations help us engage in worship.

And we are also able to glorify Him through the acts and arts and objects of our imaginations. If you’ve ever written a song to God, or written a poem about God, or explained a Bible story to a child, or built a church building, or done anything inventive or creative for the sake of the Kingdom, you’ve used your imagination to glorify God.

Now let me take this one step further. I contend that imagination is a necessary component for faith. For “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and the first step of faith is by definition, a step into the unseen, the unsure, the unknown.

Abraham and Sarah needed to exercise their imaginations when God told them they would be parents of a vast family. Noah needed to exercise his imagination in order to build his great boat. Nehemiah needed to exercise his imagination in order to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The apostle John needed no small exercise in his imagination when he was moved to write the book of Revelation. Acts of faith, both great and small, often require some aspect of imagination, some act of thinking beyond what we can simply see with our eyes.

Have you ever had a situation where God called you to do something that you thought was crazy or at least a little weird? Have you ever had a build-an-ark moment? Has God ever given you a vision for a ministry, or for a career, or for a church?  Or maybe something more personal, like a vision for your future, or for your marriage, or for your children, or for a single moment in time? An instance where we must “live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7) Indeed, life is full of opportunities for us to exercise our faith and as a component of that, our imaginations. If faith really is the substance of things unseen, then this must be true.

Imagination helps us to see that there is much more than meets the eye.  It can help us see that anything is possible in a world where God is in control. It allows us to engage more deeply into the very Story of God, and it allows us to have a vision for our future. It allows us to dream big dreams. It is a necessary component of good art. And also of childlike faith.

Here are just a few ways in which we can encourage people to use their imaginations more in corporate worship. There are many more:

1) Tell Stories. Encourage people to sit and close their eyes, and then just read from the Bible. Allow them to meditate on the story as you read, led by the Holy Spirit, and engage their imaginations in the process.  Some faith traditions have a long established history with this practice of contemplating the Bible text, including Lectio Divina (from the latin meaning “divine reading”).

2) Use Visual Imagery. There is also a form of meditation where you can use the visual arts as an aid to prayer. Similar to the previous item above, Visio Divina (latin for “divine seeing”) allows for a deeper, Spirit-led, more contemplative pace of prayer.

3) Use Symbols and Other Sacred Forms. The Christian Church has a long-standing use of symbols in worship. From the empty cross representing Christ’s resurrection, to the crown representing His Kingship, to the fish which served as a coded symbol for early believers, symbols are “worship without words.”  Evangelicalism has abandoned much of the symbology of our faith, but the use of symbols and other sacred forms can greatly enhance worship. Symbols can be small, like a chalice on the communion table, to large and expansive, taking over the stagecraft scenery on the platform.

4) Incorporate Sacramental Acts Like Communion or Foot Washing. Jesus Himself is the model for these metaphorical acts, steeped in deep symbolism and meaning. One of our recent services was during Maundy Thursday, which involved an unhurried time where people could participate in the Lord’s Supper, write out prayers and place them on a prayer wall, or go to a foot washing station to wash someone’s feet. This experience was a meaningful blending of kinesthetic, imaginative, and social interaction. Certainly worship is more than singing.

5) Select Worship Songs with Metaphorical Lyrics. You can sing “You are eternal” or you can sing “You ride the ancient skies.” Both are true, but the latter poetically (and Biblically) say so much more, because it engages our imaginations. I’m thankful that there’s a lot of good worship music being written now, although some songs seem more crafted than others. If you are a songwriter, I encourage you to incorporate more metaphorical and poetic language into your songs; it’s not only more powerful, it simply makes for good art.

5) Paint during Worship. I won’t go into detail here as I blogged about this recently. But the act of painting is by nature an act of continuing revelation which engages our visual senses as well as our internal imaginations.

I really do think that we, particularly us evangelical Christians, need to exercise our imaginations much more. When we drive down the road, or we sit at our desks at work or at school, or we lay in our beds at night, we need to believe that there is much, much, much more going on that is unseen than we realize. What we see is not all there is.  And that the more True reality is in the invisible, supernatural world that is all around us. God has placed His Kingdom right in front of our eyes, and the glory of God is bursting all around us.  And we can see it if we only squint hard enough.

7 thoughts on “Engaging the Imagination in Worship

  1. A recent webinar I participated with showed the same portions of the brain which are ignited when we are being creative also light up when we pray. Without context, arguments could be made in two very different directions there. It proves to me the deep connection between our spirituality and our creativity.

    I am excited to be a part of opportunities surfacing to bring more imagination into worship here in NC. I am brainstorming ways to inspire more creatives to join me, and basing much of what I want to do in these regards on your advice and inspiration, Manuel! Thank you!

  2. If we would only pay attention to Holy Spirit as he stirs us up, we would use our God given gift of imagination to interact with Him and fulfill His will. We are more apt to believe in our own ability to “see” something than God helping us to imagine.

  3. Thank you again, Manuel! You continually help me to see more of God and encourage me in the path He has put me on…

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