Early Christians used the image of a sailboat to symbolize their experience of church. As the wind moves a boat by filling the sails, so the church is powered by the Holy Spirit moving on, among and through the body of Christ. Unlike a rowboat that moves across open water mainly thanks to human effort, sailing involves a partnership between sailors and the wind. The wind is key here: no wind, no sailing. The converse is also true: without sailors, there is no sailing.
This amazing, holy thing called church is by God’s own intention a divine-human collaboration. As we seek and follow God’s will, we are drawn deeper into the partnership. More and more we experience God’s will being done around and through us. We find ourselves sailing with the Spirit instead of rowing the church using only human resources.
We find ourselves sailing with the Spirit instead of rowing the church using only human resources.
Jesus made it clear that his followers were not to go out from the empty tomb immediately to evangelize the world. Instead, he commanded them to wait until they received power from the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:8). This power was not something for them to use to achieve an agenda for God. Rather it was God’s own Spirit, meeting them as they were and making them new creations, conformed to the image of Christ. Through this spiritual transformation, despite all their human imperfections, they sailed into God’s future in mighty ways and turned the world toward salvation. The church is a reality because they allowed God to fill their sails and take them where God wanted them to go.
All our attempts to do God’s work without God’s leading and power … yield little worthwhile fruit and may even cause harm.
Living into this partnership, the church operates between two realities. Jesus spoke to his disciples about this truth at the Last Supper: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). One reality is that we are helpless to do anything worthwhile for God unless God calls, empowers and guides us. All our attempts to do God’s work without God’s leading and power, no matter how well intended and resourced on a human level, yield little worthwhile fruit and may even cause harm.
The other side is that when we are empowered and guided by God, former impossibilities become possible. This guidance does not mean receiving a set of instructions to create something for God. Instead, it means a new identity and new way of being in the world.
… when we are empowered and guided by God, former impossibilities become possible.
Matt Wilcox – pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Normal, Illinois – puts it this way: “I have been reminding our officers of the truth that they are not a board of directors, but rather the ordained spiritual leaders of the church. Reframing this role is an ongoing work, less about tools to be mastered or tasks to accomplish and more about an identity we aspire to as a community of faith. … Principles and new methods have an important place in church leadership, but the discernment of identity, of where and Who our center is, is vital.”
Below are four key characteristics of leaders for a sailboat church.
They are passionate about God
In our relationship with God, passion is about not emotion but rather commitment. God has made an everlasting commitment to us. Part of what happens to us as the Spirit’s influence grows is that our commitment to God also grows, and it migrates to the center of our lives.
The focus shifts from satisfying a job description to answering God’s call for our lives. We want to be closer to God and know more about God. Deeper gratitude for what God has done blooms within. Worship becomes a priority. This passion for God brings with it a desire to seek and do God’s will no matter what that might turn out to be.
Jesus’ life provides the ultimate picture of passion for God. It involved giving control of his life to his Abba and seeking and doing God’s will regardless of the cost. We cannot make ourselves have this quality of relationship. It comes to us as a gift from God. We can, however, pray that the Spirit will create deeper passion within and among us. God delights to answer this prayer! And as God answers it, we will find a deeper relationship with God, influencing every area of life.
They practice sanctified imagination and discernment
Arguably, what ails many congregations is a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine God doing a new thing among us. We read the Acts accounts of the Spirit-powered church almost as a fairy tale or ancient history.
We assume that God did special things for them and gave them exceptional gifts and resources to get the church off the ground. This assumption is inspiring, but it feels far from anything we experience. Failure of imagination leads to spending substantial energy on institutional survival while wishing for the way church used to be.
Effective spiritual leaders regularly hold the promises of our faith up against the realities of the world in which they live, asking, “What might it look like for us to be faithful to God now?” As we do so, we invite the Holy Spirit to work in our imagination. We live into the creative tension between what God has done and what God desires to do among us in the future.
Failure of imagination leads to spending substantial energy on institutional survival while wishing for the way church used to be.
I do not suggest that leaders should do whatever may come into their minds. The exercise of sanctified imagination includes the practice of spiritual discernment. In this context, “discernment” means Godly decision making. It has taken many specific forms in various settings throughout the ages, and resources to support such discernment are plentiful. However, they all take very seriously the idea that making decisions can be a divine-human enterprise, and they provide ways to invite God in.
First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg, Florida, invited God into their process as they wrestled with difficult decisions. Their situation involves an aging congregation, a very large campus and the expenses that go with it. Encouraged by their pastor Ginny Ellis, members of the congregation met weekly to discern the way forward. They prayed and imagined together what it might be like to sail, instead of row, their congregation into the future. One member reports, “We were inviting the Spirit into our hearts. We could feel the Spirit wafting through each gathering, and as the weeks went on, we talked about feeling the Spirit in our worship spaces, too.” These meetings birthed a group exploring how congregations can become missional churches. As one member reported, we have moved into a place of “letting the Spirit lead us to our future.”
They discern the kairos and respond
New Testament Greek has two words for time. One, chronos, refers to time told by clocks and calendars. The other word, kairos, refers both to times when certain things are appropriate and to times of special opportunity sent by God. The writer of Ecclesiastes refers to kairos time: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1).
This distinction is important for several reasons. Activities that are appropriate at some times may not be appropriate at others. If the church has suffered significant losses, they might be in a season to grieve and focus on pastoral care. Seasons of celebration might include new buildings being built, new pastors arriving, significant goals being met or major anniversaries being celebrated. Distinctive blessings can be received and opportunities found in all the seasons of the congregation’s life. Simply raising the question “What kind of season do you sense our congregation is in now?” at a meeting can exercise and develop a perception for the kairos of a church.
The word kairos in Scripture also refers to a time of extraordinary opportunity coming from God. When Jesus said, “The time [kairos] is fulfilled … repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15), he was proclaiming such a time. By being in their midst himself, Jesus created the kairos moment, a special time of revelation and blessing. In a parable, Jesus told of a man who discovered a treasure in a field: “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). He recognized the kairos and responded appropriately.
More of these special, fertile times come our way than we recognize. They may not last long, and they demand an appropriate response. If leaders believe that God is always at work among us, they will be alert for these kairos opportunities. Being alert requires the faith to believe that God really does want to save the world and has a place for us in this enterprise. Prayer, reflection on Scripture and paying attention to the movement of the Spirit in the church are activities that help leaders develop the ability to discern God’s kairos movements in the church.
If leaders believe that God is always at work among us, they will be alert for these kairos opportunities.
Some time ago, I spent a couple of years traveling around the country on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). As part of this travel, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Presbyterians in Nebraska. The three executive presbyters of that state wanted me to hear from their people. So for a good part of a week, we visited two or three churches a day, listening to people share their joys and woes. One consistent theme had to do with the population drain in their communities due to changes in agriculture. Churches were shrinking because communities were shrinking. Theirs was a season of loss and grief.
Toward the end of my visit I heard something different in a little church that looked and felt like all the others. They too were being diminished by change. But after sharing these sad realities, one of the elders said, “We can’t do church the way we’ve always done church. So we are asking God, ‘What do you want us to be doing now?’ ” This is kairos thinking. God is always doing a new thing, and effective spiritual leaders are alert and ready to follow God’s lead.
They live by prayer
Prayer is a major avenue along which provision and power flow between heaven and earth. Jesus expressed this to his disciples many times: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:14). If you want to know to what degree a church is sailing with the Spirit, ask about its practice of prayer. In sailboat churches, leaders are not content to do what they can with their own resources. Instead, they habitually hold out their hands in prayer before the one who said, “Ask and you will receive.” They tap into what God can do with them and through them as they pray.
Living in the flow of obedient prayer, we grow in faith. We experience God’s abundance and become dissatisfied with what we can do with our human resources alone. The Holy Spirit becomes a real and welcome reality. The Spirit moves leaders to dream dreams and see visions. They begin to make decisions by trusting that the God who calls is the God who provides. This does not guarantee that if we pray enough we will get what we want. Rather, over time, God uses our investment in prayer to make us more into the image of Christ. We become people who want God to be at the center of our lives. Following this path of obedient prayer, we are slowly drawn deeper into the flow of the Spirit’s work in the world.
Following this path of obedient prayer, we are slowly drawn deeper into the flow of the Spirit’s work in the world.
One especially effective prayer practice is the early morning prayer of submission. Taking even 5 or 10 minutes to put ourselves, our concerns and our burdens for others in God’s hands creates a spiritually healthy framework for the day. Instead of merely asking God for what we want or need, we give ourselves to God, trusting that God’s will is good will. This habit of trust produces a sense of freedom and security. It trains us to lean on God’s sovereign mercy regardless of the circumstance.
The church was created to sail on the wind of the Spirit. Its leaders were meant to be people who know how to move with the Spirit. The best thing a pastor can do for church officers is help them own their identity as spiritual leaders and learn to live into that identity. Time spent this way will bear great fruit, not just for the leadership but throughout the whole church and beyond into the world.