Trajectories, Transformations, and the Mighty Metaphor of the Humble Slingshot

Portrait of a handsome teenage bad boy with slingshot and stylish haircut, softbox lighting studio shot.

My Dad was pretty darn good at classic “weaponry” – implements that seem exotic in the modern era: sling, slingshot, and bullwhip. Except these items weren’t exactly exotic in the high-elevation plains of the western frontier states. There you constantly had to be on alert to all sorts of vermin and venomous snakes, and these were just tools of the trade to keep you safe. Plus, they provided great break times while fishing, hiking, or picnicking out in the wilds.

Dad had grown up in a coal-mining family, in an era where horse- and mule-drawn wagons were still in use. He learned to use the bullwhip from his father, who used to compete in “Pioneer Days” horse and cart races around a huge ore smelter stack that took up an entire block. Dad learned to wield the sling and slingshot against gophers and rabbits and rattlers around the mine. He did well with all three weapons, as he had an accurate eye and great sense of balance. (No surprise that, as a young man, he became a Golden Glove boxing champion.)

Dad attempted to pass on to my brother and me his legacy in the art of making and using these humble weapons. He made sure we understood these weren’t toys. He told us about the potential dangers, showed us how to use them correctly and carefully, made sure we were standing somewhere safe during his demonstrations.

My brother did well with using a whip to battle a thorn bush, and slinging or slingshotting a rock to break a bottle. Me? Not so much. I did great at squiggling up my face when aiming. But, sadly, I literally just could not get the hang of it. Still, I found these amateur armaments fascinating and have thought about them occasionally over the half-century since then. And I saw (or experienced) the dangerous possibilities in them several times.

The first was a freshman at the university, I lived at a dorm. One springtime afternoon, some rowdy students on our floor made “college catapults” – water balloon launchers built from a cut-in-half plastic bleach bottle with thick medical tubing attached. They’d tied the tubes to washers nearest the windows in the laundry room, pulled back on the balloon in the bottle, and then let it loose. They were aiming to bombard the nearby sidewalk, which of course just might possibly splash onto passersby – and did, to their dismay.

The second time was in the late 1980s. I was at a Christian writers conference, and was helping a friend haul out a roller luggage bag that had another carry-on bag or two secured on the top with a bungee cord. Unfortunately, when the bag fell off a curb, the stack came undone and the bungee snapped back and the clip thwacked me on the forehead. I was less than an inch away from getting hit in the eye. (I know, I know … this wasn’t exactly a slingshot. But it was close enough to what can happen when you pull a slingshot too far back and lose control of the handle, and the “Y” flips back on your face – which I have had happen.)

Nope, these definitely are not toys. But beside being weaponry, what else could they be?

Sometime in my early 40s, around when I’d gone through an intensive futurist skills training, it occurred to me that the slingshot made for a great metaphor to think about trajectories and transformations. Those are two key concerns in the discipline of strategic foresight – “futuring” – and I was looking for a visual way to illustrate the concepts of how they work.

Developing the Metaphor in the 1990s

I first taught using the slingshot analogy in February of 1996. It was at a Christian writers’ conference, and I taught on “Current Trends That Are Changing Our Target Audience.” By using a slingshot, I illustrated the concept of projecting trends into the future and prognosticating where our society may be headed:

The left arm of the slingshot “Y” is like your analyses of changes in family dynamics and resulting personal issues. The right arm is like your analyses of social, cultural, and scientific movements. To project a trend, pick a topic and find a series of concrete examples. Keep searching for the most extreme examples possible, because the farther back you can pull your analysis, the farther forward you can project your trend into the future.

But the problem with going back to the most bizarre examples is that it can stretch your analysis to the breaking point, causing the slingshot to flip back into your face! So the solution to that disastrous problem lies in grasping the handle of the “Y” firmly—that’s like the solid foundation provided by a rigorous and comprehensive biblical worldview.

A few years later, I’d refined the ideas a bit more, and used the slingshot metaphor in a book proposal for Will Wearing a Nose Ring Make Me Relevant? (Remember, it was the late ’90s and ministry to “GenXers” and “postmoderns” was still all the rage …) I know this incorporates much repetition and slight differences, but my goal is to show how my concept changed over time. And for that, I need to give a series of snapshots.

Chapter 27 – Stretching a Church to its Forward Limits … and Beyond. Projecting a church far into its 21st-century future is like using a Y-shaped slingshot to shoot a stone forward. One upper side of the “Y” is our understanding of people, the other is our understanding of culture. The farther back we can pull the rubber strand of trends, the farther forward we can send the projectile – as long as we have a firm grasp on the base of the “Y,” which is our understanding of the Bible. If we fail at the base of this endeavor, the slingshot will yank backwards and hit us in the face, no matter how perfectly crafted our tool is.

This chapter uses the slingshot image to explore the kinds of short- to long-term trends that can either pull a church backward and leave it there, or catapult it into the future when we release it be and do what God always intended for it. It overviews a series of working hypotheses that capture what appear to the author as the most significant long-term and meta-trends (extremely long-term trends) that are driving deep change in the culture and therefore pressuring the Church to change. (For example, post-feminism and egalitarianism, the deep ecology and Earth-worship movements, and identity fragmentation and multiculturalism.) It also reframes previous material on understanding people, understanding culture, and understanding Scripture so that there is a dynamic force for appropriate change.

Expanding Its Application in 2011

From there, I continued steeping on the idea of trajectories and transformations for organizations, and began applying the slingshot metaphor to interpreting my personal experiences. The following excerpts come from two articles I wrote in 2011, when I was switching between two blogs: futuristguy and futuristguy2. (I’ve edited the excerpts slightly for the sake of clarity.)

[1.] Decade in Review, Part 1 (Ministry Experiences)

[T]he post I’m most interested in producing right now is: the 10 most important ideas I wrote about from 2000-2010. That’s the set-up for refocusing the content of my blogging from all that analysis of paradigm shifts and cultural analysis in futuristguy [1], to how social movements inside and outside of the Church affect the outlook and infrastructures of local churches here in futuristguy2. I have a lot of thoughts synthesizing on:

* What kinds of ministry methods and models and leadership approaches will survive the global shift, and why.

* What kinds won’t survive, and why.

* Finding the redemptive edge in cultural movements that we have no control over.

* Finding countercultural responses to movements that are harmful.

My passion is research and development of “Kingdom Culturology” (i.e., the study of what a comprehensive culture that is based on biblical values looks like as the core of any group’s culture – in other words, how does Bible knowledge challenge cultural norms that fall short, and fill in norms that are missing). So, I am fascinated by what cultural trends I think have been gaining momentum in the past 10 years and will most affect churches/ministries in the next 10 years through 2020. I am also concerned because I believe certain methods and models, and even entire denominations, are likely to implode in the next 20 to 40 years in the wake of the ongoing global paradigm shift – if they continue to lag behind in making appropriate changes to become sustainable in that inevitable future. I’m thinking that futuristguy2 should be an intriguing journey!

But my comments on those kinds of topics and many more should make more sense if I preface them with some detail of what I did during the decade past, and how those experiences (re-)shaped me. So, if my futuristguy2 blog were a slingshot, then this series of posts would be like pulling back the projectile so you could see where its trajectory will take us. Or, in strategic foresight terms, “The future lies in the past.”

[2.] Retrospective on Providence and a “DNA of Destiny.”

It’s an important part of staying in the race to keep our eyes open, and one of my long-time practices is to take time every so often to reflect on larger periods in my journey. It’s an intentional part of a rhythm for life, to see and celebrate what lies behind, and to discern and pray for what likely lies ahead. Sometimes I invite other people into the process in order to get a multi-lens community perspective on what seems to be happening. Either way, only by pulling back to see the shape of our past and present can we gain insight to project things forward … kind of like a “trajectory foresight slingshot.”

 […]

I guess the point in taking such an extended look backwards is to “refresh the screen” on the context for what is happening now. Current events don’t just pop out of nowhere, you know … there is already a “DNA of destiny” at work because of how God has exercised His providence in the details of our everyday lives. It’s that slingshot thing again. And, if nothing else, by taking a long look back, I am reminded that what I am doing now with this extensive curriculum project – which appears to be only 20 years in the making – is actually a reasonable and meaningful outworking of all that God created me to be and to do.

New Nuances When Nearing 2020

So that brings us up to the present. I had not written much to add to the concept since those 2011 articles, and actually, I hadn’t even thought about the slingshot metaphor all that much, until a friend of mine turned 50. He invited me to a small gathering of close friends to share in his birthday celebration. And he asked that we not bring gifts, but instead share some word of wisdom or encouragement with him.

As I thought and prayed about it, the slingshot metaphor is what came to mind. I’d noticed my friend’s Facebook posts during the few months before had taken a different turn. He’d been reviewing and evaluating major chunks of his life history. An experienced traveler, he’d visited and lived in many places throughout the U.S. and Europe. I could practically hear the wheels of his spirit churning through these experiences, analyzing the spiritual impact of these places, people, and situations. He’d been intuitively looking for the common threads that tied the individual, smaller stories into an integrated, bigger picture. It felt to me like he was drawing back the metaphorical slingshot of his personal story to prepare for launching forward into the next stage of life.

So, as we sat around at dinner on his birthday, I shared the slingshot image, plus sketched out the meaning of the metaphor for his trajectory and transformation. Because of 20-plus years of backstory in thinking about this illustration, I was able to offer a relatively condensed “espresso version” of the details. And it really seemed to work for my now-50-something friend.

In fact, it made such an impression that he asked me a few weeks later if I would write up what I’d shared, because he wanted to think about it more. It took a while for me to find the pieces of my own backstory to put this together. I realize it made for either a long or leisurely read, whichever way you choose to look at it. But I hope you’ve found something insightful and enjoyable in it. I think of this as another example of embodying the process of pulling back into our history, to see how it’s brought us to the present, and give reasoned speculation of where it might possibly take us in the future …

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“Teenage bad boy with slingshot and stylish haircut, studio shot” photograph © morozoy photo, Fotolia #135110312. Licensed to Brad Sargent.

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