It is striking to me that the very healthiest congregations I visit all have a unique, compelling, and descriptive metaphor at the heart of their sense of identity and purpose. One describes itself as an orchard where seeds of faith are planted and nurtured to produce fruit that feeds and nourishes people in every walk of life. Another imagines itself as a river, fed by many sources, always moving, giving life and refreshment to people along the way. Another sees itself as a spiritual air terminal, helping people get where God wants them to be — not everyone needing the same help, not everyone going to the same place.
When I was in college way back in the 1970s, I first encountered the term “metaphoraging” in a Psychology of Women course. Our professor talked about the importance of discovering a guiding image (or images) that told us who we were, why we were here, and what we could do that was meaningful. I believe the same process is of vital importance for congregations. Metaphoraging is the process of discovery by which we find inspiring visions that describe who we are, why we’re here, and what we can do to honor and glorify God.
I often use a four-fold discussion process with churches to help them discover a guiding metaphor. Beginning with the core group of church leaders — but expanding outward to include as many congregational participants as possible, I invite people to have conversation around four questions:
- What is our story? — What are the experiences, practices, celebrations, occurrences, events, and significant people in our history who define who we are today?
- What is our message? — What is it that we communicate through our ministries, programs, services, witness, and presence in our community?
- What is our purpose? — Why are we here? What is it that we believe God is calling us to be and do for each other, for our community, for our church, and for the world?
- What is our impact? — How do we measure our effectiveness and know how well we honor God and faithfully seek to do God’s will? How are lives changed? How is faith formed? How are people growing in their discipleship for the time they spend as part of our congregation?
For many, the metaphors begin to emerge from the process of discussion as people share what the church means to them, why they love and support it, and what they wish would/could happen in the future. Vision language bubbles up naturally. One person reflects on the church as a hospital — healing injuries, promoting health, offering care, and giving hope. Another offers that the church is like a garden where the seeds of faith and potential are nurtured, fed, watered, and tended so that beauty can blossom. Someone else sees the church as an oasis in a desert — a place of comfort and refreshment, a saving station to strengthen people for the journey back out into the wilderness. Yet another voice says the church is like a service station — a place to be refilled, tuned-up, fixed, and made road-worthy to travel through the world.
The healthiest metaphors all share a coming-in, and process of change, growth, or nurture, and a sending-out to live and serve in the world. The images are dynamic and kinesthetic — various parts join together that lead to increased or improved motion — we leave better than we come in. They embrace the best elements of who we are, why we’re here, and what we should be doing. As more and more people discuss the metaphors, they take on complexity and texture — the same guiding metaphor means very different things to a wide variety of people.
There is no one “right” metaphor for a congregation, but there are metaphors that will sing in people’s hearts and engage them at deep emotional levels. The purpose of metaphoraging is not to discover the “right” metaphor, but to open people to imagery and imagination that can unleash the power of vision. Where there is no vision, the people perish — but where a God-given vision exists, amazing things happen,