I wrote a few days ago that because our cultural location shapes our imaginations, we inevitably conceive of Christian ministry in terms, categories, and images supplied by our post-industrial technological age.
We need to be discerning in our use of metaphors because of how they function. They’re more powerful than we may assume.
Metaphors excite our imaginations, making connections and drawing implications about our identities, relationships, possible tasks, and perceived options for future conduct.
Metaphors that faithfully capture certain realities can be very fruitful. I cited Paul’s image for Christian ministry and how it helpfully configures the character of ministry, ministers, and our utter dependence on God.
Because metaphors are so powerful, we need to invent new ones very carefully. We ought to inquire whether or not a metaphor calls to mind ways of life and patterns of thought that resonate with Scripture.
Here’s just one example of a metaphor behaving badly: conceiving of ministry as “investment.”
I have heard ministry colleagues speak of mentoring relationships as “investment.” This is a metaphor that comes from the world of commerce and it may at first seem innocent, referring to spending time with another person to cultivate a relationship.
But it also resonates with a range of behaviors associated with capitalism and it’s a metaphor that can behave very badly.
Investors are shrewd to only commit their resources where they can maximize their return. What happens when they don’t get the return they expect? Will they move on to some other more attractive prospect? Will they become coercive, judging or condemning the person who isn’t giving an expected return?
Ministry relationships are incredibly taxing and growth is slow and painful. And because of the mystery of how people grow in Christ, we often miss the signs of genuine growth and can be fooled into mistaking surface enthusiasm for genuine godliness.
If a person isn’t “growing” at the rate I expect and in the ways I anticipate, will I continue to give myself to that person?
And what about the fact that the church is filled with people for whom the church must spend itself, giving far more resources than it can expect in return? I’m thinking of the sick, the suffering, the infirm, those struggling with addictions and well-worn patterns of self-destruction.
In so many ways, God keeps drawing into the church people who are just plain bad investments.
Conceiving of ministry as “investment” can make us conceive of ourselves and of others in seriously worldly and idolatrous ways.
And it can make us imagine the task of ministry in ways that run counter to the self-expending character of Christ:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
There’s so much more than can be said about this, and there are many other images and metaphors for ministry that reflect worldly values and endorse ungodly patterns of ministry. But this is just to make the point that when it comes to thinking creatively about ministry, mind your metaphors!