The Worship Leader as Sculptor of the Imagination

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought1 Comment

Wing detail from an antler-carving by Denver artist, Jake Weidmann(I love coming up with epic titles like this one.)

I believe in total depravity.  I believe that when our first parents fell, they crashed hard, scattering genetic carnage everywhere.  I believe that, though humanity is not as fully corrupted as we could possibly be, there is no part of the human person left untouched, unmarred by the scorch of sin.  It’s easy to ponder the effects of total depravity on, say, our bodies, where we see systemic brokenness and decay in aging and sickness.  It’s easy to ponder the effects of total depravity on our minds, as we can all confess to having evil thoughts, with even our best thoughts being a mixed bag of good and bad.  But have we ever thought about how our imagination has been corrupted by the fall?  

An decent online definition (via Google) of “imagination” is “the faculty or action of forming new ideas; the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.”  Have we ever reflected on how our creativity and resourcefulness, our idea-making faculties, have been stunted by original sin?  It makes sense, then, why truly great art is so laborious for artists.  It also makes sense, then, why this partially subconscious part of us is so prone to mal-formation by our corrupted environment.  We create, we idea-manufacture, out of our brokenness, and our imaginations are in turn shaped, rather subconsciously, by these products of our marred creativity.

What does this have to do with worship leading? As James K. A. Smith argues, the worship service can be the jumping-off-point for reshaping our desires toward kingdom ends.  But before Smith, David Fitch was writing about similar concepts, challenging our worship to be more than it is:

We just do not think in terms of defining good worship by the way that it forms people into good Christians. Instead, we look to the level of the worshiper’s emotional involvement as a sign that we have worshiped God well. So when we plan our worship, we end up pursuing the arousal of emotions and the “worship experience” as an end in itself, which inevitably turns narcissistic…I wish to suggest that our worship services should be ordered so as to form our emotions and our experience into emotions and experiences that are faithful to God…

Evangelicals, however, rarely take the forming of emotions, experience, and imagination seriously. In modernist fashion, we assume these to be givens. So we structure the worship service around listening to a forty-five-minute preaching lecture that appeals to the individual mind, not one’s imagination. Or we structure the worship service around singing praise and worship choruses for extended periods of time, appealing to one’s stirred up emotions, not a reordering of one’s emotions toward God.  In either case, the worship service can only reinforce what we already believe or feel. It cannot reshape us out of pagan experiences and emotions into the glory of God.*

It would be wrong to think of the worship leader as the ultimate sculptor of the imagination.  That is God’s work, and God’s alone.  He is Creator, and He is Redeemer.  He sculpts, and He refashions.  It’s more precise to say that the worship leader possesses the tools–is even called by God–to be a graciously invited agent in the process of God’s reclamation of our fallen imaginations.  

In this respect, the worship service must tell and retell a story–in fact, THE story–of redemption through Christ.  How well this story is engaged and explicated might very well be directly proportional to how well a worship service does in re-shaping our fallen imaginations.  Fitch and Smith are right when they warn that our culture pulsates mal-forming imagination-shaping messages, ideas, and dreams.  Do our worship services drop the bomb of the one story that sends a leveling shock wave across all these lesser dreams?  Do we not only know the story intellectually, hear the story cognitively, but also rehearse it physically, feel it emotionally (see my previous post about this), and engage it spiritually?  Does the gospel envelop us in the cosmic glory of our Triune God and captivate our imaginations such that, in the words of Charles Wesley, we’re “lost in wonder, love, and praise”?

The evaluative question, then, for worship leaders, in helping to re-sculpt the imagination, is, “In how many different ways can we hear the gospel in this service?”  We can sing it in our songs.  We can pray it in our prayers.  We can receive it in preaching.  But we can also taste and see it in the Lord’s Supper.  We can feel and visualize it in baptism.  And (what is often lost on evangelical worship), we can walk through it in the actual progression of content in our worship services (we often call this a “gospel-shaped liturgy”).  

Something tells me that if, in our worship thinking and planning, we were to spend more time on this gospel-project, all the other things (like style, preference, cultural relevance, etc.) would much more easily fall into place.  As it is, we’re often spending more time beating to death and hyper-analyzing these relatively lesser issues.  

So much is left unsaid about the mechanics of imagination-shaping, and it’s a field of thought that I sense I’m just now on the edge of.  I’d be curious to see what kind of comments on the imagination-shaping front this post elicits.



*David E. Fitch, The Great Giveaway (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 96.


One Comment on “The Worship Leader as Sculptor of the Imagination”

  1. While walking through one of life's valleys, I found myself craving deep truth. I became a huge fan of several musicians who, by using the profound words of hymns or theologically rich songs, engaged my imagination and led me to spiritual implications. As a direct result, I started posting daily 'trios' of scripture that resonate with an image of Christ and writing a liturgy-like prayer of response. The site was picked up and made into an app…I think there is a hunger out there for presenting concepts in a way that sparks the imagination. I am deeply grateful for how thoughtful music played a role in this journey for me. And if it proves to be sustaining in any way, the site is called Blue Stone City ( I'd welcome anyone to pray alongside me.

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