Three Metaphors for a Missional Church, Part 2: Sailboat
In Acts 16:6-10, we find the curious story of the apostle Paul trying to navigate the next step in his second missionary journey. His first thought is to go south to Asia, but he is blocked by the Spirit. His second thought is to go north to Bithynia, but again he is blocked by the Spirit. He muddles along to Troas, still unsure where his next step should be. Then, he receives a vision of a Macedonian man and concludes he should go west to Macedonia.
This was not his original plan (or even his backup plan) but it was the Spirit’s plan. I imagine that Paul might have been a little hesitant about going to Macedonia. After all, this was a different region and culture than Asia Minor where he was. It would have been much more efficient to evangelize all of Asia before moving on to a new area. Plus, there was risk involved in going to this area, which eventually was demonstrated as the first four main towns Paul visited all produced great resistance to the gospel. Yet, Paul was committed to following the Spirit’s leading and joining God in his mission in the world.
This story provides a paradigm for the missional church that calls for following the Spirit’s leading rather than a projection of strategic plans. Planning is not a bad thing to do and, certainly, church leaders should engage in this task. However, God’s redemptive mission belongs to God. Our job should be joining him in his mission rather than asking God to bless our plans. Granted, this perspective offers risk as God may lead us to areas uncharted and territories explored. True, following God’s direction may be inefficient at times as he may take us through a wilderness for a period of time. But to be a missional church means joining God in his work in the world, as the Spirit directs.
Maybe a metaphor for this is the difference between a rowboat and a sailboat. A rowboat finds its power from the human in the boat who rows. If the boat wants to go faster, the rower must give greater effort. If the boat is to change direction, it is dependent on the rower. But a sailboat is different. It finds its power from the wind. The goal of the sailor is to harness the wind and let the wind carry the boat in a certain direction.
Too often churches function like rowboats. They depend on human ingenuity and innovation to make progress. If the church is struggling, the response is often to row harder. Do more events. Plan more effectively. Start more programs. But missional churches functions like a sailboat. They depend on the wind of the Spirit to blow them in the direction that God wants them to go. Rather than putting their energy into human strategy, they focus on getting the sail up well. This happens through spiritual disciplines: spending time collectively in prayer, Bible study, spiritual discernment, and asking the questions of, what is God doing and what does God want to do?
To be a sailboat requires courage because, as Paul found out, the Spirit of God may blow you to Macedonia when you wanted to go to Bithynia. God may send his people to minister to a certain group or in a certain section of town that some do not want to go. He might call his people to bring a message that some don’t want to give. He might direct his body to engage in ministries that some do not want to do. But, like Paul, if we want to join God in his mission, we should seek to be obedient to the call of God wherever it may carry us.