Power of Metaphor
Convergence 2004: Global Positioning for the Soul
By: Spencer Burke
This article is a continuation from last week’s column.

In the book I also rely heavily on metaphor. My co-author, Colleen Pepper, and I illustrate the shifts happening in the church by suggesting new metaphors. This too, challenges the tell-assertive person’s way of knowing.

One of the things I love about metaphors is that they’re open to interpretation. They invite people to interact and fill in the imagery for themselves. Metaphors let us move beyond steps, statistics, strategies and structures and invite collaboration-in the same way questions provoke a personal response.

In the book, when we suggest that evangelism needs to draw its inspired from the image of a gardener, readers are invited to make that connection in their own mind’s eye. They bring their own concept of gardening with them. They make applications that are theirs and theirs alone. Sure, we try to help get the process started by suggesting some of the reasons we’ve chosen the gardener image, but soon, the material begins to speak to readers in their own language. Once individuals have a picture in mind, they begin to wrestle with the implications for themselves. They apply the image in their own way.

Metaphor and story also take the heart into account in a way that a formal argument does not. I think back to a few years ago when I attended a spiritual retreat. I remember being horrified when the speaker announced that Bible-reading wasn’t going to be part of the morning’s activities. Instead, we were just going to be with God and rest in God’s presence. What?!! What kind of retreat didn’t involved Bible reading? But the speaker was smart. He knew that if I were allowed to take a Bible, I would hide in it. I wouldn’t have to “own” anything. I could keep my spirituality at a safe, theoretical level. I wouldn’t have to dialogue with God.

Through that weekend I learned that spiritual disciplines can actually be sin. A good three-point sermon would tell me that reading my Bible, praying and witnessing are important-no matter what. The focus is on results. (i.e. Do these things because God said so.) Ask-assertive positioning adds the critical “Why?” and therefore gets to the heart of the issue.

In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about giving to the needy and praying-two things that almost everyone knows Christians should do. And yet what does Jesus say? It’s possible to do these very right things for very wrong reasons. To look good, to look righteous, to look important and all the rest. In Matthew 23, Jesus is even more clear. Here we find the famous woes of Scripture: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

And on and on Jesus goes, pointing out that the why (the heart) is just as important as the what (the action). Metaphor can help keep the two in balance.


The other thing I like about the ask-assertive approach is that it opens up new possibilities for action-possibilities that may surprise everyone.

When you have a tell-assertive approach, you already know what you want to tell people. You’ve already found “the answers” so to speak, and now you’re simply packaging them. Consequently, you not only limit collaboration, you limit the possible resulting actions as well.

Why do we see so many stylistic changes in the church? Because the answers have been determined without asking any fundamental questions. The future actions are limited to surface-level tweaking. It’s the “Here’s a problem, let’s fix it,” approach. Asking why the problem exists often doesn’t factor into the equation. As a result, we settle for evolution, rather than revolution.

Conversely, ask-assertive people aren’t afraid to see how far the rabbit hole goes. In fact, they need the freedom to be able to dialogue on that level. What appears to be endless questioning can actually lead to breakthrough results.

I think about ETREK collaborative learning groups. That initiative would never have begun if a series of fundamental questions regarding learning hadn’t been asked. The need for lifelong, collaborative, facilitative and student-focused learning might have been overlooked.

ETREK was born out of what appeared, at first, to be a series of questions:

*How do grades encourage learning?

*How does one graduate in the context of lifelong learning?

*Why do students have to pull up roots and leave their communities in order to learn?

*What would it mean if classes were facilitated rather than taught?

*How do peers fit into the learning model-can we learn as much from our peers as our ‘teachers’?

Who knew that those questions-if pursued over time–would lead to a new learning model and ultimately, innovative partnerships with Fuller Seminary and Biblical Theological Seminary? But the reality is powerful questions can lead to powerful actions. Had I started out saying, “Gee, I’d like to start a program,” we wouldn’t have ended up with collaborative learning groups that can be offered at local seminaries.

The danger in writing an article like this, of course, is that it becomes used as a how-to piece. “Oh, being tell-assertive people is bad,” concludes the reader. “I need to appear more ask-assertive.”


I simply want to draw your attention to a possible conflict-perhaps give you some insight into the struggles you’re already facing in communicating with others. In fact, I’d love to hear more about your experiences in tell-assertive and ask-assertive environments. What are seeing in your community? What questions are you asking? How are those questions leading you to unexpected answers? You can write to me at spencer@theooze.com.

Spencer is one of the Keynote speakers at EBA’s upcoming Convergence 2004, held at Prince of Peace, September 21-23. For more information on the Convergence click here.

Spencer Burke is the creator of TheOoze.com, author of “Making Sense of Church”, and co-founder of Damah – short film festival – “Spiritual Experiences in Film”.