Metaphors of Church and Why They Matter

–Daniel S. Ferguson

We may not always realize it, but we speak and think in metaphor pretty much all the time. We say things like “I’m in a lot of pain,” when really there isn’t a literal lot-full of pain because pain can’t be measured that way. Most metaphors we use are cliché, like with “lot,” but many metaphors show a great deal of what we believe and think about ourselves and our worlds.

Take politics, for example. One of the more brilliant metaphors I heard came from Sarah Palin of all people, in the 2010-2012 time range, when she tried to win over women to the Republican party by using the term “mama grizzlies” to describe strong women who defended their families. This was an effort to feminize the strength-forward messaging of the conservative ideology, and it was absolutely not an accident. It was intentional, and it worked. Romney may not have won the election, but women have been trending more conservative ever since because of this and other messaging movements within the Republican party.

What does this have to do with Christianity? Well, nearly every church expresses itself through metaphors as well, and those metaphors can have a profound impact on how we perceive ourselves and how others view us.

For example, one of the more common church metaphors is church as “family,” with our talk of each other as “brothers and sisters” in Christ, and even referring to our leaders as “fathers” in some cases. Family sounds nice as a metaphor. It’s warm, comforting, and caring (most of the time), and they always look after their own. However, families are also necessarily exclusive and can only become so large before they’re not really a family anymore. Once a church “family” hits a certain size, each Sunday can feel more like an awkward family reunion than a loving family dinner.

In addition, the church as family metaphor may make it difficult for new people to feel at home when they first start coming to church. They may look around and see how closely knit all these people are and think that they will never be able to weave themselves into the fold. (Side note: Just that last sentence alone had three clothing metaphors. I didn’t even think about it as I wrote it. We really do use metaphors a lot.)

Or take the metaphors we use regarding the outward expressions of faith. Some people, the more evangelistic ones, will talk about “sharing” their faith, while the more apologetically minded will say they’re “defending” their faith, while the more emotional ones will say they’re “showing” their faith. None of those is literal, but they all rather express what each person’s ruling metaphors for faith are. The sharer thinks of faith as a commodity; the defender thinks of faith as a fortress; and the shower thinks of faith as a production.

These metaphors not only affect how we think of our churches, but they also demonstrate some of the difficulties we see when trying to engage new people.

Probably the easiest example is the church as “club” metaphor, where we talk about church attenders as “members” and sometimes talk of newcomers as “prospects,” as well as having “directories,” “rolls,” and even sometimes membership “contracts,” just like a club, like the Rotarians or Masons, would have. (In churches, that’s often signing the church’s statement of faith.)

This isn’t a bad metaphor necessarily, but you can see why churches have started to abandon it. Clubs are exclusive; signing things to be involved in a church is weird; talking about people as “prospects” is somewhat dehumanizing. Et cetera.

And so churches have rightly started doing away with that metaphor and concentrating on others. However, each metaphor has its own pitfalls. You want to talk about being “on mission” for the lost? That’s cool, but know that the church as “military unit” metaphor may not work well if you’re in an area that doesn’t have a base nearby. You want to focus on “generating disciples” and “producing change” in your community? Awesome, but that church as “factory” metaphor may make some people feel like a product and not a person. You want to give practical advice on “how to live the best life now” in Jesus? That’s really good, but realize that the church as “guru-cult” metaphor may turn some people off if it’s too pastor-centered. (That does tend to happen.)

Now, I seriously doubt that most churches delve into their communication strategies with metaphors in mind, but they really should take some time and stop to consider what conceptual metaphor most aligns with their vision, their calling, their understanding of who they are, and their evangelistic strategy. Otherwise, you run the risk of muddled messaging, which is the bane of more than a few churches.

Just food for thought.

(Note: I seriously considered putting every metaphor in this post in bold font to show how commonly we use metaphor, but there were just too many not to be distracting. See how many you can find!)

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