“There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor,” writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson has observed. “You can’t think without metaphors.”
One example of a toxic metaphor came during a recent address by former Southern Baptist Convention president Bobby Welch. Speaking during the FAITH evangelism luncheon held during last week’s SBC annual meeting, Welch urged those present to be “hunting dogs” ready to “get out of the house and do some huntin’!”
“We’ve got the hunting dogs in this room,” Welch stated. “Lap dogs are those little dogs that stay in the house, sleep on the bed and shiver when it gets cold. You have to feed them certain things, pet them a certain way, and when they go out of the house, they’re scared to death.
“But hunting dogs are the ones who live in the yard, always ready to go,” Welch continued. “They’ll eat whatever you throw out to them and appreciate it. They’re never happier than when they are in the back of the truck, heading out to the woods to see what they can track down.”
In Welch’s metaphor, evangelists are supposed to be hunting dogs. Evangelism is hunting, and the lost are prey to be trailed, cornered and bagged.
The problem with this metaphor is that it compares evangelism–literally “sharing good news”–to killing an animal. This is an unhealthy and inaccurate way of depicting evangelism. We should not try to hound people until we can coerce them into believing. Instead we need to befriend them, perhaps more akin to what a lap dog might do.
Some might argue this is simply rhetoric, but the metaphors we use reveal a lot about what our values and the way we see the world. The whole point of using a metaphor is to provide a deeper insight.
In their influential book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that a “metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words.” Metaphors, they say, impact not only “how we perceive” and “how we think” but also “what we do.” The metaphors we use really do shape our lives.
Using a metaphor offers insight into how a person thinks and acts. Welch’s “hunting dog” metaphor thus provides important clues about his evangelistic strategy: Christians should be aggressive and unrelenting.
Yet Jesus did not point and yell at sinners (just religious leaders), but rather lovingly invited them to come and follow him.
Another problem with Welch’s “hunting dog” view of evangelism is that it minimizes the importance of the person being witnessed to. Converts are reduced to trophies on a wall.
Evangelism is done not out of love toward the person but to bring glory to the evangelist. Thus, this metaphor reverses the focus of attention away from the biblical example of concern for others.
Welch has used violent metaphors for evangelism before. During an address to the SBC Executive Committee while president of the SBC, he compared evangelism to an elephant hunt.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that what [Southern Baptists] are saying is, ‘We want to go on an elephant hunt,'” Welch claimed. “They’re tired of chasing squirrels and rabbits and birds. They’ve done that. They want to go on an elephant hunt.”
On top of presenting evangelism as an act of aggression, that metaphor added a colonial mindset. Welch boasted of having actually participated in big-game hunting in Africa. This metaphor is perhaps even more troubling than the “hunting dog” one, because here the lost person is dehumanized.
Welch used war metaphors to describe evangelism in his book, You, the Warrior Leader: Applying Military Strategy for Victorious Spiritual Warfare, published by the SBC’s Broadman & Holman.
“This is blood-and-guts, dirt-and-mud warfare–crawling from trench to trench, house-to-house, person-to-person–all for the purpose of rescuing the perishing or caring for the dying,” Welch wrote.
“The Warrior Leader is like me and countless thousands of other believers, who have stood knee-deep in carcasses and blood of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, marriages, families, futures, homes and churches, to say nothing of our dear nation,” Welch wrote. “The Warrior Leader will not stand by, because he is a Christian who is convinced beyond a doubt that we are in a blood-and-guts battle for souls.”
The use of such violent metaphors to describe the act of sharing the love of Jesus is inappropriate. It drives away people who might otherwise be open to hearing about God.
It is time for Christians to put aside metaphors of hunting dogs, elephant hunts and bloody wars. We need to instead emphasize the love of Jesus and express our sincere concern for all people. We also need to offer open dialogue and a loving invitation.
And above all, we need to get rid of those doggone toxic metaphors.
Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.
Click here to order Brian Kaylor’s book For God’s Sake Shut Up!: Lessons for Christians on How to Speak Effectively and When to Remain Silent from Amazon.com.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.