The Church is (not) a…

The term “church” seems straightforward enough, but I suspect that in explaining to someone what it means you will quickly find that it’s a convenient shorthand for a slippery bundle of denotations and connotations. Of course the word refers to a building as well as a meeting schedule, a body of teachings and practices, and a group of people that more or less shares those teachings and practices. But its usage may also evoke what a church does does–inform, convert, reaffirm, succor, challenge, etc.–as well as the objects of such actions–the seeking, the repentant, the converted, the wounded, the complacent, etc.  Those who invoke the term also swim in cultural currents–some strong, others tepid, but always present, and are variously affected by ignorance and prejudice in communicating with others.

The net result of all of this is that ambiguity is introduced and more is communicated than is said. The accompanying potential for communication breakdown presents speakers with a challenge: How to bring listeners up to speed with the user’s intent or vision in a way that doesn’t lose them? Enter the figure of speech–a staple of scripture, General Conference talks, Sunday school lessons and, well, daily life. And so for this post I would like to do three things:

  1. Present examples of metaphors for the Church by General Authorities;
  2. propose one of my own; and
  3. solicit your suggestions.

So, on to the non-exhaustive yet authoritative list!

Part I

Elder Oaks
This Church is “living” because we have prophets who continue to give us the word of the Lord that is needed for our time.

Elder Eyring
The Church is a powerful force for the blessing of its members and all people across the earth.

Elder James M. Paramore
The Church is a way of life and has established organizations and cultural and developmental opportunities for ourselves and our children that are the envy of this world.

President Benson
This is the spiritual kingdom of God moving forward in its divine course to fill the earth, a truly marvelous work and a wonder!

Elder  Ronald E. Poelman
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the kingdom of God on earth

President Hinckley
this church is not a social club. This is the kingdom of God in the earth.

The Church is a constant in a world of change. It is an anchor in a world of shifting values.

Elder Haight
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims to the world that this church is a restoration of Christ’s church. The Church is not a democracy—it is a kingdom.

President N. Eldon Tanner
We often hear the Church referred to as a democracy, when in reality, instead of being a church where the body is governed by officers elected by the members, the Church is a theocracy, where God directs his church through representatives chosen by him.

Elder Keith B. McMullin
For Latter-day Saints, the kingdom of God, or the Church, is not a byline; rather, it is the center and the substance of their lives.

No attributed author
the Church is a friend to the community.“Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion” (D&C 132:8)

First Presidency
the Church is a place of spiritual nourishment and growth.

Colin B. Douglas
I have come to feel the truth of what a former bishop of mine liked to say: that the Church is not a country club for Saints, but a hospital for sinners.

Elder Dale G. Renlund
the Church is like a big hospital, and we are all sick in our own way. We come to church to be helped.

Elder Holland
the Church is not a monastery for the isolation of perfect people. It is more like a hospital provided for those who wish to get well.

the Church is not a fast-food outlet; we can’t always have it “our way.”

Elder Wirthlin
The Church is not a place where perfect people gather to say perfect things, or have perfect thoughts, or have perfect feelings. The Church is a place where imperfect people gather to provide encouragement, support, and service to each other as we press on in our journey to return to our Heavenly Father.

Do you not know that the Church is a place for imperfect people to gather together—even with all their mortal frailties—and become better?

Elder Uchtdorf
The Church is a place of healing, not hiding. […] The Church is not an automobile showroom—a place to put ourselves on display so that others can admire our spirituality, capacity, or prosperity. It is more like a service center, where vehicles in need of repair come for maintenance and rehabilitation.

The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. […] The Church is not just for perfect people, but it is for all to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.” […] The Church is a place of welcoming and nurturing, not of separating or criticizing. It is a place where we reach out to encourage, uplift, and sustain one another as we pursue our individual search for divine truth.

Elder Bednar
As described by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, the Church is not “a well-provisioned rest home for the already perfected” (“A Brother Offended,” Ensign, May 1982, 38). Rather, the Church is a learning laboratory and a workshop in which we gain experience as we practice on each other in the ongoing process of “perfecting the Saints.”

Rex W. Allred
The Church is a school for those who desire to become like the Lord, not a resting place for those who have already made it.

President Harold B. Lee
We are in a program of defense. The Church of Jesus Christ was set upon this earth in this day ‘… for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it should be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth.’ (D&C 115:6.)

Elder Packer
How foolish is the youth who feels that the Church is a fence around love to keep him out. Oh, youth, if you could know! The requirements of the Church are the highway to love and to happiness, with guardrails securely in place, with guideposts plainly marked, and with help along the way.

Elder A. Theodore Tuttle
The priesthood in the Church is a mighty bulwark against the advance of evil.

Jane” quoted by Renon Klossner Hulet
The Church is a guide, not a guarantee.

As you can see, there are a few recurring themes as well as several unique metaphors. Do you find some more illuminating than others? Or each illuminating in its own right and meant to be circumscribed into one great whole?

Part II

Now for my entry: The Church is (not) a Stammtisch or a like-minded group of regulars. Salient features of a Stammtisch include a physical location–usually an eating or drinking establishment of some kind–and voluntary participation, although membership is not open to just anyone–would-be participants must receive an invitation or at least a nod from standing members. Consequently, a Stammtisch is characterized by a sense of belonging, perhaps even community, though it can be insular and exclusive. As a result of this strong sense of belonging, members typically feel free to speak their mind, uncensored by what outsiders may think. The availability of such safe spaces are no doubt a welcome relief for participants, but in the absence of outside influences there is always the possibility of a Stammtisch becoming little more than an echo chamber of ignorance and prejudice.

And in fact, the term is almost always used with a negative connotation in the press, e.g., a political debate might be said to “be on the level of a Stammtisch” (Stammtischniveau) if it is particularly devoid of enlightenment, or a populist appealing to baser instincts might be referred to as a “Stammtisch politician” (Stammtischpolitiker).

The negative association in my mind is strengthened by experience. For instance, I pass a Stammtisch located at an outdoor cafe at least twice a day on the way to and from work. Members at the table take great sport in commenting loudly on passersby, sometimes heckling but mostly just making observations as if their objects lacked the senses of sight and sound (they have surmised, for example, that I am a Jehovah’s Witness. If they only knew!). On another occasion, I had dinner in a tavern in a small alpine village after a climbing trip and the local Stammtisch spent their meal staring as though my climbing partner and I were circus clowns performing a routine during mass.

But a Stammtisch could also be something positive–a place where members feel free to share freely their feelings about issues of common interest, like fast and testimony meeting, Sunday school, or the whole kit and caboodle of “church.” Still, just because it’s church doesn’t mean that the sense of belonging and assumption of shared values doesn’t have a dark side–just try sitting in the third pew from the front on the left side where Brother and Sister Huber (common name in Austria–no reference to anyone living or dead intended!) always sit! Of greater concern than staking out a corner of the chapel, in my view anyway, are lessons or talks where outrageous statements (e.g., using the recorded fate of the Canaanites to justify anything) or parochial policy positions are uttered as matter of fact or as somehow universally applicable.

Anyway, the Stammtisch might not be the best figure of speech to describe the Church, but I believe that it has the potential to raise awareness of the tensions present in any organization between its like-minded, community-building dimensions and its exclusionary, isolationist tendencies and the need to find a balance that does justice both to its members and the declaration of “Visitors Welcome” on its walls.

Part III

Now it’s your turn–what figures of speech can you think of to illuminate aspects of what the Church means to you?

Here’s another one to prime the pump, as it were: the Church is a ship (and disobedient members? Mutinous sailors!).


  1. Nice, Peter; thanks.

    In the past, I’ve proposed a free jazz ensemble, which allows for a common goal, even if we’re all making it up (within some boundaries) as we go along. And I still think that’s a pretty decent analogy—it allows for both tension and harmony, both beauty and ugliness.

  2. Thanks for the entry, Sam. I appreciate the notion of freedom coupled with responsibility “for making sure that what we create makes sense.”

  3. trevorprice924 says:

    The Church is a lighthouse, shining light on dangerous areas to avoid or signaling to help others find their bearings

  4. “in the absence of outside influences there is always the possibility of a Stammtisch becoming little more than an echo chamber of ignorance and prejudice”

    Oh, like BCC!

  5. The Church is a body, Peter. Did Paul teach us nothing??

  6. What do you mean, Steve? BCC’s absentee banlords ensure that outside influence runs all too rampant!

    Point taken on Paul. His entry is added to the list.

  7. The church is a team. There is no “i” in team. But there is an “i” in “pie,” as in “meat pie.” And “meat” is an anagram of “team.” I’m not sure where we were going with this.

  8. There’s no “i” in “team,” but there is a “u” in “church.”

    See u in church.

    /mic drop

  9. The Pump has to be one of the best videos ever shown to youth sunday school classes.

  10. The church is an aircraft carrier. It’s difficult even for people at the helm to change its course. (I’ve heard Mark Brown use this one a number of times.)

  11. Preach on, thor.

  12. JeannineL says:

    I think on that ship mentioned in your last link, Imma have the “Mormon Expert” who wrote the article go ahead and hold the anchor for me.

  13. eponymous says:

    We are a global Church right? If so then in French there certainly is an “I” in team: equipe

    (Oh and in Latin, Bosnian, Irish, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovak, Swahili, Uzbek and several other languages…)

  14. I’ve always felt that the statement “The Church is true” is simply referring to building code, which is to say that if you take a carpenter’s square it should line up perfectly with each of the church’s four corners.

  15. Good point, Jeff. Church isn’t the only ambiguous term in that statement, which could be expanded to include “…plumb and level.” It turns out to be a thing:

    Elder Holland reminded the graduates that the motto for their construction courses, square, plumb and level, is also a motto for life. Be square with your neighbours, plumb with Heaven and level with yourself, he admonished.

  16. In a talk I gave, I told them “church is another recovery meeting (at least it should be) and as an addict, [they] were part of my support system.”