Leave a comment

Passing on the Faith

In a sermon series called “Family Matters,” we wanted to talk about the importance of passing on the faith to the next generation. But we also wanted to share some of the results of a Family Needs Survey the congregation had taken a few months before. The results of this survey showed a sense of isolation between the generations, along with the express need of figuring out how to pass on the faith to children in the home. Since the sermon was intended to deal with how we see ourselves, and how we think we are supposed to be in relationship to faith and to other people, conceptual metaphor theory was a natural place to turn.

Here’s the sermon. You can watch it and then read the description, or read the description and then view the sermon, or watch it several times and share it with all your friends . . . the idea is merely to see how the basic moves of metaphor theory show up in real life preaching.


The basic sermon structure explores the topic in terms of two primary images. The tools of metaphor theory help shape the presentation of both of these primary images. You can read more about the four metaphor moves for preaching here. They include Evoke the Source, Map to the Target, Test the Limits, and See Through a New Lens.

Intro: The Biblical Text

The sermon introduces the broad theme by referencing two of the readings in worship that morning, Judges 2:10 and 2 Timothy 1:5. The texts bring up the concept of passing on the faith; the question becomes, what does that look like? How do we imagine how this passing on the faith is supposed to take place?

Getting volunteers from five different generations already helps establish the target domain of the two metaphors of the sermon. Here metonymy is playing a supporting role to metaphor. The part (an individual) is standing in for the whole (the people in the same life-stage as the individual). The target domain is therefore not only the individual volunteers and their relationships, but all of the people in various generations in the congregation. Metaphor and metonymy often tag team like that.

Image #1: Passing the Baton

Evoke the Source

In our conceptual system, ABSTRACT CONCEPTS ARE PHYSICAL OBJECTS. The properties, expectations, and inferences involved in how we manipulate physical objects transfer to the way we think about concepts like FAITH. So it is a small step to go from Physical Objects in general to batons in particular.

The relay race gives a concrete situation with readily-identifiable goals within which we can reason about the manipulation of physical objects. Actually running a mock race on the clock (and people did want to know which service “won”) helps move the reasoning from the brain into the body (where metaphorical reasoning often begins in the first place).

paper_rollMap to the Target

In many ways, the mapping is implicit. We are talking about passing on the faith from one generation to the next, and I referenced the individuals and their age group as I set up the race. The baton is the faith that is passed on; the individuals are standing in for the generations. American Christians in the 20th century will typically identify the end of the race as “dying and going to heaven,” but the point of this sermon is not to refocus our attention on the return of Christ, so I let that inference stay sublimated.

See Through a New Lens/Test the Limits

The inferences related to physical objects and faith formation are not sufficient, but they also aren’t entirely wrong. We often need multiple metaphors for the same thing because all metaphors both highlight and hide important aspects of any target domain.

At this point in the sermon, I think through the inferences of this image with the congregation. I notice what is right and what this image tends to hide. Thinking through the implications is Seeing Through a New Lens; noticing what the image downplays is Testing the Limits. So a personal connection with the Gospel is highlighted; that’s good. An ongoing communal aspect of faith formation is hidden; that’s bad.

Here I also bring in some of the results of the Family Needs Survey we took as a congregation several months previous. I chose individuals from age-ranges that were important to the results of the survey (I think this helped the alignment of the metaphor seem obvious and natural) and some of the most important results of the survey fit with the way we ended the relay race: a sense of isolation was prevalent in the survey, and expressed physically in the sermon.

The different generations ended the relay race isolated from each other. Because PHYSICAL PROXIMITY IS EMOTIONAL/RELATIONAL PROXIMITY in our conceptual system (think, “We’re really close,” or “we just seem to have drifted apart…”), the inference within the metaphor of the relay race is very strong. We may naturally understand our faith walk as a team effort in the passing the baton metaphor, but it also leaves us isolated from one another.

Image #2: On the Rope

Evoke the Source

In the second primary image of the sermon, the same five volunteers/generations change their activity and therefore the way we think about passing on the faith. I talk about mountain climbing, but we also do it together, the physical activity evoking the source in a tangible way. The rudiments of the source domain are present: travelers, dangerous landscape, caribiners, a rope, a direction, movement along a path, etc.

Map to the Target

Explicit mapping to the target is limited in the second image just as in the first. At this turn of the sermon, we have made an important change “behind the scenes,” as it were: we have moved from ABSTRACT CONCEPTS ARE PHYSICAL OBJECTS to LIFE IS A JOURNEY.

Both are a part of our culturally-shaped conceptual system and both will tend to go unnoticed, but they shape our inferences in profoundly different ways. You don’t do or expect the same kinds of things on a journey as you do when you are manipulating a physical object. The differences between these two conceptual systems are the heart of the dynamics of the sermon.

See Through a New Lens

On the Rope

Different inferences about how faith relationships work are presented in medias res; while the generations walk around together, I point out different aspects of the source domain that help us reason about the target. The strong inference of this domain is that we need each other—the journey of faith is intended to be communal. This move gives us a different way of imagining the rather isolating task of “passing on” the physical object of “the faith.”

One of the most important changes in how we view the task of faith formation comes in how we view each other. In the physical object/baton domain, the “passing on” only happens in one direction, with very defined roles, in a very limited time frame.

Within the mountain climbing domain, however, the generations are asked to identify one another as people who depend on us, but also people on whom we depend. The passing on of faith becomes mutual dependence. And the timeframe is expanded from a moment of transition to a lifetime of journeying.

The caribiner and the rope give us a way to keep the individual aspect of the faith (each person is individually connected to the rope) and also keep the communal aspect (being individually connected to the rope means by definition being connected to other people on the rope.) The natural inferences of being on the rope naturally fight the tendency toward isolation experienced in the lives of the congregation.


Returning to the text, we view the multi-generational faith Paul describes in a new way. Paul uses the domain of fire in the text; I briefly talk about fire from within the dynamics of the rest of the sermon.

I close the sermon with the admission that we didn’t really talk about concrete action items to change the way we pass on the faith. But I actually do believe that acting different comes from seeing yourself and your life in a new way. If we as a Church see our faith as a journey on which we are tied to other Christians (whether we like it or not), what kinds of actions will seem obvious or natural? Will we be able to get past the isolation that has crept into our experience of faith? This sermon intends to be not the end, but the beginning of discovering those kinds of answers.

Special thanks to Mr. Rick Darragh for shooting video, to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s depart for use of climbing equipment, and to my Mother-in-law for the empty paper towel roll.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: