Communities of faith participating in the life of God in a new missional era have the capacity to develop a shared biblical imagination. The really big word in this sentence is “shared.”My sense is that there are few biblical texts that rise to the level of a shared imagination within a congregation. What functions at the level of a shared imagination is a loose pastiche of images and phrases that come from a variety of sources.
I have evidence for this claim. I’ve got roughly 350 interviews within congregations where respodents are asked how the gospels are used in congregations, including in processes of decision making. The interviews suggest that specific stories of Jesus play little part in shaping the imagination of church members. They play in the deep background as a set of loosely connected impressions. I have yet to find a real example of how a story from the gospels was appealed to as a part of rationale for a decision made by a congregation.
While this research needs follow-up work to clarify themes that are emerging, and while my research is limited to the gospels at this point, it suggests that it is no small thing for a biblical text to rise to the level of shared imagination.
While there are certain texts that warm the collective cockles of our heart–Matthew 28, Acts 2, John 3–the way we use texts in our churches does little to develop a shared imagination. This is not to say that the way we currently use texts–primarily for teaching and preaching to passive learners–is wrong or should be abandoned. Rather, they should be augmented with other, more intentionally communal approaches.
Anyone who has taken a class from me, been to a conference I’ve directed, or been in a congregation I’ve consulted with know the practice of Dwelling in the Word. It’s a practice I learned from Alan Roxburgh and Pat Keifert and that I have become committed to. The basic practice is simple: choose one text to dwell in as a group for an extended period of time (we dwell in one text for a year in PMC). Each time you gather, read the text, observe moments of silence, share what struck you in the text in pairs, or with a “reasonably friendly looking stranger,” and report back to the group what your partner noticed.
When we do this with congregations, we always get resistance. Why stay in Luke 10 for a year? What’s left to learn after about a month? Fair enough. But the purpose of Dwelling is not to get a set of ideas into your brain. The purpose is to develop a shared imagination. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been dwelling with groups in Luke 10 for several years now and I still learn things from others. But more significant is how living in a text over time forges a shared vision of life. After awhile, we’re thinking together, not about the text, but through the text and with the text. Now people are recognizing situations as Luke 10 situations. They’re talking about finding people of peace, and they have a shared sense of what that might be about. And when they make decisions, they remind each other about accepting God’s hospitality on someone else’s terms, of not moving about from house-to-house, or of proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God.
Luke 10 is not a text they visit from time-to-time. It’s a text in which they have come to dwell. And while they really liked the preacher’s last series from Galatians or Exodus and love sister so-and-so’s Bible class, few of the texts visited in sermon or class have risen to the level of shared imagination.
I think what develops from consistent teaching and preaching over time is something of a shared doctrinal or moral imagination. And this is important work. But give me biblical texts that live in a congregation’s shared imagination!
If you only dwell in one per year, then choosing texts is very important. Here we want texts that serve a new missional era well. Not all texts are equal in this regard. Luke 10 is better than Matthew 28, for instance, simply because our notions of mission tied to Christendom are well funded by Matthew 28, which unfortunately has been used in triumphalist or imperialist kinds of ways.
Dwelling in the Word is not the only way to accomplish a shared biblical imagination for mission. But the same kinds of things would have to be present: repetitive use of a text, ritual framing, every member response, deep listening postures related to the text, the Spirit, and the stranger. In fact, the framing of the practice within its ritual processes are also a big part of what shapes a common imagination for mission.
Truth is, many congregations who complain about Dwelling in the Word while they are in the PMC process, continue its practice after the three year project is over. They have learned how powerful it is, how it does things that other practices don’t do. And how it can prepare people for a shared future with God in a new missional era.