As a highly compact form of speech capable of stimulating the imagination, poetry can be effectively used in almost any of the various dimensions or acts of public worship. This article catalogs a variety of ways that poetry can be used in worship and gives guidelines to worship planners for selecting poems and readers.
When people go to worship, whether in groups or alone, God designed them to need to exercise their imaginal intellect as much as any other dynamic of their being—including their rational intellect. When people worship God alone, they “practice” focusing their faith toward God through the gate of their imagination. As they couple their imagination with their intellect, they will imagine the unseen realities they "know" are true in Scripture.
Given the orientation Protestant theologians have concerning the mind, the characteristics of the imaginal capacity of human intellect are sometimes lost. It seems that the Protestant community somehow takes a one-dimension view of that the human mind is only given to rational and information ideal. Certainly, a life of faith will often move on past what seems rational to the “average person.” And, even the thoughts and mental engagement involved in worship itself encompasses much more than rational exercise or information.
The Hebrew term for imagination is either yatsar or yetser. Yatsar means to fashion in the mind before forming in time and space. That is, to fashion in the mind also holds in its meaning the capacity to imagine, to invent, to form, to frame (in the mind’s eye); and the emphasis of the term is in on the ability to see something—that could be real and true—in the mind’s eye BEFORE it is actually formed in time and space.
The reality of the content of the gospel (the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son, the righteousness of God whose death paid the penalty for my and your sin—1 Cor. 15; Rom. 3) does no good without connection with the giver of the gospel. And artists are specialists at creating environments wherein human creatures can connect with their creator.
Hebrew concept of imagination includes two dynamic applications: 1) with regard to the human capacity to invent or make something, imagination is ‘the capacity to see what could be but is not yet.’ An example of this human capacity is Jer. 18:4, “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” And, 2) with regard to the human capacity to interact with transcendence, imagination is ’the capacity to see through what is known into the realities beyond what is known.
My life’s work and my passion are to motivate the Church toward thinking more deeply and seriously about the importance of creatives and artists who serve as “imaginative expression specialists.” And, toward these ends, my goal is for pastors and others in church leadership to treat singers, musicians, fine artists, dancers, and others as not just performers but as key strategists on the evangelism and outreach teams. Why? Because God has gifted artists with the ability to uniquely communicate his infinite, unfathomable transcendence.
To craft a theology of imagination and artistic human expression I believe there are six basic – but foundationally important – theological principles that both church and mission leaders in general, and worship, music, and arts-ministry practitioners in specific, need to understand. It’s necessary to establish these six principles if we are going to responsibly and energetically help church and mission leaders around the world better re-engage and integrate imaginative expression specialists into ministry strategy development and missional ministry practices.