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Sailing into the Deep

by Terry Maples

I recently read the book Sailboat Church – Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice by Joan S. Gray. A local congregation used the book to help members discern next steps on their journey of faith; they asked me to help them unpack the messages and meaning of the book.

I can summarize this excellent resource in a few words – Sailboat church is a metaphor comparing “sailing” to “rowing,” i.e. being blown by God’s Spirit vs. doing church in traditional, humanly-devised ways. Church membership and budgets are shrinking, and many congregations are “rowing” harder than ever. Leaders are frustrated their human efforts are not rewarded with more members and bigger budgets—traditional markers of success or faithfulness.

In her book Joan Gray suggests a better way: sailboat church. The idea is both simple and difficult. Stop working so hard in your own strength and focus instead on corporate discernment and guidance from Holy Spirit. The goal is for the church to “put up the sail” and “catch the ruach (wind) of God.” This means trusting God and giving up control over the direction your congregation is heading! The metaphor is a good one as long as we remember how much more difficult it is to sail than to row. Sailing doesn’t mean leaders and members don’t do anything. Quite the contrary! Much strategy is involved in adjusting the sails and keeping the boat sailing in a right direction!

The more time I spend coaching faith communities the more I realize the difficulty isn’t congregational unwillingness to seek God’s guidance. Members of most churches genuinely desire to journey with God and have kingdom impact. Rather, a huge problem is many congregations are stuck on the shore—clinging to the safe and secure. The shore is deemed more reliable and more comfortable than pushing out into the water. We know the farther out from the shore we move the riskier it is to stay there.

Ironically, for Christ-followers and for congregations, clinging to the shore eventually causes much pain and discomfort. We intuitively know adventure with God is in the deep water. We know Jesus beckons us to join him in the middle where the current flows more vigorously. Usually, however, we say “no” and cling to homeostasis which causes spiritual atrophy and decay. This decision leads to death. We choose comfort in order to avoid the pain and potential danger associated with risk and change. This action (maybe we should call it inaction) sets us up for suffering and frustration. Instead of comforting us, failing to leave the shore confronts our disobedience, saps our energy, leaves us with little spiritual vitality to change the world, and distracts us from our God-given purpose. It takes courage to turn loose of the shore, put up the sails, and trust God’s Spirit to blow.

Fear keeps us holding onto the shore. Clinging is a prime source of suffering. In order to stay grounded and comfortable, we clutch in three ways:

1. Holding on to things – Our capitalistic and materialistic culture sends powerful messages about possessing things. We crave new cars, new houses, new clothing, new jewelry, the latest i-phone….the list goes on. We get a pleasure infusion until a newer model car or i-phone hits the market or we get a stain on our new shirt. Churches can be guilty of holding onto buildings and programs that are no longer effective, i.e. choosing patterned but ineffective ways of being and doing church over innovation and life-giving faithfulness. If we aren’t careful things will consume our thoughts and our hearts. Clinging to things keeps us from trusting God.

2. Holding onto fixed ideas – Experience proves many congregations are stuck because they cling to fixed ideas—about the purpose and mission of the church, about Jesus’ expectations of disciples, and about the scorecard for effectiveness or faithfulness. In an uncertain world, we strive for certitude—which I understand to be the opposite of faith. How easy it is to project our biases, views, and opinions onto others. These are most often rooted in culture rather than scriptures. Clinging to the “same old same old” closes our minds to new possibilities and stifles innovation. Holding onto fixed ideas is really damaging when attachment to our views leads us to say, “You are wrong; I’m right.” This perspective shuts down potential for growth and collaboration with folks outside our tribe (ecumenism).

3. Holding onto spiritual highs – There is nothing wrong with a spiritual high. An occasional spiritual high can be the encouragement we need to continue on the journey of faith. The problem comes when we try to stay on a high to avoid the messiness of the real world. For many of our congregations, spiritual highs are tied to nostalgic glory days when pews were packed and Sunday school classes overflowed. We are better off reflecting on what God is calling us to be and do today instead of expecting the same results of yesterday.

The New Year is a great time for fresh starts. Why not start this New Year well by reflecting on these questions:

  • How are my congregation and her leaders clinging to the shore?
  • What will it take (how much pain will we experience) for us to turn loose and move into the deep water where adventure with God takes place?
  • What spiritual practices might cultivate capacity for “sailing?”
  • What things are we clinging to that keep us from fully trusting God?
  • What fixed ideas are keeping us stuck?
  • What will allow us to celebrate the “glory days” of the church without believing that how we did church then will work now (believe me, it won’t!)?

Jesus beckons us to lives of faith and discipleship. Courage demands we push away from the shore, put up the sails, give up control, and consent to being blown by Spirit. I pray God’s richest blessings upon your congregation in this New Year as you journey by faith, not by sight. Let the adventure begin!