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What We’re Learning: Awakening Our Imagination

By Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

At Vibrant Faith we’re always talking with ministry leaders—here are the common questions we’re hearing right now, as the uncertainty of our post-pandemic (?) challenges settle in… 

  • Will families come back to our programs? 
  • How much bandwidth do our people have in terms of time and mental energy? 
  • Getting volunteers before was no picnic before the pandemic, NOW will it be almost impossible?  
  • Do we mask or not-mask, do we separate the vaccinated from the not- vaccinated?
  • Families have so much on their plates! How can we possibly expect them to engage their children around faith too?
  • We’re wrestling with many difficult topics—do people of all ages have the capability and attention span to lean into them?
  • We’ve all been through A LOT—are there targeted resources that focus on what we’ve just experienced?
  • Our people are showing signs of serious struggles with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues—do we just set that aside and and plan Bible studies and events as usual?   

It’s almost as if God is giving us time to stop and think before we go back to faith-formation as we’ve always practiced it. So, with this precious time to reset, what will we do differently?

Dr. Patrick Manning, Chair of the Department of Pastoral Theology at Seton Hall University, offers a practical and profound way forward in his new book Converting the Imagination:Teaching to Recover Jesus’ Vision for Fullness of Life. Manning offers a methodology for developing patterns of discipleship and faith formation in our post-pandemic reality.

A Methodology for Forming Faith
Manning has developed a methodology for teaching the Christian faith based on the recognition that “human cognition has patterns.” That means that the framework of how we learn faith is and always has been a God-created process built into how we think. And, says Manning, we’ve been teaching and discipling in ways that just don’t take enough of the human experience into account.

Manning holds up Jesus’s example of teaching in the parables as our most important template—uniquely suited for the challenges we face in helping people whole-heartedly follow and love Jesus today. He asserts that Jesus’ teaching did three things again and again: 1) Stimulated his listener’s imagination, 2) Challenged their accustomed ways of seeing things, and 3) Invited a new way of seeing.  

Building on the patterns of Jesus’ teaching, Manning articulates his methodology for learning the faith based on noted insights into cognition—our God-given brain function. He notes that: “1. Thought first emerges from sense experiences as mental images. 2. Our thoughts are then refined by reasoning and conceptualization. 3. Thoughts return to MENTAL IMAGES that guide subsequent actions.”  

Step 1: Stimulating the Imagination
Manning highlights “stimulating the imagination” as a critical door-opener for people to engage and explore new ideas. This insight is even MORE essential as people emerge from “this present darkness” with stories and experiences of loss, overcoming, and unexpected beauty. For Manning, stimulating the imagination translates to “immersing people in their own experiences, tapping into the reality of what learners know.”  

At Vibrant Faith we had the opportunity to connect with Manning shortly before his book was released—he had become a fan of our Visual Faith Project, which uses images to kick-start a spiritual discovery process. Manning believes images are a key to this first step of stimulating the imagination, because “they provide a greater pull on our attention than words, AND they immediately help us make mental connections to our own stories and experiences.”  

In addition (and we know this from brain studies as well), in Manning’s methodology it’s important to connect the way we use images to emotional awareness. We “see” in the emotional center of our brain. Again, this emotional connection is essential to any real learning taking place. Emotions help the focus of the exercise to be shifted from the teacher to the learner, and emotions contribute to resilient learning.

Since “Stimulating the Imagination” is an essential way to address the many questions raised in our congregations right now, here are a few ideas to help you get started…  

TRY: Send images of everyday things to people of all ages and ask just a couple of questions about the images, tied to their critical questions about life right now. Give people a way to tell about and share their experiences. (Psst! We have a new resource coming out later this month that will help you connect with those around you using images! It’s called Visual Faith Digital. Stay tuned for a big announcement about that soon.)

TRY:  Ask people where they see God in a photograph—this can help them locate God’s presence in their life.  

TRY:  Share a line or two about the power of images to parents over the next six weeks, along with an image each week (paired with a question or two) for them to use with their children.   

TRY: Use gathering opportunities to help people process their emotions and experiences of the last year by using images—ask feeling-focused questions.  

TRY: Ask people to use images to pray together—for example, “What need in your own soul does this image surface in you?” 

TRY: Focus on stimulating imaginations this fall. Let that be enough.  

We’d LOVE to hear from you about your experiences. Please share them in the comments below. 

In the next post, I’ll tackle Steps 2 and 3 of Manning’s SEE methodology. Those steps develop new ways of thinking by helping people re-frame their feelings and experiences. Manning’s goal is big: He says this learning process creates “habits of a new interiority—new habits of imagining that will enable people to construct meaning in whatever situation they find themselves.”  

But our people really can’t take in Jesus’s vision for fullness of life unless we have done the foundational work to help them learn to find a frame of reference through their own experiences first. God is giving us a unique opportunity to focus our discipling and formational ministries on just that. 

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.

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