Let me come right out and say it: The future belongs to right-brain leaders and right-brain communicators.
I’m neither a brain surgeon nor the son of a brain surgeon, but my bookshelves are filled with books on neurology. Nothing in the universe is more fascinating to me than the three pounds of gray matter housed within the human cranium. I think the human mind is the magnum opus of God’s creative genius.
Neurologists subdivide the brain into regions that are responsible for a variety of neurological functions. The visual cortex handles all input from the optic nerve. The posterior hippocampus stores spatial memory. The medial ventral prefrontal cortex is the seat of humor. Whether you’re humming a hit from the ’80s, solving a Sudoku or interpreting facial expressions, a unique part of the brain is responsible for performing those functions.
The brain is also divided into two hemispheres: the right brain and left brain. Those two hemispheres are connected by approximately 300 million nerve fibers, called the corpus collosum. Think of the two hemispheres of the brain as parallel processors. They certainly overlap in function. And this is a gross simplification of something that is divinely complex. But the left brain is the logical half of the brain. And the right brain is the creative half.
Now juxtapose brain topography with Matthew 22:37: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” (TNIV).
Loving God with half of your mind doesn’t cut it. Half-minded is no better than half-hearted. But many leaders are trying to lead and many preachers are trying to preach with half of their brain tied behind their back, so to speak. And it’s about as effective as running on one leg, clapping with one hand or twiddling one thumb!
When I zoom out and look at Church history, I see a focus on left-brain logic during the modern era. We learned systematic theology in seminary. We developed three-point sermons with alliterations in homiletics. And we learned how to put together an order of service in practical theology. And that’s all fine and good. There is nothing wrong with an order of service. Our sermons ought to be logical. And we’ve got to develop our theological paradigms. But the future belongs to whole-brain preachers who combine right-brain creativity with their left-brain training.
In his book, The Rise of Creative Class, Richard Florida says that fewer than 10 percent of Americans were doing creative work at the turn of the 20th century. A hundred years later, 33 percent of the American workforce gets paid for right-brain creativity. That rising percentage is evidence of the value we place on creativity.
The tectonic plates are shifting. The Industrial Age belonged to assembly line leaders. It was all about efficiency and quality. Good leaders were good managers. The Information Age belonged to file cabinet leaders. It was all about order and systems. Good leaders were good thinkers. The Imagination Age will belong to blank canvas leaders. It will be about creativity and originality. Good leaders will be good imagineers.
I think the greatest threat to the future of the Church is a failure of our God-given imaginations. The Church ought to be the most imaginative place on the planet. Imagination is part of the imago dei. To have the mind of Christ is to imagine like the one who originally imagined everything that is. No one should be more imaginative than Spirit-filled Christ followers!
C.S. Lewis is the patron saint of whole-brain preachers. Can you think of anyone in the last century who was more left-brain logical? His theological writings, from Mere Christianity to The Problem of Pain, are as logical as logic can be. But Lewis combined left-brain logic with right-brain creativity.
Lewis once referred to himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of Christendom.” The night before his conversion, Lewis had a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien, the novelist who wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien tried to convince Lewis of the credibility of Christ, but Lewis was full of objections. At one point, Tolkien countered Lewis’ objections by saying, “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part!”
Maybe lack of faith is really a failure of imagination?
In his book The Celtic Way, Ian Bradley writes about the celebration of the imagination in the Celtic tradition. “Celtic Christianity may offer us a lifeline in the form of an approach to faith which is rooted in imagination,” he writes. “Too many Christians today, brought up on the penny plain prose favored by Rome and even more by the Reformers, have half-formed imaginations.”
God wants to sanctify our imaginations and use them for His purposes! Too many of us do ministry out of memory. God calls us to do ministry out of imagination. We don’t have to do church the way it has always been done. There are ways of doing church that no one has thought of yet.
I recently read a fascinating study conducted by psychologist Daniel Berlyne. Berlyne studied the impact of art and found that what strikes us as good art is usually “a slight derivation from our expectations.”
Art that is too large a deviation from what we already know is considered bizarre. Art that fits our expectations perfectly is considered boring. Good art is somewhere in between. We like mild surprises that fall somewhere between boring and bizarre.
What most people consider to be great art is a modest change from the status quo. I think that has huge implications for the art of preaching. If I had to describe what I try to do with my sermons, I’d probably put it this way: I try to say old things in new ways. I try to come at truth from slightly different angles, almost like turning a kaleidoscope. Great preaching is a slight deviation from expectation.
In the words of Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul, “It’s my conviction that slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change.”
“Slight shifts in imagination” is what right-brain preaching is all about. So how do we produce slight shifts in imagination? Metaphors. Metaphors. Metaphors.
Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be the master of metaphor.” And no one was more masterful than Jesus. The parables are case studies in right-brain preaching. Hear them once and you’ll remember them forever. Why? Because Jesus used metaphors that created mental pictures in the right brain of His listeners.
One key to right-brain preaching is cross-pollination. You simply combine old ideas in new ways.
I recently did a series titled “The Physics of Faith.” I borrowed some basic laws of physics like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Bell’s Theorem and The Law of Entropy, and used them to talk about spiritual principles. Each message in that series was a scientific parable. Metaphors enable us to reframe truth in ways that are biblically accurate and culturally relevant.
For what it’s worth, cross-pollination gives you intellectual leverage. I’ve found that quoting Scripture gives me credibility with people who are churched. Non-biblical quotes give me credibility with people who are unchurched. When I reference a law of physics or quote Aristotle or cite a Fast Company article, the skeptics seem to understand.
Most pastors get A’s or B’s in biblical exegesis, but they get C’s and D’s in cultural exegesis. We ought to be getting straight A’s in both. Right-brain preachers are experts at cultural exegesis. They have their antennae up and radar on all the time.
Why did Jesus use agricultural metaphors in his parables? Because He lived in an agrarian society. He incarnated the truth in cognitive categories that His listeners could comprehend.
The 60 percent of Americans who don’t attend church get their theology from movies and music. We can bury our heads in the sand like ostriches or we can exegete culture and juxtapose it with Scripture. We can’t dumb the Gospel down to quick slogans or moral lessons that parallel those in a film or song. However, our culture shapes how we view the world and, subsequently, how we understand God. Using media in ministry does not limit; it enhances.
The parable of the wineskins is a good analogy when it comes to whole-brain preaching. Think of the wine as truth or sermon content. Think of the wineskin as relevance or sermon branding. We cannot afford to sacrifice truth for relevance or relevance for truth. Relevance without truth doesn’t quench our thirst because there is no substance. And truth without relevance spills all over the place because there is no container.
If we divorce biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis we end up with dysfunctional truth. Right-brain preachers must deliver biblical truth in culturally relevant containers.
The problem with left-brain-only sermons is that they are too predictable. One key to right-brain preaching is throwing curve balls or changeups. We’ve got to mix up our sermon delivery from time to time.
The first verse of Hebrews strikes me as a good definition of creative incarnation: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (TNIV). God doesn’t say the same thing the same way every time. He mixes it up. He finds new ways to say old things. The next verse says that “in these last days hH as spoken to us by his Son.” He didn’t use the old methods. He continued to be unpredictable.
When you examine how the Old Testament prophets communicated, it borders on the absurd. Jeremiah hid his belt in Perath. Hosea married a prostitute. And poor Ezekiel baked his bread over cow dung for 390 days. Wild and wacky stuff, but one thing is for sure: God is not a broken record. He loves to communicate in various ways.
So is right-brain preaching optional? Not if we’re serious about communicating like Christ. We’ve got to cross the corpus collosum. We’ve got preach sermons that are left-brain logical and right-brain creative.