Imagine Church Renewal

Written by Daron Brown
From his column Pressing On

What is your strategy for church renewal? Pastors huddle in conferences. Church staffs read books and draw charts. Leadership teams navigate vision conversations. We know the problem: local churches are not what they used to be—a far cry from what they should be. Churches need renewal. The question is How? How do we position ourselves to experience renewal? Clearly, renewal is God’s work, not ours. But as co-laborers and called ones, we do have a role to play. How, then, do we prepare our churches for renewal?

The question often lands us in the realm of strategy-talk. We borrow tactics. We devise plans. We launch programs. Some churches attempt old methods, hoping for new results. Others apply novel approaches with great hope. Such strategizing may produce some fruit, but it seems that if renewal happens, it happens in spite of our efforts.

Developing strategies is fine, but will they lead to church renewal? Compared to most churches throughout history and around the globe, especially those that have experienced powerful movements of renewal, today’s churches in North America are over-resourced and strategy-saturated. Perhaps the answer to renewal has less to do with strategy and more to do with imagination.

Imagination is a wild creature that will not lie down as nicely as a proposition.

To imagine is to bring into being that which is not present. Imagination invites us to see the world differently; to envision the not-yet. Imagination is the stuff of creation. It is what the Spirit brews. God imagined us when He created us in His image. From Ezekiel’s rattling rising bones, to John’s wild descriptions of the heavenly realms, our scriptures are imagination-rich. Jesus’ teachings tease minds and stretch limits of understanding. Mind-bending parables and theological paradoxes transcend the bounds of reason. Imagination creates a landing strip for God’s revelation.

Some of us heeding Paul’s advice to put childish ways behind us, categorize imagination as childish behavior. We opt for concrete, proposition-based thinking. We prefer proposition over imagination because it seems more controlled. Imagination is a wild creature that will not lie down as nicely as a proposition. Barbara Brown Taylor declares, “In the imaginative act, we are grasped whole. Revelation is not a matter of thinking or feeling, intuiting or sensing, working from the left side of the brain or the right. It is a shocking gift of new sight that obliterates such distinctions, grabbing us by our lapels and turning us around, so that when we are set back down again we see everything from a new angle” (The Preaching Life, Cowley: 1993). That is the work of imagination.

Mark offers an example of imagination ignited in chapter two. Four fellows—each gripping a corner of his mat—carry their friend. I envision them lumbering around the last turn, stunned. They see the crowd eclipsing the house where Jesus is stationed. Many wait in line. Some fight the crowd. Others give up and go home. These four, however, do something outside the box—or better yet, something outside and on top of the box. They climb. They dig. They lower. They remain true to the mission of getting their friend to Jesus. What happened to their friend? Renewal. What got him there? Imagination.

Many churches are rich in strategies and broke when it comes to imagination. If there is hope for church renewal, I suggest we imagine our way forward. Here are four practices for exercising imagination: (1) Play with children. They are imagination scholars. (2) Listen to the prophets, both old and new. Prophets spark imagination. (3) Reserve blocks of time to do nothing but think. Our schedules are so crammed with activity that we leave little margin to imagine. (4) Embrace art, whether it is your own or the work of others. Creative works of art offer windows into new and different worlds.

Sisters and brothers who lead churches, let’s start asking each other this question: How are you imagining church renewal?

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.