Joseph Campbell once said, “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.”
Maybe if you want to change the church you should change the metaphors you use to describe it too.
You’re probably familiar with the church’s use of militaristic imagery to describe its role in the world. This has often been expressed in the vocabulary of aggression, conquest, crusade, advance parties, and beach-heads. Church leaders often see nothing incongruous in using the language of military campaigns to describe their role of sharing Jesus with the world.
At a time when the dominant evangelical tone seems arrogant, angry, or afraid (or all three), maybe now more than ever we need a different lens by which to view the church. Maybe we need a more life-giving metaphor.
Why not try this metaphor on for size: the church is a midwife to the delivery of the world God is birthing.
Stay with me.
Isaiah 42:14 refers to God groaning like a woman in labor.
And in Numbers 11:12, as the Israelites complain of only having manna to eat in the wilderness, Moses says to God with an almost sarcastic inflection, “Did I give birth to these people? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby?” Sounds like Moses thinks if God is the mother of Israel, God should look after them.
More to the point, Isaiah 66:9 portrays God as the one who gives birth to Israel: “‘Would I ever bring this nation to the point of birth and then not deliver it?”
And in Isaiah 49:15, God says, “Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!”
Clearly, God gives birth and sustains life. And God is birthing the new creation in readiness for Jesus’ return. God is birthing restorative structures, transformative communities and world-altering moments of love all around us.
So what’s the church’s job? Not to give birth to anything. That’s God’s work.
The church is invited to attend. Like a midwife.
To assist in the delivery. To prepare the space. To observe the signs. To attend.
Just as the midwife comes alongside a laboring mother, so we are invited to come alongside God in the miracle of birthing new life for the world around us. The task is not to get God to do something we think needs done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that we can participate in it.
This is enormously freeing at one level, but terribly frustrating for Type A personalities and entrepreneurial church leaders. They like to see a need and jump in and do stuff. And so of course militaristic metaphors are helpful to them. But what if our “doing stuff” has ignored, or even overridden, what God is doing.
By embracing the metaphor of the midwife we are forced to submit to God’s birthing process, not our inclinations for activism.
In many parts of the Western world, birth has become a highly invasive, scheduled, impersonal experience. Obstetricians book you in for your C-section at 3.00pm on Thursday so they can play golf that afternoon. The delivery is done under harsh florescent lights. It’s treated like any other surgical procedure.
But this isn’t how it is in most parts of the world at all. And increasing women in the West are rejecting this kind of delivery (unless it’s absolutely necessary, of course). Birth takes time. It is a messy, unpredictable, organic experience. And each and every birth is different to all the others.
Think about that for a bit. Each delivery is different to every other one. It’s estimated that there have been 108 billion people born on this planet, so that’s a massive amount of variation.
The attentive midwife or doula watches the signs carefully. They remain focused on the needs and responses of the birthing mother. It is attentive, humble, gentle work. I fear too much Christian mission feels like a C-section scheduled at 3.00pm on Thursday, rather than the more natural, organic approach I’m talking about.
In my new book, To Alter Your World, co-authored with Christiana Rice, an experienced doula herself, we explore the five practices of the midwife and how these practices can help shape the church as it attends to the new creation God is birthing.
Those practices are
- Release your agendas – submit yourself to the birthing mother; don’t take over and exert your will on her process of delivery.
- Shape the environment – in consultation with the mother’s desires, create a safe, comfortable environment for her to do the work of delivering her child;
- Hold the space for birth to happen – practice a non-anxious presence; normalize the mother’s experience; shift the energy of the room to make an optimum, healthy birth experience to occur;
- Be flexible and fearless – enter the experience without dominating it; adapt to the challenges as they arise;
- Live out a new narrative – remain calm and focused; guide the birthing mother toward the care she needs; assist in any unexpected complications
It’s not hard to see how this metaphor, if taken seriously, can change much of what we’re doing. It invites us to submit to God’s will, to remain vigilant in seeing what God is doing and attending to it. It invites us to contribute to shaping the environment in which the church operates. This could involve engaging with city planners, local councils, schools, law enforcement agencies, the business community and more before we begin attempting to launch anything new.
What would happen in churches could enter fully into their neighborhoods and become an influential presence? What if church leaders could suspend all judgements, release their agendas, and take seriously the space into which they’ve entered? What if adaptive missional leaders could identify what is essential and precious and renegotiate absolutely everything else?
Adaptive, fearless leaders need to diagnose, interrupt and innovate to create the opportunities that match your church’s missional aspirations. But they’ll need to do so from close quarters to God, listening to God’s breathing, following the divine groaning and attending to the birth of the new creation.
My latest book To Alter Your Word: Partnering with God to Rebirth our Communities (IVP), co-authored with Christiana Rice, is available now.