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Preaching with Sanctified Imagination—wholeheARTed guest, Rev. Billy Honor

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Art, Faith, and Honest Connection

Preaching with Sanctified Imagination—wholeheARTed guest, Rev. Billy Honor

Lisle Gwynn Garrity

Though we are a team of primarily visual artists, part of our mission is to inspire creativity in whatever ways it begs to be expressed. We hope this inspiration for creativity leaks beyond just visuals and art projects, but into all of life—into our words, our relationships, and our ordinary routines.

Many of the folks in our community are preachers and teachers, those who, week-to-week, are crafting sermons and presentations to lead listeners into deeper reflection. For our wholeheARTed summer guest series, we wanted to feature a preacher who might reflect on the creative process of preaching and the imagination required to truly bring scripture to life, which led us to Rev. Billy Honor. Billy is an imaginative and powerful preacher, constantly engaging whatever creative expression his sermons require: visuals, videos, props, storytelling, and singing. He's currently based in Atlanta, where he is the founding pastor of Pulse Church, a dynamic, progressive congregation in the heart of downtown.

Read Billy's reflections below on the sanctified imagination and the role of creativity in preaching.

 (Oh, and if you haven't yet, be sure to check out our wholeheARTed series premier post here). 

They called him the golden voice. He was tall and dressed to impress in his patent leather shoes and swanky tailor-made suit. He carried a well-worn bible and displayed a formidable stride when he walked, which seemed in concert with his serious demeanor. After the choir finished their selection, he stood up to address the full-capacity crowd who had gathered to hear him preach. With skill and precision, he moved from introductory remarks and pleasantries into a masterful exposition of scripture in a sermon he titled, “What a little chicken saw.”

The point of the sermon was the simple message that we need to embrace life and not run from it. But what made this sermon special was the smooth and creative way that this preacher told the story. I shall never forget sitting there that night listening to his booming voice tell the story of the prodigal son. It was as though he had the whole congregation waiting with bated breath to hear what was going to happen next in a story that many of them had heard countless times before.  

The high point point for me was when he paused after telling the biblical story of the prodigal son and then said with a touch of dramatic flair, " . . . and I tell you, my friends, as I look through my sanctified imagination, I can see a little chicken in an egg.” From there he went on to tell a story about a chicken hiding in its egg as a metaphor for how humanity is hiding in the world today. It was simply masterful.

Though that night listening to the Reverend Jasper Williams was the first time I’d ever heard a preacher call upon their “sanctified imagination,” I have since heard the words used many times in pulpits across the land.                

Rev. Billy Honor preaching for worship at the 2016 Montreat Youth Conference. Paper lace banners in background by Hannah Garrity. Photos by Michael Erdelyi.

Admittedly, many times as a younger person, I would hear a preacher beckon their “sanctified imagination” and would say to myself, “Oh here comes the part where they start lying on God and adding to the Bible.” But as I’ve gotten older and become more informed and preached my fair share of sermons as a pastor and itinerant preacher, I have a very different view of “the sanctified imagination.”

Now I understand that the sanctified imagination is not the act of a preacher simply making things up that sound good; rather, it is a preacher’s way of using a moment of creative license to help better tell the gospel story and make sense out of what the Bible says. Just as Reverend Williams used the story of a chicken hiding in an egg to help make clear the biblical message of the prodigal son, all preachers in their own way should seek to use the manifold resources of their imagination to help make the gospel plain to those that they preach.          

This is, perhaps, one of the primary ingredients of great preaching. In fact, I would argue that preaching with sanctified imagination is what separates memorable preaching from mere preaching. It’s what separates sermons that become a part of us from sermons that bounce off of us. Simply put, it is the thing that makes preaching impactful.  

But what, really, is preaching with sanctified imagination?

For me, preaching with sanctified imagination is the art of preaching with theologically-inspired creativity. It is the process of the preacher’s mind being aroused by the possibilities of the living Word. It is how a preacher attempts to rhetorically and visually paint a picture of the gospel for the purpose of making it clearer and more accessible. 

Preaching with sanctified imagination is the art of preaching with theologically-inspired creativity. It is the process of the preacher’s mind being aroused by the possibilities of the living Word.

Practically speaking, in my own practice of preaching, I employ sanctified imagination mostly after I have finished an extended period of reading and meditating on the words of a biblical text.  At this point, my imagination is ready to explore the possibilities within the world of the text and it’s also ready to consider how the world of the text might intersect with my lived reality. In my experience, this is the most fertile ground for preaching creatively. As we allow ample opportunity to consider all the ways the message of the text relates to this moment in time, the engine of our sanctified imaginations will begin to gear up.  

For most preachers, the sanctified imagination manifests in the practice of storytelling. However, when I say storytelling, I don’t mean storytelling for storytelling's sake. There are few things more problematic in preaching than haphazardly putting stories in sermons where they don’t belong. In contrast, storytelling with sanctified imagination is about creatively identifying narratives that will connect the living Word of the text with the living world of the sermon hearer. It is the process of discerning what stories from our own experience and the experience of others help tell the grander story of the Divine.

Rev. Billy Honor preaching for worship at the 2016 Montreat Youth Conference. Paper lace banners in background by Hannah Garrity. Photos by Michael Erdelyi.

Another element of the sanctified imagination is visualization. This is the process of the preacher using imagination to provide a visual image of the sermon’s primary message. Typically, this manifests in the use of props or maybe a video that illustrates a main point. Sometimes it even means preaching in full costume as a bible character or allowing a visual artist to paint a relevant image while the sermon is being given.  

Whatever the method, finding ways to creatively provide images that make the point of the sermon is vital to preaching with sanctified imagination.  Moreover, statistics say over half of the population is made up of visual learners, which means in most settings, sermons without visualization will have difficulty being memorable, much less impactful.  

Sanctified imagination in preaching isn’t just about creativity—it’s also about courage.

Lastly, I think it’s important to understand that sanctified imagination in preaching isn’t just about creativity—it's also about courage. It’s about finding the courage to use our imaginations to develop a new vision for the communities we serve and then preaching that vision with creativity and conviction. It’s about having the courage to imagine the world without many of the social issues that continually plague it, and then having the preaching imagination to help others see what you see. It’s about having the courage to do as Jesus did and use our sanctified imaginations to preach messages that inspire the weak to become strong, the poor to become rich, and the lowly to be exalted. This is our creative mission as contemporary preachers, should we choose to accept it.     

Piece written by Rev. Billy Honor.                                              

Rev. Billy Michael Honor is an Atlanta-based public scholar and urban theologian who writes and speaks about issues relating to faith and culture. He is also an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister and the founding pastor of Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta. He also regularly serves an adjunct professor and board member for several theological institutions.

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