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Metaphors for Parish Life

November 13, 2014


At times, as Jesus’ parables exemplify, nothing is as descriptive of the Christian life as a well-crafted metaphor.

A pastor in Pennsylvania has taken one from Jesus’ playbook.

Even in plain terms, the story of his parish is an interesting one: The parish was founded in 2000, on land “carved out of a farm field.” The day the church opened its doors, it already had 5,000 members. The Archdiocese “just put a compass [down], drew a line [around it] and all the people that were registered in other churches were congratulated on their redistricting.” From there, the church as passed through an infancy and then adolescent stage, growing in numbers and maturity. When interviewed by Parish Catalyst last September, the pastor described the current goings-on of his parish by appealing to three vivid metaphors:

  1. To call others to discipleship, you must lead them up the mountain—not shout to them from the top.

“I used to tell seminarians,” the pastor said, “It doesn’t do any good to stand at the top of the mountain yelling and screaming about what’s supposed to be, if you can’t go down the mountain and meet the people and help them go up a little bit.” The emphasis should always be on relationship; even trying to “get it right” or “do it the way it’s supposed to be done” should be subordinate to care of the people of Christ’s body.

  1. To develop leaders in the parish, you have to conduct an orchestra.

As the pastor explained, the parish is home to a large number of committed and resourceful parishioners, each ready to lend his or her own skill set and expertise to the mission of the parish. “My job,” he said, “is really kind of like the director of the orchestra, because we have people that are very competent in many different areas of life. What made it possible for us to construct this entire parish facility and sustain a lot of the liturgical, education, and missional life was [a] deliberate intention to energize people. [They] are really good at taking the ball and running with it.” (That’s two metaphors in one!)

  1. The young adult community is ready for harvest.

In the pastor’s assessment, there is a real opportunity at his parish to deepen the faith life of parishioners and, through them, to engage the larger culture with a different vision of life. For the parish, like many others, one of the ongoing projects has been to more effectively engage young people through high school and college, and into their young family life. “The world that people live in today is much more demanding and challenging, in terms of cultural and faith values,” said the pastor. The question is, “How do we continue to represent Christian values of self-sacrifice and surrender of self to others in a cultural environment that measures itself by your economic success and your influence?” The gap between the Christian message and modern culture makes engagement tricky—and also crucial. Many of the young people the pastor encounters in the community are “looking for some meaning and purpose” beyond the “everydayness of things. The harvest is ripe.”

For Parish Catalyst, these three metaphors—and the fresh imagery they evoked—gave us a real sense of how the pastor viewed his parish’s story and status.

Certainly, as Christians, we have good reason to feel deeply connected to metaphor; the Bible is filled with them, including the Gospels. Jesus crafted each of his parables to describe something transcendent using only images and processes his listeners would understand. His method—the use of metaphors—is not simply about comprehension; metaphor not only structures how we see the world, but how we are able to see it and, God willing, transform it.

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