Local churches are often struggling to survive at the precise moment they need to be creative. Week after week, services need to be planned, parishioners need to be visited, funerals need to be officiated and weddings performed. Pastors are often so consumed with the pressing weekly needs that looking toward the future feels like a luxury. Yet at its healthiest, the church has always been a place where people gather to create pathways toward serving God and neighbor.
The Imaginarium at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) is helping churches and communities recover the call toward creative ministry. Funded by the Lilly Endowment, the Imaginarium focuses on generating new ways of experiencing the Christian life with children, teenagers and young adults.
“So often the church focuses on how we might minister TO young people, and we are hoping to flip the script so that we are ministering WITH young people. This means a lot of intentional listening to young people. It means that we take seriously the priesthood of all believers, believing that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in everyone we encounter regardless of their age,” said Reverend Dr. Amanda Drury, Imaginarium director.
The Imaginarium has funded projects in all sorts of churches around the United States — offering funding, coaching, support and (honestly) a safe place to experiment without the fear of failure.
One embodiment of the Imaginarium’s mission is the Teen Responders Workshop. Acknowledging the challenges faced by teenagers and young adults, especially during the Advent season, this workshop provides a safe and supportive space for participants to explore mental health and coping strategies. Led by mental health professionals and licensed therapists, the workshop equipped attendees with essential skills to care for themselves and respond to their peers’ needs. The initiative not only offers practical tools but also acknowledges the importance of creating an environment where God’s presence is felt amid struggles.
Another striking innovation from the Imaginarium is the Advent Grief Box. The Advent season, which is often synonymous with joy and celebration, can be an emotionally arduous period for those who have lost loved ones. This is particularly true for teens and young adults. The Advent Grief Box serves as a beacon of solace, providing devotionals, activities and even an Advent candle, all crafted to invite God into the experience of grief rather than providing trite explanations. It represents a profound understanding that God meets individuals within their suffering, allowing them to engage with the Advent season authentically without the need to conceal their pain.
And these are just the first fruits of ongoing initiatives the Imaginarium is facilitating. Other initiatives are ongoing, such as the Young Adult Innovation Hub, which helps congregations build young adult teams who co-create fresh ways of loving God and neighbor in their community and the Strengthening Children Coordination Program, which pulls together churches and communities from all around the United States to imagine how adults and children can freshly engage with the gospel in their everyday rhythms and routines.
Central to the Imaginarium’s approach is the idea of fostering a missional imagination — an imaginative mindset that challenges the norms and dares to push beyond expected ways of doing church. This is not innovation for innovation’s sake, but a deliberate, purposeful quest to deepen connections with God and neighbors. The Imaginarium ignites a passion within congregations to be a potent force for good in their communities. It empowers them to transcend tradition’s confines, embarking on a mission to make a tangible, lasting impact.
Through its various initiatives, the Imaginarium engages in thorny problems with creativity and compassion — respecting the importance of Christian practices, while also offering the chance to reimagine how they can meet our cultural moment. As they continue partnering with local churches and communities of faith, they see the path toward vibrant churches leading through innovation, empathy and resilience; and they see the simple power of churches being invited (and funded) to get beyond the urgent and dream about the future.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of discipleship at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.