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Churches can use some imagination.

Not imagination as a flight of fancy (although that can be good), but imagination that carries Christians into the hard places where reconciliation and transformation are most needed.

“Imagination gets us in touch with what is most real,” says Kerry Dearborn, a professor in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University. However, Dearborn adds, imagination is a “tool we haven’t allowed God to access.”

During a recent presentation Dearborn joined with Chris Hoke, who serves with Tierra Nueva Ministries in Skagit County, to explore the meaning of imagination in Christian life. Both have just published books that explore Christian imagination: Dearborn’s “Drinking from the Wells of a New Creation” and Hoke’s “Wanted,” a reflection on his work within prisons and among immigrants.

Hoke (who appears above in a CBN profile about a man cared for by Tierra Nueva) pointed toward the imagination as he read from his book:

Growing up in many churches, I never found them to be raw or extremely honest places — not places where you could show the worst side of yourself. But I found the jail to be a place where inmates didn’t have the option to hide their problems … Here, people are left staring — innocent or guilty of the specific charges — at the wreck of their lives. And in this place, in these rooms of unadorned life, I found something that clergy call sacrament, mysteries I could feel.

In light of Hoke’s experience, perhaps it is no surprise that in researching her book Dearborn found the most striking examples of imagination and grace among the marginalized, who are open to the Holy Spirit in a way that cannot be matched by those of us who are more affluent, more respectable — and who feel like we have more to lose.

Imagination, Dearborn says, can work like a solvent that washes away old, false truths and renews one’s faith — and one’s ability to see the “other” in fresh new ways. But Christians in Western culture too often fail to use this gift.

“In a very cerebral culture we demean imagination,” Dearborn says. But that is to our loss.

At a time when the culture wars promote false choices, when churches are too often complicit in the injustices of this world, and when congregations crumble because they can’t adapt to a changing culture, the need for a renewed imagination shines brighter than ever.

And the words of Dearborn and Hoke feel much more daring than they ought to be.

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