Sharing the gospel through diverse metaphors and examples offers connection and relevance

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

I love using metaphors, proverbs, and analogies in my psychotherapy practice. When my clients describe their greatest hurts or display glimmers of healing, images of crashing waves and budding gardens take shape in my mind. We give names to anxiety and depression, describing their presence as a thick fog or static on an old television screen. I describe scenes from movie and TV show to illustrate the process of boundary setting and building self-esteem.

In response to these images and narratives, I am sometimes gifted with a deep exhale or a shy smile, signs that my words are resonating. But on some occasions, a clumsy metaphor brings confusion instead of clarity or an unfamiliar film reference forces me to make an awkward pivot. These moments remind me of the power of language to both bridge generational and cultural gaps and to amplify disconnection.

Language encompasses the stories we tell and the way we tell them; the symbols, metaphors and adages we use to make meaning of the world around us. Sometimes referred to as “Christian-ese,” the church has its own language full of terms and phrases that create a shared sense of identity. Words like sanctification, anointing, and fellowship are easily understood by those fluent in Christianese but can cause those unfamiliar with church culture to feel confused and disconnected.

Many believers have challenged churches to reduce linguistic barriers by explaining common church terms and using simpler words where possible. But as my experience with counseling clients reveals, communication is about a lot more than word choice.

Are we using metaphors and narratives that resonate with those around us? Are we painting meaningful pictures of concepts like grace and repentance that facilitate a deeper understanding of these realities? Paying attention to the relevance and resonance of our stories and analogies will help us deliver the gospel in languages that can be understood and received by those inside and outside our communities.

I’ve heard countless sermons using dating and marriage to highlight the intimate relationship we are invited to experience with Jesus. While this illustration is biblical and meaningful, as a single woman it doesn’t fully resonate with me or bring greater clarity to my own walk with Jesus.

However, I do know what it means to be loved and cared for in friendship. Framing my relationship with Jesus around a picture of friendship brings more clarity than a picture of marriage. If we use a wider variety of stories, illustrations, and metaphors in the communication of the gospel, we can invite more people with diverse experiences and perspectives to find themselves in the gospel narrative.  

Jesus was a master communicator and a skilled storyteller.

Using parables about fields carrying hidden treasures, merchants in search of fine pearls, and fishing nets cast into the sea, Jesus gave shape and form to the complex reality of the kingdom of heaven. When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus explained that the language of stories would resonate with his people. Stories would draw close the soft-hearted and illuminate the minds of those searching for truth. Jesus told many parables so that individuals from all walks of life could locate themselves in the grand narrative of the kingdom.

When Jesus likened the kingdom of heaven to leaven hidden in three measures of flour, I imagine a young mother remembering the bread she had baked that morning. Farmers might have nodded their heads in agreement as Jesus spoke about the results of good seeds being sown among weeds. With each metaphor came a new “lightbulb” moment and an invitation to engage more intimately with Jesus and his message of hope.

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” The gospel message was made to live and breathe within our hearts, so we must communicate its truth in the languages of those around us.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer living in Toronto, Ont. Read more from “Church of many cultures.”