Outreach and Journey

 Conceptual Metaphor in Speaking of Jesus, Part 3

Speaking of Jesus intends to move Christians beyond thinking of non-Christians as “the enemy” and of salvation as “crossing a boundary line;” instead, Medearis wants people not only to speak of, but also to follow Jesus. This view of the Christian faith—faith as following Jesus—inherently embodies a different set of assumptions and inferences about “outreach” and “outsiders” than either the WARFARE or CONTAINER metaphors we have seen so far (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog entry). The way Medearis suggests we think about (and talk to) non-Christians is much more in line with the culturally established conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY.


Just like ARGUMENT IS WAR or A SOCIAL GROUP IS A CONTAINER, LIFE IS A JOURNEY is not a metaphor Medearis is making up in order to make his point. On the contrary, the basic structure, mappings, and inferences relating the source domain of Journey to the domain of Living Life is already part of our culturally-shaped conceptual metaphor system. George Lakoff and Mark Turner describe LIFE IS A JOURNEY:

To understand life as a journey is to have in mind, consciously or more likely unconsciously, a correspondence between a traveler and a person living a life, the road traveled and the “course” of a lifetime, a starting point and the time of birth, and so on . . . This knowledge has a skeletal structure rich enough to distinguish journeys from other kinds of activities, but not so rich as to rule out any particular kind of journey.[1]

This “skeletal structure” provides the necessary players and relationships[2] for drawing inferences and conclusions within the way of viewing the world:

travelers → people leading a life

motion along the way → leading a life

destination(s) → purpose(s) of life

different paths to one’s destination(s) → different means of achieving one’s purpose(s)

distance covered along the way → progress made in life

locations along the way → stages in life

guides along the way → helpers or counselors in life[3]

What we know about how things work in a typical journey informs how we evaluate, predict, and reason about how things work in life. We can make progress or get off track in life. We can take the scenic route or get stuck in a dead end relationship in life. We can reach our destination, get on the fast track, or experience a train wreck in life.

If you have any doubt that you think metaphorically or that a culture’s metaphors affect your life, take a good look at the details of [Life is a Journey] and at how your life and the lives of those around you are affected by it every day.  As you do so, recall that there are cultures around the world in which this metaphor does not exist; in those cultures people just live their lives, and the very idea of being without direction or missing the boat, of being held back or getting bogged down in life, would make no sense.[4]

The relationship of guide to the person on a journey is one of the component parts that belong to the broader conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY. This relationship is especially important for the way the New Testament uses the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. Jesus, for example, begins a relationship with His inner circle by saying, “Follow me.” His teaching on discipleship again and again refers to “coming after,” “following,” or knowing/walking in “the way.” Disciples are also called “followers” and the first Christians were known as “followers of the Way.” The word “disciple” itself entails following a specific person around in order to be more like him.[5]

The DISCIPLESHIP IS A JOURNEY metaphor is common in our Christian way of talking, thinking, and acting; it is a metaphor we “know well.” But knowing a metaphor means “to know the systematic mappings between a source and a target.  It is not suggested that this happens in a conscious manner.  This knowledge is largely unconscious, and it is only for the purposes of analysis that we bring the mappings to awareness.”[6]

We might map the DISCIPLESHIP IS A JOURNEY metaphor something like the following:

travelers → followers of Jesus, disciples, Christians

motion along the way → growth in Christian faith and life

motion along a difficult, narrow path → living out your faith in challenging circumstances

destination(s) → eternal destiny, presence of the Father/heaven/new creation (or hell)

uniqueness of the path → only one means of achieving the desired outcome

choices among paths → possibility of orienting your life toward or away from Jesus

guides along the way → Jesus as the One who both knows and is the Way

Depending on the specific context of the Bible verse at hand, the biblical version of LIFE IS A JOURNEY will have a variety of nuances and variations in inference structure. One of the most consistent and important implications, however, is that the person living a life needs Jesus as guide if they hope to reach their desired destination. That relationship of follower to Jesus is at the heart of how Medearis envisions and embodies not only discipleship, but also outreach.

Speaking of Jesus

In contrast to the circle with the dots on the inside and the outside, Medearis suggests relating the dots not to a boundary, but to a person, to Jesus at the center:

Find another dot, a dot really close to the Jesus dot, and name it “Carl Medearis.” Just kidding. I wanted to see if you were reading or skimming. Anyway, instead of measuring the distance between you and Jesus, make a little arrow from the dot, and point it toward Jesus. You’re following Jesus. Find another dot, somebody you know is trying to follow Jesus too. Make another little arrow. Continue. As you go, you’ll notice a pattern of attraction. Instead of a theologically manufactured, doctrinally approved boundary, there is only the space between the person and Jesus (68).

The shift from viewing the dots in relationship to the boundary line to viewing the dots in relationship to another dot is a fundamental change in perception and evaluation. Any boundary issue takes a back seat to the relationship to (and distance from) the person of Jesus. This Christocentric approach to the way we think about “outsiders” allows us to set aside boundary issues (for the moment), to lay down the defensive strategies we use to protect ourselves from attack, and to engage the other with the person of Jesus. What is most important is not how far a person is away from Jesus, but which direction they are pointed. Instead of crossing a boundary, people on the “outside” are asked to pursue a new orientation, a new direction, a direction defined by the person and work of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Follow Me.” It doesn’t get much more basic than that, does it? So who decides the “if” and “when” of Peter and Andrew’s salvation? Does it matter? (70).

Instead of trying to define the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, we point to Jesus. We don’t have to “own up to” Christendom this way. We simply follow Jesus (72).

All I have to do is speak of Jesus and He will draw people to Himself (89).

Discipleship is a journey that requires change, whereas evangelism is just information (126).

A journey entails movement and direction. A journey can also begin at any geographical point, though some points are closer to the end goal than others. The journey metaphor therefore allows for the fact that unbelievers may well be “far away” from the kinds of lifestyles, thought, and habits that inform the Christian life, but the response to this reality is not to point out the boundary lines, but to introduce them to Jesus. Any life, no matter how far from our concept of life inside the kingdom, any life can be oriented toward Jesus. Or not.

By challenging the way we think of outsiders, Medearis is also challenging the way we typically view our own Christian walk. It is one thing to be safely on the right side of the battle line, to be inside the Christian “container.” It is quite another actually to be oriented towards and actively following Jesus.

Jesus says, “I am the way.” Why do we read this to mean Jesus knows the way or Jesus shows the way? (70).

Often, instead of actually following Jesus, we’re trying to do all the things Christianity tells us, hoping to come out in the same place as Jesus (71).

Here Medearis is exploring the difference between doing the kinds of things that exemplify a social group, i.e. boundary behaviors, and the dynamics of following a guide on a journey. LIFE IS A JOURNEY helps us make the inference that following a guide is more than wearing the same kind of hiking boots or even walking in the same general direction. If we don’t know the way, we will not reach the destination without following more carefully than that! And at the same time, inviting someone to join the journey necessarily means introducing them first and foremost to the guide (though the discussion of hiking boots may certainly come up).

In the context of inviting non-believers to follow Jesus with us rather than first getting them to cross the “Christian boundaries,” however we define them, Medearis refers to a friend of his. This man would be considered a Muslim, at least culturally, but he had also already begun to orient his life toward the person and teaching of Jesus.  At this point in the book, Medearis makes a statement that clearly shows the hidden power of the structure of metaphor. If you read from within the structure of A SOCIAL GROUP IS A CONTAINER, the statement says one thing; if you read it within LIFE IS A JOURNEY, it says something completely different. In fact, there is a good reason for confusion on this point, but first, the statement:

He may be a Muslim, but he’s right where Jesus wants him (145).

I think I know what Medearis is saying, but I admit, this is challenging and a bit difficult. I think the point is to let Jesus worry about whether this guy is in the kingdom or not.

On further reflection, this sentence is really only problematic from within the Container metaphor: according to the logic inherent in the metaphor, if container A is not in container B, THEN anything in container A is NOT in container B. In other words, if “Muslim” and “Christian” are different containers, then you can’t be in both at the same time (unless one container is inside the other).

Now, according to the JOURNEY metaphor, you could be a culturally-tagged “Muslim” and be following Jesus, as long as your orientation has changed and you are moving in a new direction. According to the Container metaphor, however, you cannot be in the “Muslim” container and the “Christian” container at the same time, so the idea seems nonsensical. The alternative, from a CONTAINER perspective, is to widen the container “Christian” to include “Muslim,” which either counts as Universalism or an attack on the boundary lines of the container. (Of course, an attack on a boundary is an act of war which evokes anger, defense mechanisms, and counter-attack. How did you react when you read that sentence the first time?)

“He may be a Muslim, but he’s right where Jesus wants him” wants to be heard within the Journey metaphor, where anyone can “be” anywhere on the journey and still be oriented towards Jesus. The specific language Medearis uses, however, evokes the Container structure and therefore makes the statement harder to receive. First of all, to “be a Muslim” sounds like a boundary definition that fits the Container metaphor. Secondly, to be in a specific, static place, “right where Jesus wants him,” is not to be on a journey because there is no movement. Things in a container on the other hand, are at (and remain at) a specific location.

So because of the metaphors we have already as part of our conceptual system, “He may be a Muslim, but he’s right where Jesus wants him” sounds like “He may be in the Container of Muslim, and Jesus wants him to stay in the Muslim container.” I think Medearis means, “He may culturally share characteristics that are often used to define Muslims, however, he is now oriented toward Jesus and moving in the direction Jesus wants.” Evoking movement evokes journey, and the structure of the JOURNEY metaphor changes how the statement is heard and understood.

In fact, even in the Christocentric diagram Medearis suggests, there is an inherent lack of movement. Jesus is placed “at the center” because of a different conceptual metaphor in our way of thinking (IMPORTANT IS CENTRAL). But in the JOURNEY frame, Jesus would be more likely to be at the front of a moving group rather in the center of a static circle. Darrell L. Guder captures something of that vision with a diagram in his book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. The point is not to explain the intricacies of Guder’s illustration; simply note the fact that following Jesus entails constant purposeful and directional movement. For the disciple, standing still is moving farther away from Jesus.


When Carl Medearis set out to write his book Speaking of Jesus, he didn’t intend to write a treatise on metaphor. But because conceptual metaphor shapes not only the way we talk, but the way we perceive our place in the world and the actions we view as natural or appropriate, Speaking of Jesus gives us insight into the way we most often think about people outside of a faith relationship with Jesus.

Knowing our own most natural tendencies, however, is only part of the way forward. Because of how we are wired culturally, we will without much thought at all default to speaking, thinking, and acting as if non-Christians are enemies who belong in a different container. Whenever we introduce others to the Gospel from within these cultural lenses, we will constantly find ourselves defaulting to actions and attitudes that hinder communication.

The good news is, changing the lens through which we view our own discipleship will automatically lead toward a different way of seeing and communicating with those who are not yet oriented toward Jesus. As we begin to see our own faith as a process, a journey on which we need Jesus every day, an ongoing commitment to orient and reorient our lives to following Him—as we change the way we see our relationship with Jesus, we will change the way we see Jesus’ relationship to those who are not yet following.

Medearis sees the move away from the battle field, where we have to defend both Jesus and the Church, as freeing and empowering. Medearis sees the move away from a container mentality, where boundaries are more important than following, as more faithful to the Gospel and more Christocentric. Medearis thinks the way forward for Christian witness is learning to follow Jesus and inviting others to do the same. Metaphor theory helps explain why I think he is absolutely right.

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 61.

[2] Again, see Rossow, 2009 for a discussion of the narrative structure of metaphor.

[3] Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 123.    Presenting a list of mappings with this “equivalent arrow notation” helps make the direction from the source domain to the target domain more evident.  What is still lacking, however, is any representation of the structural relationships between elements within the same domain.  How destinations relate to purposes in life is clear; but how do destinations relate to travelers or guides?

[4] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 63.

[5] According to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, for example, the word “disciple” in common Greek usage of Jesus’ day would have included both a “process” and a “personal relationship” in its meaning (416); the process is the “journey,” the personal relationship is the relationship to a “guide.” For a few of the specific uses of “following” and “way” language in the NT, see a the following as examples: Matthew 4:19-22; Matthew 7:14; Matthew 9:9; Matthew 10:38; Luke 9:57ff.; John 10:27; John 14:6; John 21:19; Acts 22:41 Corinthians 1:12.

The JOURNEY metaphor is much bigger than individual sentences, however, and can even be seen at the level of the structure of Mark’s Gospel, a major thematic device in Luke, the recapitulation of the OT journey of the people of God in Matthew or Hebrews or even 1 Peter, who writes to the elect exiles of the diaspora. For more on the JOURNEY theme, see The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.

[6] Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9.

About Justin Rossow

Justin writes and talks at the intersection of Scripture, culture, and metaphor theory. As founder of Next Step Press, he helps people delight in taking a next step following Jesus.

3 comments on “Outreach and Journey

  1. […] the “in vs. out” container thinking we often fall back on. For more, see the article Outreach and Journey or the sermon Invitation to the Discipleship […]

  2. […] with.” Now that’s an approach to outsiders I could get on board with. That’s an approach to non-believers that sounds like Jesus spending […]

  3. […] with.” Now that’s an approach to outsiders I could get on board with. That’s an approach to non-believers that sounds like Jesus spending […]

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