Stop planting churches – plant movements instead

Metaphors and symbols are not just used to illustrate an idea; they actually contain the very idea they are meant to convey. They are a much more effective means of communication than the more discursive logical forms of language.

Metaphors and stories not only speak to the mind; they also capture the heart, mind, and will all at once. But the trick is that in order to unlock the ideas that metaphors convey one must activate and engage the imagination.

To those of us trained in rationalist thinking, this seems strange, but in the logic of the Bible, stories, metaphors, and images don’t have less truth than abstract propositions; they have more truth.

Jesus and his use of metaphor

You can be sure Jesus did not proliferate metaphors just to make the Bible more palatable to kids. Rather, he was offering us multiple new ways in which to reimagine ourselves, our tasks, and our purpose in the world.

These metaphors are concentrated visions/paradigms of what we can and must be to be faithful to God.[1] This is important for movement thinking because metaphors awaken the imagination, they are our best tool for thinking creatively. New metaphors invite vision and innovation.

Metaphor and organizations

Why all this geeky information about metaphors? I offer it because metaphors matter in all things related to leadership and organization. Gareth Morgan says,

“Ideas about organization are always based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and manage situations in a particular way. . . . The challenge facing [contemporary] leaders is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor to find new ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping their actions.”[2]

Metaphor is also important for us because if we change the primary metaphor, we then see everything in a different light, and behaviors change according to the new perception.

For instance, I currently live in Los Angeles, a city with upward of twenty million people—depending on who is counted. This is almost the same as the entire population of my country, Australia (twenty-four million).

The problem with LA is that if you use the metaphors associated with a city, it just does not make any sense at all: LA has no center or circumference—as someone said, “There seems to be no there there.” There is no unifying aesthetic, no corporate “personality,” as in, say, New York City. And, the vast majority of Angelinos certainly don’t see downtown LA as their city—in fact, most of them avoid it like the plague.

The result is that one never really “arrives” in the city of LA. But instead of viewing LA as a city, if you view LA as a small country (consisting of around forty-five discreet “cities”), then it makes total sense. I now say that I live in the country called LA. Change the terminology and you change the way you perceive and experience things.

Metaphors change reality

The reason why metaphors are powerful descriptors is that they filter and define reality in a simple fashion (for example, “Richard is a lion,” “the brain is a computer,” or “organizations are machines”). Even simple words like amoeba, beehive, fort, and cookie cutter provide clues as to how people see and experience paradigms in relationship to organizations.

For instance, if I said that such-and-such church was an elephant, what images come to mind? What if I had used the term starfish? Each metaphor will convey different information about reproductive capacities, mobility, strength, wisdom, personality, courage, and so on.

Identifying the metaphors thus offers significant clues about where to focus the efforts at shifting the paradigm. And what is more, change the metaphor, and you change the imagination [3]

Taking this further: If I suggest that the church is a religious institution, what images come to mind? Normally the “institution” metaphor carries the associated imagery of buildings, stability, stalwart solidity, budgets, programs, policies, staffing and volunteers, hierarchical organization, and so on.

But if I simply change the metaphor and suggest that the church is a movement, it ushers in a whole new way of seeing the same reality. The lens or paradigm has changed. What seemed familiar now is recognized in a new light.

The word “movement” invites you to see the church as more fluid, message based, adaptive, high energy, vital, and so on. We are forced to rethink everything in the light of that term.[4]

Plant movements, not churches

That is why I always tell would-be church planters: don’t plant churches—because you think you know exactly what they are—plant movements instead! Planting a movement involves an almost completely different agenda than planting a church!

Don't plant churches, plant movements instead. @alanhirsch Click To Tweet

If we are to awaken apostolic Genius and recover the dynamic of the outstanding transformational movements in history, then we must flip the dominant metaphor from the essentially static-institutional ones that dominate our ecclesiology to the more dynamic organic-movemental ones.

By changing the metaphor to that of organic images and movements, everything changes. You have to live the metaphor to enter the paradigm.

Begin with a different image/metaphor in mind, and you will end up with a very different organization. Enhance movement thinking by informing yourself and the organization about the nature of movements, start using movement metaphors throughout, and everything will begin to adjust accordingly.

The above was taken from the new edition of The Forgotten Ways. Click to pre-order.

This article first appeared at

[1]The Bible writers (Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, Paul, John, etc.) were all prolific users of image and metaphor. When Paul repeatedly uses the metaphor of the church being the body of Christ, for instance, we are meant to directly experience what he is referring to.

[2]Morgan, Imaginization, xxi.

[3] (Hirsch and Ferguson, On the Verge, 89–90).

[4]A recent Seth Godin post sums up the power of metaphors rather poetically: “The best way to learn a complex idea is to find it living inside something else you already understand. ‘This,’ is like, ‘that.’ An amateur memorizes. A professional looks for metaphors. It’s not a talent, it’s a practice. When you see a story, an example, a wonderment, take a moment to look for the metaphor inside. Lessons are often found where we look for them.”

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About the author


Alan Hirsch is the founder of 100Movements, Forge Mission Training Network, and Future Travelers. Known for his innovative approach to mission, Alan is widely considered to be a thought-leader and key mission strategist for churches across the Western world. He is the author of The Forgotten Ways; co-author of The Shaping of Things to Come, ReJesus and The Faith of Leap (with Michael Frost), plus many more. He also blogs at

About the author