Many a local church is like a sailing ship in the doldrums: at a standstill, going nowhere.

It's not that captain and crew want it that way. They know instinctively that ships are made for going places, not standing still, and they want to see their vessel on the move again. But how? The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of two distinct schools of thought, each believing it possessed the key to successful spiritual seafaring.

One stresses the prophetic dimension. The key to progress, they maintain, is catching the wind of the Spirit, and to catch it we must deploy every square inch of sailcloth we can lay hands on. What's more, every item of surplus weight needs throwing overboard. Ditch that ten-week sermon-series on the Epistle of James, those courses on marriage enrichment and the teaching of the fundamentals of the faith. All that matters is to catch the wind of the Spirit—the prophetic direction for the church—and you'll soon be crashing through the waves at a fair rate of knots.

These lively sailors are mostly gung-ho, 'I can do it' types, purpose-driven and single-minded. They stride the deck, the wind in their hair, eyes straining to spot the heavenly landfall. They attract lots of prophetic passengers who like a thrilling ride.

But there's trouble ahead. That's because, in their haste to get rid of all that would slow their progress, they have thrown out the ballast. The ship has become dangerously unstable. I've seen quite a few of these vessels completely blown over, turned turtle, some of the sailors and passengers sadly drowned and others thrashing around desperately in the water.

The other school of spiritual seafaring stresses the didactic dimension. They long ago predicted the charismatic capsizes they now see around them. The key to progress, in their view, lies in giving priority to the vessel's stability. Where the prophetic types threw out the ballast, these pile it on. The hull is tight-packed with weighty volumes of John Owen and other Puritan writings. Each week, systematic Bible exposition adds to the weight. There's no cargo of charismatic balsa-wood here! Nor is there any sail. Who needs the ever-shifting wind when there's all that solid and reassuring material below decks and a steady trickle of dour shipmates wanting to sign on.

But this boat's in problems, too. Like the other, it's going nowhere, though for a different reason. If the first was all sail, prophetic and charismatic but lacking the ballast of the Word, this one is so heavily ballasted that it sits low in the water, too heavy to move and in danger of sinking like a stone under the weight of its own doctrinal obesity.

It's surely plain as a pikestaff that, to make progress, a sailing ship needs both a good sail and some good big stones for ballast in the hull. Not either or, but both.

The wind can blow as hard as it will, but without a sail to catch it there'll be no progress. The Holy Spirit dimension, so manifestly a part of the church portrayed in the New Testament, is no less vital today. Every church needs leaders with a prophetic streak who can sense the constant and subtle shifts in wind-direction and make the necessary adjustments to the tiller. Today the Spirit may be emphasising a church's need to be more prayerful. A few months from now he may be challenging them about being too inward-looking and stressing the need for evangelism. Later, he may take them through a period of involvement in social work in the community. In each phase, the leaders need to direct the bulk of the preaching and other activities towards the reinforcing of the Holy Spirit's emphasis.

But in all these adjustments the ballast must not be touched. The church needs to maintain its rolling programme of courses and regular Bible exposition. The children's teaching, the youth work, the parenting seminars, the prayer meeting, the new Christians' classes, the conversational Bible studies—all these must continue if the vessel is to remain stable.

Here's where ship's captains have problems. I've seen it time and time again. The prophetic captain invites visiting speakers on board. And what type does he invite? Prophetic types! That's because, being of that bent himself, he can't help feeling that the prophetic type of preacher is the one that will best serve the church's interests. But what he really needs to be doing is inviting teacher-types who will complement, rather than repeat, his own ministry. Similarly, the didactic captain is a bit wary of the wild-eyed prophetic preacher who, he fears, might get his crew and passengers a bit excited. So he plays safe by inviting into the pulpit other teacher-types like himself.

No wonder the sea of faith is dotted with so many becalmed vessels. Captains must be risk-takers, able to chance putting their ship for a while into the hands of a visiting seaman with a different approach to sailing from their own. And here's to the brave captain who might go so far as to invite such a one to join his crew for keeps. His ship will end up going places—as ships are meant to do.

Copyright © David Matthew 1999

Sailcloth and Stones

Moving the church forward

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.


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