Monday, November 16, 2009

The Church is Like a . . .

You’ve heard the story of the blind men who encountered an elephant. Each touched only one part and then generalized about the nature of the beast based on this partial knowledge. They variously described it as a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touched. Each developed his own metaphor based on the partial knowledge they had of the subject.

Metaphors are powerful tools. In fact, researcher Andrew Ortony once commented, “Metaphors are necessary, not just nice.” Rightly used, metaphors are powerful tools for learning and change. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor can shift the way that a person perceives reality.

We can see the power (and limitation) of metaphor when we select words to describe the church. Many churches describe themselves as “family.” This works most of the time, but some people have had very negative family experiences—broken relationships, abuse, isolation—that color how they see family. The idea of the church as an “army” has been very popular in years past, but as a veteran who served in an unpopular war, the word carries very negative connotations.

Findley Edge used terms like “hospital” or “seminary” to describe the church. These can be taken either in a positive or negative light. The Apostle Paul, of course, described the church as a “body.” Others think of it as a “garden” where believers can be nourished and bear fruit.

My concern is that we not rush too quickly to embrace just one metaphor to describe the church because, like the blind men, our perspective is often limited to our own experiences. The church is much richer and more nuanced than the experiences of one person or even a handful of people.

We would do well to listen to the stories that others tell about the church and build our list of metaphors. Each reflects some aspect of reality without providing the whole picture.

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