Children have boundless imaginations. Through their eyes a landscape will be artfully conceived with a green sky and purple trees. As a child, I drew many pictures with images that were colorized and shaped by an unlimited imagination. My imagination also whisked me away to faraway places where I became a princess in a castle or a singer like Diana Ross or a superhero like Wonder Woman. Imagination gave me the power to be and to do my heart’s desires.
The words be and do are two thirds of a Sunday school teaching strategy that was touted several years ago. The complete strategy included the word know. So, Sunday school teachers were encouraged to teach learners what they needed to know, be, and do. Teachers were encouraged to not just teach students biblical information or to know the Bible, but to teach students to change their character or be different and to change their behavior or do (act) well.
Teaching learners to know is an age-old standard of teaching and probably the easiest way to teach. Teachers simply tell students what they need or want to know. In Bible study this way of teaching and learning translates to the transference of biblical information — its stories, history, wisdom, writers, books, chapters, and so on are shared with learners. But to what outcome?
No doubt Christians want to learn the Bible. They want to know about the life of Abraham, the exodus of the Israelites, the life of our Savior, and the journeys of Paul (to name just a few). But what about knowing how to resolve and live through distressing issues of life? That’s when a teacher should use his or her imagination to help students know how to be and do.
In his book, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Ministry, Warren Wiersbe uses this definition for imagination: It is defined as “the capacity to see old and familiar things in new associations from new perspectives, to combine things not previously put together.” 1 Simply stated imagination requires using images or pictures to represent thoughts.
In the Sunday school class, the use of imagination helps to complete the learning process. The know of the teaching strategy, which by the way primarily uses words, become active and alive as they are converted into pictures or images. This can powerfully result in the spiritual transformation of believers, because they can visualize what God wants them to be and behave according to His will. But it takes an intentional effort on the part of teachers for this to happen. Here are a few suggestions inspired by Wiersbe:
1. Begin with the understanding that God gave you an imagination in the first place.
We have an imaginative God who creatively made the world, all that is in it, including us. Because we have been made in His image, we also are creative beings.
2. Cultivate a healthy imagination.
Use the inspiration of the Word of God to awaken imagination. Metaphorically, you must learn to swim before you can save a life. You know you have imagination, now practice using it on a daily basis by picturing the words you are reading in your Bible and meditating on them to bring them to life in your heart.
3. Evaluate your teaching plan.
After you have prepared to teach, step back and ask what will be the so what of the lesson. Put yourself in the shoes of those you are teaching to examine whether you have touched on felt needs. How will you help the caregiver in your class, the jobless single mom, the believer who wants a closer walk with God? Use your imagination to help them use theirs. They need a picture of how the lesson can impact their lives.
4. Help learners to cultivate their imaginations well.
If learners have been studying the Bible for any length of time, then many will be familiar with the stories and truths of the Word of God. Encourage them to picture the text whenever possible. For example, picture Paul as he pursues the prize (Phil. 4:13). This ensures what is read impacts the heart. Also encourage learners to read the biblical text, then reread it again meditatively.
Children are born with a fully functioning imagination, but we lose much of that skill as we grow up. The world in which we live encourages a static realism in our perceptions of most of the things we see. We need Imaginative teachers in Sunday school so that our perceptions of the world are what God intended.
1. Warren W. Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Ministry (Michigan: Baker Books, 1994) p. 25.