Metaphors are wonderful instruments in the hands of capable communicators. They help us envision the world in new and unexpected ways. Preaching employs metaphors to tease the imagination by which we encounter God without becoming reductive or piling up certitudes. There is a level of responsibility and care with which we should attend to our words in preaching, but we can and should communicate the gospel, through the power of the Spirit, via carefully crafted figurative language.

Some of the greatest preachers have mastered the art of figurative language. Barbara Brown Taylor, Gardner C. Taylor, Teresa Fry Brown, and Fred Craddock—to name a few—artistically pronounce the good news. Perhaps the most widely recognized and resonant voice from the twentieth century is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose preaching enlivened the imagination of a nation and emboldened significant political change.

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” penned during the historic American struggle for civil rights. The poetic cadence of this sentence alone grabs our attention, lodging itself in our memories. Dr. King utilized the prophet Amos’s prophetic words to advance the cause of social justice and energize others for cooperative engagement.

Even more astounding was Dr. King’s ability to use figurative language to communicate profound insights to both the powerful and the powerless—the power wielders and the marginalized. 

Dr. King, like so many African American preachers before and since, was adept at figurative language. He used images and words from the biblical text to shed new light on the fight for equality. Even more astounding was Dr. King’s ability to use figurative language to communicate profound insights to both the powerful and the powerless—the power wielders and the marginalized. That doesn’t mean everyone agreed with him, but his sermonic eloquence was hard to ignore. The biblical language and comparisons he drew wielded incredible power to reshape the American political landscape.

The power of figurative language is in its capacity to rename and redefine reality. Righteousness and justice are not, in reality, waters or streams. Yet the comparative simile in Dr. King’s proclamation operates to open new interpretive possibilities for the ways that justice and righteousness should operate in the community. Dr. King could captivate his audiences with his word pictures.

Resonance in preaching always depends on context. Using camels as a metaphorical image with an audience in West Texas, for example, might not carry the same powerful meaning that horses probably would. Figurative language is about contextualization. It provides us a method for re-narrating the big picture surrounding our lives through language, images, and comparisons that are familiar to us. I once used a fishing analogy from Luke 5 to talk about discipleship and evangelism in a sermon. Afterward, I received a note from a classmate that simply said, “I’m not a fisherman.” The analogy had failed to connect with this person because they had never fished. This experience gave me some insight into preachers like Dr. King: they are intentional about using figurative language that will connect with the specific experiences of their hearers. And indeed, in doing so, Dr. King was merely following the example set in the Gospels by Jesus himself.

Some think metaphors are most powerful when they target every person in the pew, but this approach only results in vague pronouncements containing statements like “everybody knows” or “everyone has experienced.” The assumption is that we reach everyone by speaking globally, generically, and without specific reference to any particular context. But, if you listen closely to the verbal virtuosos, you’ll find that they create metaphors by connecting their audience through particularity. Dr. King’s preaching employed metaphors that addressed specific problems: violent racism in Birmingham, working conditions and wages in Memphis, and equal rights under constitutional law on the Washington Mall.

Dr. King often utilized biblical language to tap into the social imaginations of people on both sides of the issues because there was a common reservoir of images, concepts, and metaphors. Today, however, our collective social knowledge of the Bible is much more limited, even among those raised in the church. This lack of familiarity with the scriptural narrative can sap a preacher’s biblical metaphors of their potency. Scriptural metaphors today require more development in order to have an appropriate evocative impact; we must carefully and respectfully translate biblical language, images, and metaphors into the common language of our culture.

Appropriate translation and use of figurative language in preaching today requires first that preachers know the cultural context into which they’re speaking—which can only be discovered by submersion. Listen to the stories of the parishioners. What do the industries, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears, demographics suggest about the community itself? My current context is rural and near a lake. Fishing, agriculture, and manual labor are familiar to many here. It doesn’t require much cultural translation from me for my people to connect with the fishing story from Luke 5. But other stories need more cultural translation.

Second, engage other voices. Read poets and other capable crafters of language. Listen to sermons that evoke rich interpretations of Scripture and context (I recommend Gardner C. Taylor). Read recent and new fiction, theology, economics, and politics. A wide variety of genres can give us further clues about what is happening in the larger culture that may be impacting our people. Engage voices that are varied and different from your own,hat challenge your way of seeing the world.

Finally, delight in the scriptural narrative. Saturate yourself in the story so you can see multiple angles, voices, persons. Faithful translation requires intimate comprehension. Read Scripture out loud. Chew on the stories, words, and images, allowing them to sit in your gut. Let the text unleash your imagination. What images, themes, and stories come to mind in connection with the text? These connections will elicit rich metaphors from your own experience as a lens through which to engage Scripture.

Preaching with figurative language is an important way to engage imaginations. With the right approach, careful effort, and attention to the context into which we speak, we can craft language that resonates with others’ experiences as we plumb the depths through particular, concrete human experiences.