Metaphors for the Church

Metaphors are mental pictures that capture complex ideas in a memorable snapshot. Here are some metaphors describing the church:

  • One I’ve often used is ‘outpost of the kingdom of God.’ God’s kingdom is a rich theological concept which Christians understand to greater or lesser degrees, but which the general public only understands taking the term at face value. While we apply it spiritually to people who choose to follow God’s lead, the secular public interprets it as an actual social structure of government and law. It has connotations of theocracy about it, and that scares people. An activist campaigning against religion was quite surprised when I told him the evangelical agenda did not include making Canada a theocracy. He assumed that was our goal, and that would be a natural assumption based on some of the imagery and words we use in our churches.
  • Christians often use warfare metaphors to describe ourselves individually and collectively as the church. We put on the full armor of God and fight spiritual battles. We sing choruses that use battlefield and conquest imagery and that have a triumphalist posture over the world and the forces of evil. I wonder what my activist friend would think of these.
    • We know that we think of warfare in terms of spiritual warfare, not physical warfare. And we know it is directed against the spiritual forces that stand against God and never against people. People may be under the influence of ideas and forces that keep them from God, but they are never the target. However, they may not understand such a nuance as that and might feel threatened by such metaphors. Warfare metaphors tend to distance us from the very people we want to evangelize. It makes people with whom we should be talking our enemies, and we all know we don’t consort with the enemy! Warfare metaphors also suggest coercion through conquest. Again, be careful how these metaphors are used. We fight against Satan, never people!
  • We speak of the church as being a light shining into the darkness. That’s very biblical too, where we are described as beacons and lamps. But this metaphor casts the relationship of the church and the world into very black and white terms. Spiritually, there is light and there is darkness. This is true. There is no grey. But because the world was created by God and has his imprint stamped all over it, there is goodness in the world as well as darkness. Light and darkness become more nuanced in the non-spiritual context.
    • If light is our guiding metaphor, we will likely overlook anything good in the world and unnecessarily call it dark, or write the good off as an aberration. The church would not be able to affirm anything in the world, and that would be our loss because non-Christians do have lots of knowledge the church can use. It would also ruin our credibility because there are, indeed, good people in the world who are not Christians. They don’t know God, but they do lots of good things nevertheless. If we try to say that only Christians can be good people, well that just isn’t so. There is light and dark, but outside of the spiritual realm it has nuances to it.
  • The Bible provides many more metaphors for understanding what the church is. Principal among them are the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and the temple of God. These metaphors focus on who we are in relation to God rather than the world, and so are not as problematic as the other metaphors I’ve described.

And of course, we don’t have to draw on the Bible to find metaphors for the church. We can make up our own. For example, in the previous post I used these words to describe the church:

  • Under assault
  • Squeezed
  • Beleaguered
  • A minority facing overwhelming competition
  • Defensive
  • Clinging to a past when state and culture aligned with it

If this cluster of words represented the full extent of my thinking about the church, then my best metaphor for the church would be a city under siege. My strategy for the church would then include (metaphorically speaking):

  • Withdraw to safety behind the city’s walls
  • Reinforce the walls
  • Arm myself with as many weapons as I can find or make
  • Change life in the city to a wartime footing
  • Plot strategy to attack the enemy
  • Protect against spies by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them.’
  • Recreate whatever we used to do outside the city walls (such as growing food) so that it can be done inside the city, and then we never have to leave the safety of the walls.
  • Think of the city as a fortress, not a city

If I were really in a city under siege, these might be smart things to do. But are they at all helpful when we apply these strategies to the church? Is retreat into a fortress the best way to move forward? For portions of the church, this does seem to be their guiding metaphor, even if it is unstated.

The Quest for the Best Metaphor

The issue isn’t whether or not the biblical metaphors are valid. Of course they are all valid. There is nothing wrong with any of them. In fact, all of the biblical metaphors are helpful to me in various aspects of my life, spiritual growth, and ministry.

But we must be aware that whichever metaphor we use as our primary metaphor, it will shape the strategy and behaviour of the church a certain way. The question is always, “Is the way this metaphor is shaping the church in today’s environment helpful to our cause?”

What the church needs now is a metaphor to help us collectively navigate through the next leg of our journey together, which might be anywhere from fifty to three hundred years or more. Barring a miraculous intervention by God, I don’t see much changing in the next generation or two.

A Helpful Metaphor of the Church

Let’s be blunt about the situation the church is in today.

  • Its favoured position has been lost.
  • It’s in a culture that has very different ideas about virtually everything from sexual identity and morals to rights versus responsibilities, to notions of individual versus community well-being.
  • Christians are very much in the minority, and we form a particular minority that it seems quite okay for the majority to mock and attack (thankfully, in Canada, attacks are mostly only made with words).
  • We are surrounded by a culture that makes it increasingly difficult to practice our faith. For example, many Christians can no longer regularly worship at church on Sunday morning because they must work. If they aren’t willing to work Sundays, there are often career repercussions.

A growing number of Christian thought-leaders are saying that the very best metaphor for the church today is that of the church in exile, and I agree with them. Like the Jews living in Babylon:

  • We are a minority community in a host culture that is not ours.
  • We are subject to its laws, some of which we find difficult.
  • We mourn what has been lost and have no idea when the situation will change.
  • We have to find a new way of being the church just as the Jewish exiles had to find a new way to be Jewish without the Temple and without the Holy Land.
  • We have been humbled, and must now pursue our mission from weakness, without the affirming structures of the state to support our work.
  • We have to repent of the things we did or did not do that contributed to our current condition.

More broadly, we could also think of the church as now being in diaspora, a permanent form of exile. But in the Canadian context, isolating the Canadian church, I think exile works best.

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Finding a Way Forward

The exciting truth is that while our reality has flipped upsidedown, God’s has not. God is still actively at work, implementing his plan even when we are in exile.

We can learn what he wants us to learn from this experience, and we can find new ways of being the church, new approaches to serving our country and our world, that I believe will lead to greater mission success than ever. I believe we are entering a new era of creative Christianity, and that working with God, all things are possible. We can still be a blessing to the world. The church once gave the Western world hospitals, universities, and institutions of care. What might similar gifts from the church to the world look like today? Get your creative juices flowing!

Why are we where we are today? Perhaps we became too prideful, too complacent, too cocky, with the trappings of power. God may have placed us in exile to reset our strategy, to help us acquire the humility from which his Son inaugurated his kingdom.

Let’s learn all we can and get on with the church’s mission in a fresh, new way. I’m confident that we’ll discover sooner or later the tremendous blessing that this so-called setback has been for us.

As this series continues, we’ll explore more about how the church in exile metaphor can help us be a better church. Stay with me!

Key Point: The church has lost its place of dominance and been marginalized by society

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