By Mary Harris Todd
At ordination and installation Presbyterian elders promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. Of the four, imagination may be the most challenging. Unlike a body of information or set of procedures, imagination can’t be mastered by the intellect. Imagination must be inspired and sparked. Being open to the imagination and acting on it requires effort and courage. It’s always much easier to go to the default setting: what did we do last year (or last century)?
While it might not be possible to train the imagination in the same way we study the contents of the Book of Order, it is possible to give the imagination a workout. One of the primary ways of doing that is telling and listening to stories. That’s why storytelling is central at all our NEXT Church gatherings. We listen once again to God’s story in scripture, and we share stories of what God is up to in the church and in the world now.
Healthy small congregations are a rich source of stories to spark the imagination. We offer a great deal of “scope for the imagination,” to the church at large, to use Anne of Green Gables’ expression. Now that the mainline church finds itself pushed to the sidelines, it makes sense to listen to the witness of small congregations that have always lived and served on the margins. We know that it doesn’t always take a program and money and big buildings to answer the call of God. We know—or at least we’re learning—what it means to live simply and sustainably by radical dependence on God. We know how to rise to the challenge of operating creatively within limits.
In his new book Imagining the Small Church: Creating a Simpler Path (Alban), PC(USA) pastor Steve Willis shares many sights, sounds and stories from the world of the small church that can bless the imagination of the whole church. He writes, “Imagination is the prayerful interior work that helps me see what is really going on, not so much dreaming things up but rather being open to what could be” (p. 105). The eye of imagination allows him to see God’s upside down wisdom at work in the lives of the people and the congregation. Through imagination he sees both the wonder of what is, and the wonder of what could be.
Two other books from Alban that offer imagination-sparking stories from the small church world are In Dying We Are Born by Peter Bush and Born of Water, Born of Spirit, by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett. Bush explores why dying and rising with Christ is the way to new life for every congregation, regardless of size. Writing out of their experience in the Episcopal tradition, Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett tell story after story of small congregations finding new life when the whole people of God begin to see themselves as called to ministry. You can find links to reviews of these books on the resource tab of my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal. Note that these books both reflect on what it means to be born again, which is the theme of the NEXT Church national gathering in Charlotte in 2013.
Imagination is prayerful work indeed. It is altogether fitting that we also promise to pray when we promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. Come upon us all, Holy Spirit to spark, empower and guide in all these essentials, so that it may be with us as it was on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young will see visions, Your elders will dream dreams” Acts 2:17 (CEV).
Mary Harris Todd has been a Presbyterian all her life. She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another, Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She is amazed at the God whose foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness. Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.