Thursday, 17 March 2011

Metaphors matter

Human beings need images to think about complex things. We need to simplify and compare and picture in order to hold a multifaceted concept and we need these images even more if we are to successfully communicate such concepts to others.

Peter Bowden, a Unitarian Universalist congregational growth guru, recently started a fascinating thread in the UU Growth Lab on FaceBook by asking about metaphors for Unitarian/Unitarian Universalist congregations. The question is not about how to market our faith - it is much deeper than that. It asks about the essence of our congregations. What images most closely captures the central purpose and identities of the transformative communities of faith that we aim to create and sustain.

Over the years, I have heard many congregational metaphors tossed about: A "safe harbour" is a common one that emphasizes shelter and protection - a sense of withdrawal from a difficult world into a safe place. Certainly part of the answer, but only one part.

Abigail Van Buren famously proclaimed "A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints", capturing another important aspect of congregational life: we are not here to create congregations of perfect people; we must recognize that each of us is wounded and in need of healing and transformation. Only when we come together in our vulnerability and acceptance can we be transformed. 

Other congregational metaphors speak to our acceptance of diverse ways of thinking and believing: we are a "mosaic" of many colors, shapes and textures but come together to create something of great beauty - to create an image that we can not see in our separateness. We are a "house" where we understand that the light of the sacred is the same no matter which of many windows it shines through.

"Family" is a commonly raised metaphor, although we should always remember how hard it is to enter a family! Does anyone really want to be the new brother-in-law that nobody trusts for the first 20 or 30 years?

There were many other responses in the Growth Lab which I won't repeat here as they may be original and I have not asked permission. Suffice it to say that they variously reflect the experimental, educational, and energetic natures of a congregation.

How about this: The ideal congregation is "a base camp for life's expedition." 

I understand Unitarian congregation at their best to be places for rest and for equipping and organizing the journey to the heights of justice and spirit.

Yes, there are times when we are exhausted and hurt and maybe ill, and our congregations must be places for rest and restoration. They must be a places where we can tend to one another in pursuit of healing.

But a congregation must be much more than a refuge. It must be a place that prepares us for the true work of our lives - the mountains we must climb to become increasingly full and whole souls. These are mountains of self discovery - of spirit and love and depth. And they are mountains of outer work - the work that we do to help make our world a place that is more accepting, more compassionate, and more just.

Come into the base camp. Whether you are sore and tired and need of rest or fully ready for the climb. We will tend to one another's needs. We will journey together. With dedication, compassion, commitment, and love, we will ascend life's summits.


  1. Metaphors do matter, that's why theology matters, as theology is largely the art of playing with metaphors.

    I still come back to the ecclesia - those called out for a reason.

    I actually have a problem with the idea of the church as a "place." For me the church is the expedition, it's the people on the expedition. I would accept "worship" as being the basecamp, but "church" is the people - we're not only being church when we're at worship, we're being church Monday to Friday too. We never cease being church, if we continue to live our lives by those principles.

  2. @Stephen - Thanks for your comment. Good point about "place". I agree.

    Look at the photo of that base camp though - do you see anything permanent about it? It's tents that can and must be moved... the "camp" is surely the people and some of the stuff they bring and do! Note that we are talking about "congregations" - groups of people - rather than "churches", which tend to be edifices.

    I think the emphasis on worship is often overdone. Many members of our community get their greatest sustenance and inspiration from other events in the life of the congregation.