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what is church really like?

October 6, 2014

There are a number of metaphors that I have used for thinking about church over the years, and I always thought how helpful they are (as opposed to the “if church was a car, what sort of car would it be and why?”) but recently as I have thought about community I suddenly realised the fatal flaw in all my metaphors –
Briefly, the pictures I have used are:
Church as a lighthouse where the lighthouse keeper warns ships and boats afloat on the sea of the world of the location of the harbour (becoming a Christian and being saved/safe), but also that there are dangerous reefs outside the harbour that are likely to sink you if you sail into them. Churches characterised as lighthouses are led or lean on people with a prophetic gift willing to challenge things wrong in society as well as call people to live in `harbour`
Church as a school is similar with the teacher giving people information about how the world works, and hopefully equipping them to live life well. There are churches like this – that gather around someone with a teaching ministry, however they are often full of people who know a great amount about the bible – but less often live it out in radical discipleship
Church as a lifeboat is a similar analogy to church as a lighthouse with the sea as the world, and the aim being to gather people safely into harbour. The difference is that rather than using words of warning this church takes action, rowing out to where people are drowning and grabbing them out of the sea to take them back to the safety of dry land. Churches like this are active, and may often be led by an evangelist
Church as a hospital is where the church is seen as a place where those who have been wounded – by life, the world, or sin are brought in, patched up and come to experience healing. Churches like this are usually led by someone with a strong pastoral gift, and generally have more than their fair share of people who are `needy`, who continue to depend on the support offered even though they could or should be ready to leave hospital and get back to ordinary life
The last analogy of church as an army is almost the direct opposite of the hospital, in this kind of church people are mobilised and there are very few members who are `carried`, the emphasis is on taking ground (for the Kingdom of God) from the enemy (the Devil). There may be a strong emphasis on the Kingdom of God impacting the here and now through deliverance and healing ministries. If there is a typical leader of this sort of church it would be the apostle.
So far, so good – and as I said I have found these pictures helpful to see where a church is at, and often to see what gifts/ministries and emphases are missing, as a tool it is fairly accurate in describing the reality of most churches I have known. I have also found that describing the kind of church that results from dependence on any particular leadership gift is brilliant at getting people to understand why we need team leadership – direction provided by a group of elders (use another term if you are uncomfortable with `eldership`) who have a balance of those gifts between them.
However the flaw in all of these models, or perhaps the brilliance of them – is that they show how churches reflect the style and gifts of the person leading the church. The strengths of the leader are mirrored in the church, and the weaknesses of the leader also show up in the church. But there is another way, if we try to think about church without the structure and shape that we squeeze it into – something soft, natural, organic we could end up with a very powerful metaphor that of a garden.
In a garden the task is not so much to control the plants, but to facilitate them – they will always grow differently than you expect and this is the secret to their beauty.
How would church look in this picture? We already use the garden to help us think about church planting, and we see different models being used that of seeds or cuttings – individual bits of the plant, but specially prepared (trained) to be taken to another part of the garden (world) and planted to grow into a new plant – this is the traditional model of sending missionaries to unreached areas to establish a new church.
Transplanting – digging up an entire plant and moving it, roots and all to a different place. This seems to be the current trend as people gather, sometimes fairly large teams and move into a neighbourhood to establish a church. From day one they are able to hold public worship meetings.
A variation of this – sometimes but not always intentional is to divide. A large plant is dug up (or removed from the pot where it is pot bound) and split, half is moved (as above) and half put back into the ground where it came from where it has space to grow again
The last variation I can think of is that of the runner – we see this on our strawberries – the plant grows a bit of itself that is a little further away, but still connected for its life and health to the main plant, in time it settles slightly away from the plant and begins to grow roots of its own. Once it has successfully rooted the connection with the `mother plant` can be broken, and the plant is viable on its own.
These planting pictures help us think about the way a church can be planted, but can they be used to think about what a church really is? I am increasingly seeing that they can. (Perhaps it has been my obsession with thinking in church planting boxes from as far back as Dawn 2000 that meant I didn’t see it before) If instead of thinking about structures we think about the life of the parts we see that gardens grow naturally – though all these methods. If instead of thinking about church as an organisation with leadership and structures we thought about people, disciples we can easily see how church can be about stewarding a garden, not managing an organisation.
If people in a congregation move out finding a bit of fertile land and grow relationships that lead to other people becoming disciples does it matter that the new plant is or isn’t attached, or that it looks the same as the original plant or not?
It would seem to me that Jesus uses exactly these pictures when he talks about the Kingdom. Sowers sowing seed, yeast working in dough etc. He doesn’t anywhere send us to plant churches with all the structural baggage that implies – or even to get people to make decisions – and thereby join a church. He asks us to go and make disciples. You can’t get much more organic a picture as that!

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