Why You’re Missing the Mark on Metaphor And What To Do About It

If you’re like me, you were educated to make an argument by framing a proposition with statistical and anecdotal supporting evidence. While facts aren’t bad, the key to powerful communication is not analysis but the use of metaphors common to shared community life.

The Main Points

  • 01

    Our first knowledge of anything is immediate, sensory, and metaphorical.

  • 02

    Metaphors are more than just a way to learn. They are at the root of all language.

  • 03

    But rather than simply clearing a path to an unfettered truth, metaphors actually influence our understanding.

  • 04

    The most affective and meaningful experiences come from our engagement with core visual metaphors.


Woven: A Sermon Series Based on a Core Visual Metaphor

See an example of metaphor in worship: Click here

Metaphors are the basis for our first knowledge.


While teaching on the importance of metaphor in storytelling to a group of pastors and church leaders, someone asked me to define the word. Off-hand, I replied,

Metaphor is a tangible way of expressing an abstract story, thought, or idea.

My teaching colleague Jason Moore and I liked it so much we later put this definition in a book we co-wrote entitled Design Matters: Creating Powerful Imagery for Worship (Abingdon, 2006). We wrote:

“Few beings or things seem more abstract than a God somewhere “up there.” Perhaps that’s why God repeatedly shows up in the Bible through metaphor, from a burning bush to a pillar of cloud and, ultimately, as a Body. Even after God comes Incarnate in Jesus, God’s Spirit appears as a dove, or tongues of fire, or a rushing wind. The stories of faith in God are told with and through metaphor. This ancient wisdom wasn’t limited to God’s people, either. Aristotle wrote in 322 BC, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.”

Data is abstract, but metaphors are embodied. Metaphors use the comparative power of the known to help us approach the unknown. They embody the idea, and they come first.

Our external physical experiences are at work unconsciously priming our internal beliefs in a phenomenon that cognitive scientists call embodied cognition.Douglas Van Praet

I’ve been advocating the use of metaphors to preachers and church leaders for years. Some have adapted their preaching style and have come to realize the power of metaphor. Others claim to but in fact are only using metaphor as rhetorical ornamentation – a fancy way to prove the point.

That’s because to say that metaphor creates a path to comprehension is only the start. It’s actually much more powerful than that.

Three Reasons Metaphor Is a Great Communication Tool

  • Connector.

    It makes the message easier to understand

    When there are elements of a story or idea that are hard to understand, or there is language that doesn’t make sense, metaphor opens a door to surprising possibilities and connections. Metaphorical thinking is key to creativity and innovation.

  • Connector.

    It is the glue that makes the idea stick

    This glue, retention, is another reason to use metaphor. When you compare concepts to known ideas and images, people process and remember the idea much longer than they would have otherwise.

  • Connector.

    It was Jesus’ model for public ministry

    Mark 4:33 says that Jesus did not say anything to the crowds without using a parable, such as the image of the mustard seed. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. Jesus didn’t tell parables as an alternative for the dumb ones in the crowd. Metaphors were Jesus’ exclusive public method.

For more on using metaphors in design, read my book, co-authored with Jason Moore, titled Design Matters: Creating Powerful Imagery for Worship (Abingdon, 2006).

Metaphor is the root of cognition.


A common tendency when using metaphor in preaching and storytelling is to seek direct equivalents, or 1:1 maps, using a new image to directly explain an existing concept. But metaphor isn’t just a means to illustrate concepts.

Notice two words in my definition at the top. The first is tangible.

In his book The Master and His Emissary, brain researcher and polymath Iain McGilchrist writes that every thought we have is rooted in metaphor.

“Any one thing can be understood only in terms of another thing, and ultimately that must come down to something that is experienced outside the system of signs, or in other words from the body. The very words which form the building blocks of explicit thought are themselves all originally metaphors, grounded in the human body and in experience.”

All language begins in the world of experience, which comes out of the right brain. Our first encounters are immediate, right-brained and sensory. The left-brain creates detached, abstract categories and labels which help cognition. We need these categories, which help us remove ourselves from the immediacy of experience and allow us to gain control over our senses.

While initially helpful, however, these linguistic references to real-world experiences gradually move from the right-brain world of sensory experience to the left-brain world of analysis. Over time, these words, or re-presentations, become abstract. They lose their embodied origins and become part of a complex web of references that we call language.

With that loss is a concomitant loss of meaning. Eventually we abandon the word and its embodied root as irrelevant, or in an effort to capture meaning, we carry the concept back to the right-brain sensory world, and the way we do this is via metaphor, which is rooted in bodily experience.

Metaphor does more than make an idea easier to understand; it influences the idea.


This may sound like a linear process, but it’s not. It’s dynamic. This brings me to the second word of my definition above, which is express. This is the power of the creative context that metaphor provides.

Part of the power of metaphor is a open linguistic exploration. It has the ability to suggest multiple meanings and to compare meanings. It has divergent qualities. Fundamentally, McGilchrist writes, metaphor not only reflects meaning; it forms meaning:

“A metaphor asserts a common life that is experienced in the body of the one who makes it, and the separation is only present at the linguistic level. Our sense of the commonality of the two ideas, perceptions or entities does not lie in a post hoc derivation of something abstracted from each of them, which is found on subsequent comparison to be similar, or even one and the same thing; but rather on a single concrete, kinesthetic experience more fundamental than either, and from which they in turn are derived.”

Metaphor is so powerful as to shape our meaning-making capabilities. Perhaps this is why personal charisma and metaphor are so closely linked. As children of the Enlightenment, we might like to think that we’re above such influences. I can hear the pushback now: “I am not a victim of marketing! I am able to think rationally about concepts and come to my own reasoned conclusions!”

But if we think that, we’re deluding ourselves. McGilchrist writes about metaphors,

“You can’t pin one idea down so it doesn’t move, while the other is drawn towards it; they must draw towards each other.”

In one study, participants were much more likely to recommend police-based solutions when crime rates were described using the word “beast” instead of the word “virus.” The study’s participants didn’t even recognize the impact that word choice made on them, either – study subjects almost universally pointed to facts when evidencing their decisions.

In one study, participants were much more likely to recommend police-based solutions when crime rates were described using the word “beast” instead of the word “virus.”

Perhaps this is frightening, and the temptation is to retreat to the supposed rigidity of language. But there is no such thing. In other words, our metaphor choices change our understanding of the idea to which they compare. I am not implying truth is subjective; I am however suggesting that our understanding of objective truth filters through the metaphors of our sensory experience.

As McGilchrist reminds us, language is itself composed of metaphors – just old, stale ones. The more we adhere to the idea that there is a pure expression of truth, the more likely we are to be blind to the impact of metaphor in our communication. Perhaps, then, we can find as much clarity of intent with a metaphor or image as we can with language.

For example, as Bill McClung Jr. recently wrote on Facebook, instead of a “mission statement,” perhaps your organization might find more clarity and meaning with a “mission story” or “mission image.”

We aren’t moved but facts and figures, but by stories and metaphors. The challenge is to re-engage our labels and files in order to give them real-life context, and this is affective – it involves our entire heart, soul, and mind. It’s about art, not data.

The use of core visual metaphors is our best opportunity to create meaningful experiences which lead to real learning.


Part of my professional life involves working with pastors and creative arts teams to help identify concepts for sermons and worship experiences. The primary medium I’ve used is the screen, with projected images in worship spaces. My team and I extend the images we use on worship screens to print collateral, online space, and so on.

I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings and in live gatherings where images of some sort are utilized. In 20 years of this sort of work, I can summarize the vast majority of what I have seen thusly:

For the vast majority of Christian communicators, the ideal attribute for their visual imagery in worship is that it be inoffensive.

The best most church professionals can summon about such images is that they “not be a distraction.” The result, a mundane world of nature scenes, praying people postures and abstract, moving colors, has no significance. We may succeeding in keeping the peace, but who cares? We’ve missed an incredible opportunity to communicate.

Our semiotic goals are puny. We can do more.

Woven: A Sermon Series Exploring the Idea of Mutual Transformation

One service I designed with a team focused on the mutually transformative power of missional living. This is church-speak for the basic idea that you are helped when you help others. In other words, instead of monetary or time-based transactions, perhaps when you sponsor a person or organization, or go on a mission trip to a foreign land, part of the real power to make the world better happens when you live in community with people and are yourself changed by the experience.

Discussions about the concept revealed a weaving image, which I heard our mission pastor use in his speech about the goals for his ministry area.

Here’s the metaphor we produced to help people experience the power of this concept.


Thematic Video

Here is the opening video I produced for the series, which quotes Walt Whitman. We used it to set up the metaphor for the three-week worship series. Notice that it is affective and not explicit or didactic. This is not a teaching video. It’s an invitation to join in on an exploration of the metaphor of weaving to understand the body of Christ.

Print Collateral

We extended the imagery throughout the worship series as introductory branding imagery for other short films and stories and as art for our bulletins and printed material. We made a brochure highlighting various stories of our global mission ministry. Here is a collection of our print collateral.

woven-print-collateral

Participation

In what is perhaps the most remembered element of the series, we also put together an interactive board in our large gathering space to invite people to help do their own weaving as a sign of their participation in the missional community. The words woven were plotted with nails in a connect-the-dots pattern. The basket in the picture below is full of cards containing scripture verses, each with a string wrapped around it. People used the strand to help make the exhibit image, by tying one end to a nail and stringing it along other nails that composed the word “Woven.”

Peachtree Woven Exhibit


It’s time we get past our unthinking association that facts equals truth. Not only are metaphors more compelling than data, they can be truer as well.

Think about the embodied nature of metaphors in view of a God who became incarnate. If metaphors are embodied, as McGilchrist points out, then God made ultimate use of our need to use the known to understand the unknown through the Incarnation itself. We know God through the embodied Christ.

What incarnational, sensory image captures your idea today?

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).