I’ve written more than a few posts on the church (local) and Church (universal) but there’s always something that draws me back into this topic. This time it’s metaphors, specifically the metaphors we use to describe the church. Metaphors are helpful in the way that they help us understand one thing but relating it to another thing. However for metaphors to be helpful the relationship has to make sense and one has to use the best metaphor available. For example, it makes more sense and it is a better metaphor to say that someone’s kindness is like the smell of a rose in early morning rather than saying that someone’s kindness is like a tsunami that sweeps away anything in it’s path.
In the next three posts, I’m going to share three metaphors for the church that I’ve heard and share why they are misguided, though well intentioned, and share three better metaphors that will help Jesus followers as we interact with our culture.
A few weeks ago I was flipping through the Christian radio stations pre-programed in my car (I normally don’t listen to Christian radio but I was probably channel surfing during the commercial break of ESPN radio) and I heard a sound bite from a pastor/evangelists who was using the metaphor that the church is like a gas station.
To be fair, this was only a 15-30 second piece of a talk that was edited for an “encouraging word” but the church is a gas station, really? His point was that just like when your car is out of gas, you have to stop in at the gas station, fill up, then leave. Then he said that church was the same way; you run out of spiritual gas during the week, go to church to refuel, then go out again until the next time you need a fill-up.
I get what he was trying to say. But this metaphor breaks down quickly and reveals much of what is wrong with modern Western Christianity. This metaphor perpetuates the idea that church stands as a place for consumption. When I’m empty, I come and consume. When I need to refuel, I come to consume. If I’m not empty, then I don’t consume. I take what’s given to me and I use it until I’m in need of a refuel. The church gives, I take. The church produces, I consume. Church become all about me and fulfilling my needs. If this church (gas station) doesn’t have what I want, I just go to the one on the next corner.
If a gas station is not the best metaphor, what is a better metaphor?
The church is a family. Not only is this a metaphor found in the Bible, it turns a metaphor based on consumerism into a metaphor grounded in identity. I am no longer a consumer, I am a participant, I am a member, I am a needed to help fulfill the needs of others, I have a role to play that influences the whole. I’m part of the family, I’m always part of the family.
What I appreciate about the gas station metaphor is that it shows how there is a going, a sending aspect to following Jesus. However the gas station metaphor supports the other major fault of Western Christianity: individualism. Can you see how egocentric this metaphor is? There’s no community, no relationship, no interaction. I go to church to fill up my spiritual tank. Then I go into my world and do my thing until I run low again and stop in for another fill up. I don’t have to care about you and your spiritual life, just my own.
In a family, every member is supposed to work for the good of the other members of the family. Family is community, relationship, interaction and caring about the needs of the other members- even above your own.
Is the church like a gas station or is the church like a family?