January 27, 2021

Imagination Poor: A Must Read from Skye Jethani

Chagall Window, Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem

By Chaplain Mike

Back in January, I posted a children’s sermon I gave in a worship service in a quaint old Midwestern Presbyterian sanctuary.

In that message, I focused on the surroundings and elements of the service the boys and girls could observe. I reminisced about what I remembered from my childhood about church—light streaming through the stained glass, the candles, the robed choirs, the pastor’s robe and the deep sound of his voice, and so on. What got my attention, and, I am convinced, my spiritual interest as a child, were those “visual aids” that stimulated my imagination and created a sense of wonder and awe.

Today I am convinced that the church growth movement that created megachurches and contemporary church planting movements based largely on a philosophy of pragmatism have left imagination behind.

  • We are technology rich and imagination poor.
  • We are good at stimulating certain surface emotions, bad at arousing deep thought and evoking wonder.
  • We believe in direct, practical communication, and have no clue about the art of subtle, indirect attraction that elicits curiosity.
  • We build auditoriums without windows and hide from the full spectrum of heaven’s light.
  • We are all prose and no poetry.
  • We are lyrics without music.
  • We are all legal brief and grocery list and no fairy tale.
  • We are draftsman’s drawings and there are no Giottos or Chagalls among us.
  • We are warehouse workers, with no more cathedrals towering over us, lifting our eyes to the heavens.

A remarkable post by Skye Jethani at Out of Ur called “Worship through a Child’s Eyes” broke my heart anew in this regard. Out of a child’s mouth (in this case her journal) comes an eloquent testimony of how “imagination poor” we have become and the impressions it is leaving on our children.

Chagall Window, Fraumünster Cathedral, Zurich

Jethani has taken his nine year-old daughter with him on many speaking engagements this year, and at one of them he noticed her writing in her journal during the worship service. When he asked her about it later, she said she had been making lists of what the different churches did in their services.

The result is a synopsis of what worship looks like in different congregations to a child.

Jethani remarks, “I was fascinated by what she noticed, what she didn’t notice, and what left an impact on her.”

Here is her description (unedited) from two different churches:


1. When you are singing the first song the pastors walk down the isle and the first is holding a gold cross that is placed on a wooden stick thingy.

2. One of the pastors walking down the isle and close to the end is holding a very pretty looking bible. When she gets to the stage she places it on a wooden table.

3. The pastors are dressed in decrotive robes.

4. The church does not have a screen that has the words of the songs and passeges and prayers. instead they have a little books that has all the songs and prayer in them.

5. The pastors sit on little wooden chairs and listen to who is talking.

5. They have time to confess their sins and the pastors sit on their knees.

6. One of the pastors prepares the table for cumuan.
During cumun someone in a plain white robe holds the bible.

7. They say this during cumuan “Christ has died and Christ has risen Christ will come again”

8. The pastors bow after they finish talking during cumuan.

9. When you are taking cumuan there is one cup that the adults drink from and after the person that is holding the cup wipes it.

10. When church is almost over one of the people in the plain white robes holds the gold cross and when it goes down the isle you have to bow.


1. They have 3 screens

2. In the back there is a little station that does the lights and screens

3. There are 2 girls singing. And when you sing the lights turn off and these cool lights go on. The music is really loud.

4. In the seat in front of you their is a poket and in that poket their is a welcom thingy and an evolope wich you can give money with

5. There is no cross in the front

6. Their are cool but weird things on the walls

7. Very cool set up

8. There is a coffee shop

Chagall Window, Tudeley Church, Kent UK

The question is silly, but I’ll ask it: Which left more of an impression on that child? Which service seems to have stimulated her imagination and curiosity? Would you rather have your child leave worship thinking “cool set up” or would you rather she have colorful pictures in her mind of the robes and the Bible and the communion proceedings and the gold cross being carried up and down the aisle?

Notice the differences in detail in her two descriptions. See how much more she noticed at Church A. Sure, a lot of the significance went over her head, but isn’t that exactly the point? Aren’t we trying to draw people into mysteries that are far greater than we can describe in prosaic terms? Doesn’t her constant repetition of the word “cool” in her Church B list tell you that the impressions she received there touched only the surface? How far can “cool” take us in worshiping a God of unfathomable greatness?

I left a comment at Out of Ur after reading Skye Jethani’s article, and here is what I said:

“Skye, that was amazing. Thanks.

“I filled the pulpit in an 180 year old Presbyterian congregation several times this year. On one Sunday I did a children’s message and tried to make it almost all visual and tactile, asking the children to look around and up at the stained glass and touch the old wood of the communion table, etc. I did this because just being there evoked such memories of my childhood in an old Methodist church in the Midwest. The sacred symbols captured my imagination.

“I fear evangelicals have lost any imagination they might once have had.”

• • •

Folks, what are we doing?

I’ll be honest with you. There are moments when I think we are losing our very humanity, sacrificing on the altar of pragmatism and “cool” those elements of life that sink deep and draw out the water of life from our hearts.

And if Skye Jethani’s daughter’s observations mean anything, we may be sacrificing our children on that altar as well.




  1. That is a very interesting story. I do wonder though, if some of the differences in the child’s descriptions are maybe due to familiarity (or lack thereof). I was raised in typical non-denominational “Bible” churches but I recently attended a Lutheran church. I was totally in awe of all the symbolism, much like the little girl. But I wonder if that awe wears off after a while when you’ve see it week after week. I guess maybe the church calendar helps keep things different.

    I definitely agree thought that if there is something that is going to be different or noticeable about a service, it’s much better that it be things like the cross, a Bible, and Communion that make it different rather than how load the music is and how good the light show is.

    • I suppose that it can “wear off,” so to speak if we don’t keep paying attention. I recently retired as a pastor from a church where I participated in three services each Sunday–two identical and the third a bit different. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer in all three every week–and I prayed the prayer each time, each with a different experience/reaction every Sunday. I do not remember being particularly “moved” each time, but I prayed as Jesus taught us to pray. The same could be said about other elements of worship, especially Communion–we observed that Sacrament once a month. I have heard some say in the past (not in my last congregation) that if we “take Communion” too often, it loses its significance. To which some have responded, that doesn’t happen with eating meals–if we don’t eat, we die eventually. Apply that to Communion and, really, to all else in worship. We worship a God who comes to us even in the familiar, seemingly rote experiences as we do. We never know how that might happen–hence our need to pay attention and let our imaginations be stimulated.

      Back to the Lord’s Prayer–a few years ago, I visited an 83 year-old man one last time before he died. He was still very much “with it.” As I was leaving, I asked if I could pray with him. He said, “Let me pray,” and proceeded to pray the Lord’s Prayer, noting that he had prayed that prayer every day for a number of years. Needless to say, I was both moved and humbled. by the long-term affect of praying the Lord’s Prayer on him.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      I spent my childhood (up until about 7th grade) in Catholic and Episcopalian churches. No matter how many times I went to a given church, I always was fascinated by the stained glass windows, or banners with the symbols of the 12 Apostles, or the statues, or the Book of Common Prayer (I remember as a 6-year-old flipping through the BCP and wondering why we always said the Nicene Creed but never the Apostles’ Creed in the Sunday Service), or even the hymnal (I always wanted to get to the hymn numbers when we started singing, so I’d make little bookmarks for them out of the bulletin before the service). My favorite part about being an acolyte when I was older was that I got to wear the robe like the priest did. When I was little, I didn’t get preaching. I knew Jesus was important and that God both loved me and wanted me to be good, but I didn’t get the gospel. But I KNOW the high church art and elements made a huge impression on me. Shoot, I can STILL picture some of the things from my grandparents’ churches over 20 years later.

      Yeah, it makes a huge difference.

  2. Pam Burns says

    This article reminded me of my own faith journey. When my aunt asked me to be godmother to her infant daughter (my age was 12 or 13!) I went into her Episcopal church from my Methodist church with a great deal of awe and wonder. We had a little liturgy in my church but I absolutely loved the liturgy, prayer book, Eucharist, and beauty of the more traditional Episcopal church. Unconsciously I searched for that church throughout my life, first in the Lutheran, then Episcopal, and now Anglican church. Children can be awestruck and do see God in the loveliness of traditional worship, stain glass windows and reverent actions. This is not to say that all mega churches are bad. I have seen beautiful worship and music and great sermons and acts of love in those congregations too, however, if we throw out all symbolism of the church and all majesty and awe in favor of being seeker sensitive I believe we miss the mark and underestimate God’s power to draw all men to Him when the name of Jesus is upheld.

  3. Kelby Carlson says

    Speaking from someone who’s blind… all of this is true, even for a non-sighted person. IF anything, it’s worse on us, because at your average evangelical megachurch you won’t get the kind of sound you would at a liturgical church. It makes quite a difference.

    • Thanks for this contribution Kelby. I had not thought of it from that angle.

      • Kelby Carlson says

        I’d like to clarify a little bit as to why I like a liturgical atmosphere better. I acknowledge that I probably miss a lot of what is going on (which is why I try to read as much as I can about liturgical orders of service.) But I am actually able to become part of the church in a significant way much more easily at a liturgical church. One example, and as a musician this has always frustrated me. Oftentimes worship music in evangelical churches is either so loud or in such an awful key that no one is singing (or, at least, you can’t hear them.) As someone who primarily relies on hearing, this is actually kind of a big deal for me, because it completely negates the idea of the church as body, as community. The churches I’ve been too that have liturgically-oriented services generally also have a great deal of congregational participation. This allows me to become truly a part of the church–in hearing and responding to the word, in praying, in singing–than I ever can at a typical evangelical church. I know much of this probably applies to lots of people, but as a blind person I feel some of these things quite acutely. (Don’t even get me started on how I hate evangelical talk about “healing”–that’s another rant for another time.)

        • I’m not blind, Kelby, but I know at least part of what you mean. At the churches with the huge sound systems and ten-person bands, I have felt battered by sound — more as if I were standing in the middle of I95 at commuting time than as if I were in church. I know there are people who feel energized by the big sound, but I’m not one of them.

          • ‘Zactly!

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            At the churches with the huge sound systems and ten-person bands, I have felt battered by sound — more as if I were standing in the middle of I95 at commuting time than as if I were in church.

            May as well drop a tab of Ecstasy, suck on a sweetened pacifier, and start swinging those glowsticks.

  4. “We are all legal brief and grocery list and no fairy tale.”

    I have been enjoying your writing so much lately, Chaplain Mike. This sentence I quoted from you above and your recent humor pieces were great. And your “My View of Scripture (at this point)” post was wonderful. I think you have more than enough for a book. Your writings on “Genesis” and “Ruth” alone would take a good chunk of the book.

  5. David C. says

    Mike, you have nailed it. We have become a warehouse for the individual culture instead of joining the angels in heaven in our worship.

  6. Symbols can be sacramental and also demonic. As a freshman in college, I wrote an essay on how oppressive was the atmosphere in the nearby Newman Center. Three years later, I was in that same chapel, standing in a circle with my Catholic friends and the priest, celebrating the Eucharist. Nothing had changed inside the building, but something changed inside me. The symbols in that place took on a whole new, bright, mysterious meaning. I never became a Catholic, but I became part of that community through my friends – a community which held those symbols to be sacred.

    Symbols have meaning within a faith community; you can’t fill a room with symbols and hope each individual will find at least one of them meaningful or worshipful. Symbols alone cannot unit us; but the ultimate concern which seizes us through those symbols can.

    If we look more closely into pragmatism, we will find that there, too, are symbols (even Christian symbols), but which are used to draw us to a very different ultimate concern: one of idolatry and narcissism.

  7. I bet that second church considers itself very hip and cool, and makes vaguely condescending posts on facebook about Christians who just don’t get the need to “re-think Church.”

  8. You know, I’ve never quite understood the desire to eschew and rid our churches (and the Church) of symbols. Any decent psychologist will point out that humans are intrinsically symbolic beings. We assign and use symbols on a daily basis, even if we are unawares of it; it is part of how the brain functions.

    So why would anyone want to take out these symbols- which are imbued with a sacred meaning- out of churches is beyond me. These things point to something beyond ourselves. If one does a little bit of research many of these symbols- from architecture to images to vestments to even hand gestures- are based on revelations that were given to the Prophets and to St. John concerning the worship in Heaven. If we are people of the Heavenly Kingdom, should we not strive to worship “on earth as it is in Heaven”?

    I am reminded of the story of the conversion of Russia to Christianity. The Russian king sent out emissaries to examine the religions of the world, to find one appropriate for him and his people to adopt. After a long time of travel they arrived in Constantinople. There they watched on the Liturgy held in the Hagia Sophia. When they returned they said, “Surely there is no place like it. We knew not whether we were in Heaven or earth; all we know is that there, God dwells among men.” It makes one wonder over what we are doing to our sacred spaces when go to worship and no longer enter Heaven.

  9. Wonderful post. Church B is all about the consumption of the individual. That’s what it’s set up for. That’s why “cool” is about as deep as it will get. Church A is the opposite. Its symbols and mystery that are offered not for our consumption but so that we might be at least drawn to be consumed by the great story and by the One that they point to, and so become a part of it. In short, it both points us and draws us to something other than ourselves.

    But look at evangelicalism and you’ll see that we’ve almost completely lost what church A offers and compels us to. It’s one of the reason I’m in the wilderness….

  10. Symbols are part of what distinguishes us from animals. They emerge from within our dreams and imaginations and draw us to something bigger. They challenge us to expand. The cross, the fish, the serpent, the mandala (cricle of life) and countless others speak of realities that we poke at with infant fingers. The serpent, for example, is the symbol for Christ as well as Satan. Jesus is the ram and the lamb. He is the pearl of great price and the cornerstone of the temple. New Jerusalem cannot be reduced to an urban revival. It is symbolic of a new dynamic in the relationship of God and humanity and is too big to put in a box of pragmatism. Symbols are rich and embued with magnetism as opposed to idols which define only themselves and point no further.

  11. Adrienne says

    Thank you, Thank you Chaplain Mike ~ this is a “sore subject” for me. I live in a very conservative area. In the “church/Christian realm” they are very suspicious of anything “different”. I cannot tell you how beaten down I have felt for being curious, being a reader of other books in addition to the Bible, asking questions and on and on. The first time in my life that I visited a “bible church” it was like culture shock seeing such plainness. No color, no statues, no vestments etc. Plain sanctuary and so on. I asked if they had a library. Having been directed to a darkened, unused classroom I found a table with piles of dusty books and a box of index cards. I checked out a book and went back to the pew to await the start of the service. A grey haired lady carrying her Bible walked past, stopped, came back to me and asked what THAT was, pointing to the book on top of my Bible. I told her it was a book from their library. “Oh”, she said, “Just don’t be bringing any propaganda in here!” I later learned that she was the “prayer warrior” in the church.

    I have been criticized for wearing a brightly colored raincoat. Yes, really. After being at a new job for a few weeks IN A LIBRARY I was asked, rather critically, why I was so curious. IN A LIBRARY! When I responded with something like well, I like to learn, I got a very cool response. It boggles my mind how “religious” people can look around at nature and all the vast variety of colors, birds, flowers, trees, etc. and think that God only approves of black and white. (Of course in this area they do allow for the sky, you will see bumper stickers saying God Loves Penn State. He made the sky blue and white). Or that He has this cookie cutter that just makes all church goers exactly the same. Uniformity is the name of the game. It is suffocating I assure you. Why can’t we understand that God is ALWAYS telling us His story and about Himself if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus Himself constantly used nature to teach spiritual lessons. I have heard missionaries who come back on furlough say that they “feel” the oppression in this area in the religious community. When will we acknowledge that one of the greatest gifts God gave IS the imagination!!

    So now I am attending a Lutheran Church where there are stained glass windows, majestic classical Christian music, colorful altar cloths, banners, vestments and so on. ALL telling the greatest story ever told. And people come dressed in a variety of clothing, colors, styles etc. And everyone is welcome. Kind of like God’s house don’t you think??

  12. Why would any Christian attend a church that does not even have a cross?
    I cannot understand that. Enlighten me, please.


    • Because of the great family programs and facilities and they like the preacher.

      Not saying I agree, but it is fundamentally a consumer decision. We are Americans and we reward those organizations that meet our needs without much thought at all to the underlying morality or basis for the thing.

      I will never forget talking to someone who was livid about Bank of America ripping off taxpayers. When I suggested they stop using Bank of America, the answer I got was “but they’ve got convenient ATMs.”

      It is no surprise that this person is a member of the local mega-bible-fellowship church.

      • I myself attend such a church. We rent, they wouldn’t let us. Or they would for a fuss. And then there’s actually our lack of interest in a cross on the wall. Is there really a need for one? Yes, such details look good, comforting, they inspire, but isn’t there a danger lying within? The very message of Christianity buried in mere symbols? In my church there’s a replacement for the liturgy – there’s the brief thoughts on the daily Scripture reading that almost everybody shares. We do not need a cross as long as the very Word of God is at the reach of everybody. They would look good but would anybody explain why is there a need for them? I don’t want to be offensive, I sincerely wait for an explanation.
        PS: No, my church is not a “consumerist” church. No fancy lights, no ten man band, no personalized giving envelopes.

        • That Guy says

          Any time you use letters to communicate words you are using symbols, are you not?

        • Teodor,

          Without symbols that don’t use words, you are running the risk of losing those whom words are strange, or hard to understand. You are at the risk of losing those who need beauty to help connect with God. Even last evening, at Mass, I took pleasure in seeing how the shadow of one of the candle sticks formed a cross on the wall. I might try sitting on that side of the parish again, just to see it if happens again.

          One source for portable crosses that you might want to consider are Catholic supply houses. Either a processional cross or one that sits on the altar would allow your church to have one, without it being permanent.

        • Your church doesn’t sound anything like the church I was describing, which has a ten or twenty million dollar facility, who knows how many praise bands, a coffee shop, bookstore, cappuccino machines in the youth area and so on. Sorry for the miscommunication.

          Anyway, is the the Bible itself not a symbol? Is not Christ symbolic? Did Jesus not use many symbols and speak in symbolic language? If I am not a symbolic sheep, then I am typing with my hooves. 🙂

          My question would be the inverse: What is so threatening about symbols that they must be removed?

    • Tom C, it may be that some take the Second Commandment, no graven images, more literally than others do. Or it may be an anti-Catholic thing. For example, my Baptist church does have a bare cross up front, but no dead Jesus hanging on it (sorry, Martha).

      The problem is, where do we stop? Do we forbid communion in our churches because the bread and wine can be considered images, or symbols of Christ? Certainly not, because Christ directed us to take wine and eat bread in remembrance of him. So the reason for the Second Commandment must be that we not worship the images.

      But for some, the easiest way to avoid false worship is to avoid any image at all. Incidentally, the Salvation Army does avoid communion, because their early converts were down-and-outers who needed to stay away from the wine/beer/whiskey; and because it was thought that taking communion might reinforce a good-works salvation in them.

      I guess I can’t answer your question for others, but I hope that the churches without crosses have good reasons and are not merely over-reacting. That too can become idolatrous.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        But for some, the easiest way to avoid false worship is to avoid any image at all.

        Mullah Omar, the Wahabi, and Talibani would agree. (Wahabi mosques are plain whitewashed, with NO decoration whatsoever. Only quotations from the Koran calligraphed in black on the plain white walls. Just like what Calvin did to the churches of Geneva.)

  13. One more Mike says

    ?We are good at stimulating certain surface emotions, bad at arousing deep thought and evoking wonder.

    If people begin to think deeply they may question the playbook, and wonder if “GRACE” really means “God Really Arranges Conditions Enthusiastically”. There’s no need to evoke wonder, put your hands in the air and lose yourself in the endless praise choruses and you’ll have all the wonder you need. Now get your eyes back on the big screen, close that bible and stop all that thinking and questioning before you turn into a Lutheran, or (shudder) a Catholic.

  14. Your description of the effects of the church growth movement reads like a description of our entire culture. The Church just reflects what it’s looking at. We are conformed to the world around us, not to Christ.

  15. I’ve never thought about how a child perceives a church service. I didn’t go to church as a child, but I do recall a particular service at a Holy Roller church. I was mesmerized. There was a lot of solo guitar playing and people getting saved. It left its mark on me. If I think about attending my church now through the eyes of a child, I’m not too sure that I would have the same impression. It might seem like at home, with a little larger tv and significantly less entertaining programming.

  16. We love our church, but one of our struggles as a family has been that our oldest daughter (6 years), has expressed the feeling that “church is boring.” This isn’t a passive expression, because at times this has digressed into crying and screaming.

    Discussing our struggle more narrowly, we have tried to understand what she is trying to tell us. In part, its the feeling that church is sometimes too much like school. You sit and you listen. Or conversely, you color pictures. It’s boring. Hey, if I was six years old, that would be boring to me as well. From her perspective, it must seem that God is alot like learning writing or arithmatic.

    I honestly don’t know what I am suggesting here, other than I wish there was a way, that I could share the wonder and beauty of God with my girls and bring them to a point of curiousity. I don’t doubt that our children’s workers are doing their best and I do value their devotion. but I can’t help but feel that there should be something more.

    • Church can be pretty boring for us adults too, sometimes. Luckily I don’t have to cry and scream if I don’t feel like going 🙂

      Maybe she could sit with some other children? Our daughter used to leave us the moment we entered church and go find her friends. Then she’d be back after services.

      I am not sure if this suggestion qualifies as heresy, bad advice or simply dumb, but I also resolved (coming from a background where I was beaten down by the church as a child) to never ever force my daughter to go to church or participate in a church activity.

      Now she’s the one demanding that Mom and Dad get moving on Sunday morning to go to church 🙂

      • Question: Maybe she could sit with some other children?

        I think that this is part of the problem. She still doesn’t have any good friends at church. Hopefully, when this changes, it will make it easier, and yet I still empathize with her complaint.

        If she was older and able to stay at home by herself, I might be willing to consider leaving her at home, but that will have to wait another ten years. For now, we’ve explained to her all of the reasons why church is important to mama and papa, and we’ve basically told her that this is something that is non-negotiable.

        Let me just say in response to Chaplain Mike, that the challenge that he lays down for churches, is not just a challenge for churches, it’s really a challenge for all of us as parents. How do we make God more about poetry instead of prose, how do we arouse deep thought and wonder, etc, etc. I think its easy to throw rocks at the church on this account, and yet, I wonder if I am doing any better at these things as a parent. More than experience these things at church, my kids need to experience these things at home in their everyday life. More than seeing relationship with Jesus, as being a one day of the week transcendant experience, I want them to experience the wonder of Jesus every day.

        I know that we talk alot about living an authentic faith here in I-Monk, but there is no more difficult arena for authenticity than with own kids, who see us, truly as we are.

        • Good thoughts, DB. I think one of the best ways we found for encouraging imagination was to read aloud to our kids.

        • DB: I have four daughters and spent many years struggling in and with church. For seven years they even had to attend church in a foreign language. One thing that helped was to make sure they were invested and educated about what was going on. We would sometimes sing hymns and songs at home that were often sung at church, to the point that they knew them by heart. Then they seemed more enthusiastic about joining in loudly (if off pitch!). We showed them how to use the hymnal and Bible. If we knew the Bible text beforehand we would read it at home in preparation. I had the girls memorize some familiar passages, like the Beatitudes and psalms, that would come up during services. We’ve also read through catechisms and creeds at the dinner table and discussed them at the level appropriate to their ages. With all of this preparation, the girls felt like “experts” at church. They heard things they already knew — sometimes better than some of the adults knew them — and got excited about participating.

          This didn’t always work, of course, and we didn’t always do the best job preparing them. But the preparation has helped, and all four of them — from 21 to 12 — now love church.

          One other challenge is to really believe that worshiping God is in fact “fun” and stimulating and natural for children and adults. It’s too easy to absorb the culture’s assumption that church is dull. Our children sense that assumption and act accordingly. Then parents sympathize with their children’s disgruntlement (perhaps they secretly share it) and the problem spirals. If there’s one thing our culture gets wrong, it’s children.

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