What is a redemptive analogy?

Mission Briefing: Ideas shaping world mission outreach today

"Redemptive analogy: A practice or belief native to any given culture that distinctly parallels or illustrates the gospel." -- Hannah Sevedge Ahn

Missionaries Don and Carol Richardson seemed to be making no progress trying to share the Gospel with a Stone Age tribe in New Guinea. The discouraged young Canadians felt like giving up and moving to a different place.

Then one day, they watched a Sawi tribal chief make peace with an enemy tribe. To seal the peace pact, the chief gave his infant son to the other tribe. As the Richardsons listened to explanations of that solemn ceremony and its underlying meanings, parallels with the Gospel story jumped out at them. The Sawi needed to see that Jesus was God's "peace child" who has made lasting peace possible between humanity and its Creator. If the Sawi could wrap their minds around that idea, a spiritual leap forward might come.

The Richardsons did use that peace-making ceremony to explain the coming of Jesus into the world. The illustration from Sawi's own culture opened their eyes and then hearts. Members of the tribe began accepting Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

Don wrote a book about the Sawi spiritual awakening. Titled Peace Child, it became a best-seller, and Don followed up by producing a 30-minute dramatic film under the same title.

He began referring to the use of the Sawi peace-making ritual as a "redemptive analogy." He encouraged missionaries around the world to look for cultural rituals, folk beliefs, and tribal tales in which a parallel to one or more key elements of the Gospel could be seen. As Don Richardson reflected on the "redemptive analogy" concept, he became convinced that cultures everywhere contained starting points for Gospel proclamation. Such thinking reflects the time-honored strategy of using the known to teach the unknown.

The use of redemptive analogies does not reduce Divine Revelation to no more than those cultural parallels. Cultural traditions are not on the same level as inspired Scripture. Christian teachers and preachers simply use them to shine a light on God's unique Revelation so it can be truly understood.

Using redemptive analogies is not a mixing of different belief systems any more than Paul mixed religions together when he based a sermon on an altar erected by the people of Athens to the "Unknown God." The use of redemptive analogies does not mean all religions and ways of thinking have equal value. Rather, using redemptive analogies is simply a way of teaching biblical truth by starting with something familiar to people.

Actually, redemptive analogies are used throughout the Bible. People of Bible times raised domestic animals and were fishermen and farmers. References to farming, fishing, and the raising of domestic animals are used in the Bible to explain divine truth. Jesus Himself used redemptive analogies or parallels, often saying, "The Kingdom of God is like . . ."

Using parallels or analogies from culture as illustrations does not mean we preach a different "gospel" in different cultures. It simply means that some of the most eye-opening and heart-unlocking metaphors and analogies may be culture-specific rather than universal.

Discussion questions

  1. In what ways can redemptive analogies be helpful in cross-cultural communication of the Gospel message?
  2. How does the use of redemptive analogies differ from syncretism, and why is it important to maintain this distinction?
  3. What potential drawbacks might there be in looking for redemptive analogies to proclaim the Gospel message?
  4. How can missionaries and evangelists determine which cultural traditions and beliefs are appropriate for redemptive analogies?
  5. How can using redemptive analogies reflect the time-honored strategy of using the known to explain the unknown without crossing into syncretism??

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This 500-word mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene.


People sometimes think that looking for redemptive analogies means that we should scour another religion looking for something similar to a Christian concept or practice. That would, of course, be right in line with Hindu thinking (which basically says that all religions are about equal) and would open the door to syncretism.

That is not what happened with the "peace child" incident that gave Don Richardson the key to proclaiming the Gospel to a tribal group in Irian Jaya. Based on that experience, Richardson began encouraging Christian missionaries to look for things in other cultures -- folktales, children's stories, customs, and so on -- that could illustrate facets of the Gospel. That has been done for a long time by preachers and teachers in the English-speaking world. Encouraging the search for and use of redemptive analogies does not give a green light to syncretism (the merging of beliefs from different sources into one "package").

Some have criticized Richardon's use of the "peace child" as a redemptive analogy, noting that the child in that ceremony that ended tribal warfare will eventually die while Jesus Christ will live forever. That's a misguided criticism of the redemptive analogy concept. No analogy or illustration is perfect in every aspect as a point-by-point explanatory metaphor.

For example, Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." Well, bread gets stale, moldy, and even hard on its way to decomposition. Every analogy Jesus used -- or, for that matter, every sermon illustration ever used by preachers of the Gospel -- can be picked apart in that way.

Redemptive analogies that have been used by preachers in the USA and Canada include:

  1. The Caterpillar and the Butterfuly. Just as a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis to become a beautiful butterfly, so also people following through on a desire to have Jesus as Savior and Lord will undergo spiritual transformations.
  2. Marathon Runners. The Christian life is not a 40-yard sprint that is won or lost quickly. It is a marathon. Just as marathon runners must push through pain and fatigue to reach the finish line, believers are encouraged to persevere through trials and challenges with their eyes fixed on Jesus.
  3. Rescue Operations. Search and rescue operations are often heroic efforts to save people lost in a wilderness area, miners trapped in a mine disaster, young children who have fallen into a well, and people on board a sinking ship. As heroic as athese efforts can be, they fall short f the efforts God has made to save us. Such rescue operations should also remind us of the all-out effort we shold make to try to rescue people from the sin in which they are trapped.
  4. The Immigrant Experience: The journey of immigrants to America, with its challenges, sacrifices, and aspirations for a better life, can be used as a redemptive analogy for the Christian journey of faith. It illustrates how individuals leave behind their old ways and embrace a new identity and purpose in Christ, finding redemption and belonging in His family.
  5. The American Revolution. The American Revolution can illustrate the idea that Jesus came to set people free from the tyranny of sin and death, leading them to a new life of freedom and purpose.

While these five analogies can be very powerful in a USA/Canada conext, they would not speak very powerfully in other contexts, just as Richardson's use of the "peace child" analogy spoke very powerfully to Sawi tribadl people but makes only a minimal impact on most Americans.

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