Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons that Connect

Preaching in Pictures

According to Peter Jonker, preachers that do not avail themselves of the power of images are foolhardy in today’s culture. Preaching in Pictures1 comes out of the Reformed Christian tradition. Jonker advises using a controlling image as an alternative / adjunct to the traditional use of a controlling theme in homiletical development. He invites preachers to find the image that speaks most resonantly with both them and their congregation at the beginning of the sermon crafting process, in order that their sermons generate vision that “cuts people to the heart” (5). He suggests a four-step method for elucidating the dominant image’s metaphors to the text: (a) find trouble in the text, (b) find trouble in the world, (c) find God’s action in the text, and (d) find God’s action in the world.

The controlling image anchors the sermon at all points within the narrative flow (26). Jonker draws on the poets’ process of profoundly meditating on a single chosen image, using it to evoke powerful sensations and associated emotions, painting metaphorical word pictures with it, which touch the imagination and propel us to look beneath the surface of everyday life and contemplate deeper existential realities (chap. 3). Jonker also draws from visual artist experience and shows how a strong image puts people in a story, which allows the viewer to project themselves out of their present lives into an imagined future.

To find a controlling image, Jonker suggests that preachers either: (a) use the linear steps of the lectio divina: get physically quiet and spiritually centered, read the text aloud multiple times and listen for a word, and—imagining yourself in the narrative—focus on that word and muse on it; or (b) use the non-linear poetic method of metaphorically walking through the field of the text and see what “burrs” stick to you (the preacher). Once “caught” by the image, in either methodology, Jonker suggests that the details of the image be explored, specifically with the images’: (a) sensual nature (what sensations it evokes, e.g. looks like, smells like, etc.), (b) emotive nature (what feelings it evokes), and (c) thoughtful nature (what one thinks about their sensations and feelings as they contemplate it). He then advises matching the image to the theme of the sermon, “making the move from the abstract to the concrete” (90), always considering the theological and social context of the hearers (chap. 5). Images on screens can be either denotative (educational, informative), or connotative (touching the viewers’ imagination and raising deeper questions). In that vein, he admonishes against long video clips, as they can carry the viewer away from the plot of the sermon and into the plot of the film. In conclusion, the use of controlling images, Jonker says, is what Jesus (figuratively) did (chap. 6).

Jonker practically advises keeping physically projected imagery simple. When quarried for material, just a single short film clip will prevent losing the audience’s focus (onto the film’s plot), and maintain an atmosphere of bi-directional dialogue between film and preacher or film and audience, like Timothy Cargal suggests.2 Jonker does not, however, stress the “willful suspension of disbelief” that Cargal does, and I believe this is to the detriment of Jonker’s goal. Jonker’s argument about how the controlling image should be “substantial” and anchor all the points of the sermon as it grounds the narrative flow (26-29) is reminiscent of Sunggu Yang’s points in “Preaching to Episodics,”3 but unfortunately, less well developed. Paul Tillich, quoted by both Jonker and Yang, speaks to such spiritual “depth” in “The Lost Dimension in Religion,”4 comparing existential everyday life realities to a horizontal plane and deep spiritual concerns to a vertical plane, showing how symbols and images powerfully move between the two and facilitate spiritual exploration. Similarly, Wilson Yates claims that only after a robust theological dialogue has ensued—between the artist, the (contextualized) art piece, and the knowledgeable theological interpreter—can deep existential meaning emerge from an image.5

My grandest accolade is that Jonker splits with his series editor Paul Scott Wilson and suggests people actually prefer images of trouble (sin) over grace, as “the darkness of trouble sets the grace in relief” (46). This is in line with Tillich’s insistence that good art begins with the ordinary, but simultaneously displays creativity and destruction, breaking through fantastical idealism, and returning us to ultimate existential concerns.6 Jonker’s insistence that shadows and darkness set grace and light in relief also resonates with Mircae Eliade’s concept of how myth and symbol, in religion, oblige a marriage of the sacred and profane.7 Tillich says: “The bad, the negative, cannot live without the positive which it distorts.”8 More poetically, Catherine Keller writes: “there’s so much more to see / In our darkest places.”9

Jonker’s positions of an interventionist God, theological dualism (for Jonker, it is either trouble or grace), and lack of space for mystery / chaos / chance and any blending of good and evil, limits the message he “preaches.” How can there be any mystery if God will always come and save the day? How can we be co-creative, at the very least—“with God,”—as we focus on a controlling image and use our imaginations if the preacher interprets the image for us (with deductive-inductive preaching)? In contrast, Catherine Keller’s concept of theopoiesis, as “God-making,” discounts ‘God’s action in the world,’ and places humanity squarely in the responsibility of caring for our world, from a more authentically theopoetic or post-Tillichian process approach.10 Similarly, Yang invites preachers into a numen-participatory aesthetical homiletical style, wherein we each participate in the divine process, via logos, ethos, and pathos.11 Therefore, Jonker’s “trouble in the text” (20) would benefit from existential expansion, to poignantly allow the connotative depth (110-111) of the controlling image to move hearers who are caught up by their present troubles into deeper theological questions, a la Tillich’s Ultimate Concern.12 Similarly, I believe preachers who work with their congregant’s own “dynamics of faith,” rather than prescribe belief via an inductive approach, are likely to be more transformative to their congregants.

Despite these criticisms, I found Preaching in Pictures extremely helpful, as I myself am a visual and poetic artist. Peter Jonker seemed to have a reasonable handle on poetic theory and visual arts, and how to apply it to the sermon writing process (e.g. the imaginative work he prescribes throughout the book) and the pulpit (e.g. use strong verbs, etcetera) in very practical ways. I just wish he hadn’t been so beholden to his own view of “God,” and more “ubi-ductive” (Yang) in his approach to sermon crafting and preaching.


W. F. Marterre, Jr., M.D.

MDiv Candidate, Wake Forest University School of Divinity


  1. Peter Jonker, Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons That Connect, The Artistry of Preaching Series (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015). 
  2. Timothy B. Cargal, Hearing a Film, Seeing a Sermon: Preaching and Popular Movies (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). 
  3. Sunggu Yang, “A Homiletical Project: ‘A Critical Methodology for Preaching to the Episodic Congregation,’” 2010; Presented at the Academy of Homiletics. 
  4. Paul Tillich, “The Lost Dimension in Religion,” Saturday Evening Post, June 14, 1958. 
  5. Wilson Yates, “Theology and the Arts after Seventy Years: Toward a Dialogical Approach,” Society for the Arts in Religion and Theological Studies 26, no. 3 (2014),
  6. Paul Tillich, “Art as a ‘Locus Theologicus,’” in Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, ed. Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 209–17. 
  7. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987). 
  8. Paul Tillich, On Art and Architecture, ed. Jane Dillenberger and John Dillenberger (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 109. 
  9. Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement, Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 316. 
  10. Catherine Keller, “The Cloud of the Impossible” (Feminist Theology, Cosmology and Cusa Conference, Harvard University, March 22, 2007),
  11. Sunggu Yang, “Homiletical Aesthetics:  A Paradigmatic Proposal for Holistic Experience of Preaching,” 2015; Presented at the Academy of Homiletics. 
  12. Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957). 

Categories: (W) Book Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: