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Elders as sailors in the sailboat church

Many churches today are decorated with symbols that come out of the early days of Christianity. One of those is a symbol for the church; it is a boat. In Jesus’ time, there were two ways to power a boat on open water. One was to use muscles, most commonly by rowing. The other way was to harness the power of the wind. When the early Christians used a boat as a symbol for the church, it was never a rowboat; it was always a sailboat. That is because on the day of Pentecost, with “a sound like a rushing wind,” Jesus’ promise of power became a reality.

The book of Acts tells the story of how, from Pentecost day onward, the Holy Spirit worked within the first believers to help them understand the true meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection. The Spirit drew together a diverse group of men and women into a strong, unified community. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the believers discerned God’s will and found courage when they ran afoul of political and religious authorities. The advocate Jesus promised did for them what they could not do themselves, and before long blew them out of Jerusalem to change the world forever.

The first Christians experienced the Spirit of God moving them along as the wind moves a sailboat. From the beginning the church was intended to be a God-powered movement. On Pentecost, the believers found what they had been missing, the gift of spiritual resources to participate with Jesus in his transformation of the world. As they felt the wind of the Spirit begin to blow around them that day, they raised their sails, and began the process of learning how to become sailors.

What about us?

One of the ways we cut ourselves off from God’s power today is to read the accounts of the first believers and think, “That was then and this is now.” To the contrary, the power of Jesus, his Abba, and the Holy Spirit is just as available to us now as it was to the early church. We can sail like they did or we can choose to keep rowing. What makes the difference between rowboat church and sailboat church?

The bedrock reality of life in the rowboat church is that God has given a basic agenda (for example, to make the world a better place, save souls, help the poor, and spread Christian truth) and then left it up to them to get on with it. The dominant attitude in this congregation is either “We can do this.” or “We can’t do this.” The church focuses on circumstances like the money it has or can raise, the available volunteers, the charisma and skill of the leaders, and the demographics of its community. The rowboat congregation acts as if its progress depends on its own strength, wisdom and resources. It’s all about how hard and long people are willing to row.

In contrast, the dominant attitude in a sailboat church is, “God can do more than we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). Its members know that what they have or lack in human and material resources is not the decisive factor in what they can accomplish as a church. They look on church as a continuing adventure with a God who guides and empowers them to do more than they could ever have dreamed.

Sailors in a sailboat church do not assume they know the Lord’s agenda. Rather they ask, “What is God leading us to be and do now in the place where we find ourselves?” They are willing to spend considerable time and energy on discerning where the Spirit is moving and inviting them to invest themselves in his work. They believe that God is both the one who calls and the one who provides what is needed to do the work.

Living between nothing and everything

People who are committed to move forward with God in a sailboat church live between two spiritual realities. The first of these we hear from Jesus at the Last Supper with his disciples: “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Nothing is a very harsh word. It must have been hard for the first disciples to hear Jesus talk about his going away from them, and then to hear him say, “Without me you can do nothing.” How was the work to go forward, how was God’s agenda going to be accomplished if Jesus was going away and if without him they could do nothing?

Nothing is still a hard word for believers to hear today, yet Jesus also says to 21st century Christians: “Without me you can do nothing.” Without me, he says, you can give religious speeches, but you can’t preach the Gospel. You can hold church services, but you can’t worship. You can put biblical and theological information in people’s minds, but they won’t come to faith. Without me it is impossible to do my ministry or accomplish my mission. This sounds offensive to our ears because at the top of just about any list of virtues is a can-do spirit. Deep down, what we feel is, “It’s all up to us.” Most Christians today would agree at least in theory that doing God’s work should somehow involve God, but in practice God tends to be a distant or even absent partner.

In a rowboat church, as long as the church is able to keep rowing, people are often reluctant to do anything else. Rowing means that we are in control; we are getting the job done. When we get to the point when we can’t row any more or when rowing is not getting us where we need to go, then we are faced with a choice.

One option is to give up. Some congregations simply run out of people or money or energy and close the doors. Others take what they do have and just spread it thinner and thinner until it runs out. Another very sad thing that happens is that congregations turn inward and begin to fight each other until finally conflict tears the church apart.

Other congregations in a similar situation, decide to try doing church in a new way and become sailboats. Sailboat congregations know that they cannot make the wind blow, but they do realize that they can tap into spiritual resources beyond themselves by reorienting their efforts and catching the wind of the Spirit.

This brings us to the second reality that sailboat congregations live by. We hear it in the angel Gabriel’s response to Mary’s question, “I am a virgin. How can I bear a child?” Gabriel’s response is elegantly simple: “With God nothing is impossible.” (Luke 1:37)

Sailboat churches know that when God becomes the chief guide and power source in their life and ministry, the unthinkable moves into the realm of the possible. The first believers in Jesus thought his story was finished when they put his dead body in a tomb and rolled a stone across the door, but God had other possibilities in mind. Just as human will did not produce Jesus, neither did human powers have the last word on his life. He came to bring a new reign of God upon the Earth which no human power could ever equal or destroy. The church was created to be both a demonstration of this new creation and a staging ground for partnering with God in mission to the world. Only congregations that are living into a transforming relationship with the God for whom nothing is impossible can hope to fulfill their potential as the body of Christ.

Living between the realities of “without me you can do nothing” and “with God all things are possible” is both humbling and exciting. We are constantly reminded that we are powerless to do the work of Jesus’ church without him. At the same time we find that the wind of Christ’s Spirit still blows in the world and as we put up the sails God does amazing things.

In many ways, sailing is just as much work as rowing. The difference is that rowers are confined to the power they can generate themselves; sailors learn to let the boundless power of the wind move them where they need to go. This process is about living in the creative tension between our weakness and God’s power, between our poverty and the wealth of resources God provides to those who humbly seek to do God’s will.

JOAN GRAY was moderator of the 217th General Assembly. She was co-author of “Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers.” The above article is excerpted from “Sail Boat Church: A God-Powered Adventure,” to be published by Geneva Press in the spring of 2014.