Discipling the Imagination: Worship Leading as Aesthetic Stewardship

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When we read Jesus’ teachings, we frequently encounter the phrase: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” What follows is a rich panoply of metaphors: a seed, a coin, yeast, a pearl. Jesus paints a rich visual image in the minds of his audience, calling on their daily context and imbuing it with a multi-dimensional texture that links heaven and earth. What Jesus does is provoke and prod the minds and hearts of those who do not know God, or those who think they know God, yet have a thin perception of God’s true nature. His approach is not to download a litany of facts and information into their brains, but to present a simple story with dimension and connection, and point them towards the kingdom.

As worship leaders, we have a unique burden and opportunity in our churches. The same task is before us: to re-present God and the Good News in a way that our people can understand and respond to. The main method we all employ is to set truths to music. If we sing something about God, our mind hears the words, but our hearts also experience the music, lending depth and texture to the message. Indeed, Marshall McLuhan’s classic concept – “the medium is the message” – should make us keenly aware of what our musical choices and styles communicate in, with, and around the text being sung. We are discipling the imagination of our congregations in the choices we make every week, for good or ill. We must be considerate of the unspoken message behind a melody, an instrumentation, or a repetition.

Beyond our musical choices, I challenge you to be creative in the visual aesthetics of your service. What does the kingdom of God look like in your worship? An altar table? Candles? Gyrating lights and giant screens? Can you employ the talents of an artist in your community to inspire the congregation visually? When you think of your context and culture, how might you complete the statement: The kingdom of heaven looks like…? Can you take a favorite Scripture reading and use a simple visual prop, or textile, to engage the church visually in that story?

I’ll give an example from our church’s Easter Vigil service this year. We told the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. We wanted to give people a sense of the fear and tension building in the narrative as the Egyptians drew near, so we used a simple hand drum cadence that grew in volume and intensity as the story unfolded. We wanted to include the congregation in the crossing of the sea, so we took long, flowing pieces of red fabric, waved them in the center aisle, and then carried them over the seated congregants to represent the sea parting in their midst. These were very simple items to rehearse and execute, yet they profoundly changed the way the story was heard and experienced. People saw and felt the message around them, and it was impactful in a new and fresh way for everyone involved.

So how can you disciple the imagination of your church? How can you use music, art, drama, and video to beautify and adorn the gospel of truth? In doing so, you will follow Jesus’ example and proclaim to the world: “The kingdom of heaven is like this!” You have the opportunity to help people not only think the right thoughts, but also to be discipled through their eyes, ears, and hearts to imagine the world around them in a way that glorifies God.

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Patrick is the Director of Worship and Administration at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in the Los Angeles area. He attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he concentrated his studies on worship and liturgy. His wife, Jenette, was a voice major at Wheaton College, where the two met while singing in choir together. They have one son, Peter, and a daughter on the way!

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