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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Sailboat Church" (Joan S. Gray)

TITLE: Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice
AUTHOR: Joan S. Gray
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (176 pages).

This book is about doing Church either the “rowboat” way or the “sailboat” way. Using the metaphor of rowing vs sailing, the author tries to emphasize the key point that God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply. The Church is not meant to be one that is anchored on human wisdom. It is meant to be led by the Spirit, empowered by God’s wisdom, and enthusiastically lived out according to the wind of the Spirit, to sail where God wants to sail.

Gray, an elder of the Presbyterian Church first points out the follies of the “rowing” mentality. Despite the best efforts, money, human wisdom, non-stop energy and resources poured into doing Church, Churches that “row” will quickly lead to discouragement, distressed leadership, and declining churches. The root of the problem is human wisdom and human strength to do the ministry that needs God’s power.

Going back to the early Church in Acts, Gray points out the main difference in terms of “attitude” not numbers. Do church members serve out of their own strength and cleverness? Is Church merely a human religious organization? Are lives transformed? Do Churches believe in the supernatural, the spiritual reality of the kingdom of God? No. The rowing mentality is the tendency to fix things as if we are the masters of our own future. Such a mentality believes that the right person hired will lead to the right result planned. The right resources poured in will lead to the right fruits. Success becomes the key measurement yardstick rather than spiritual transformation.

Gray proposes a “divine-human partnership” for churches. Human effort is just one part. Rather than results driven, churches must prioritize their relationship with Jesus as the top. They need to depend on the power of the Holy Spirit rather than merely throwing money and resources on any plan. They need to cultivate prayerfulness, Scripture-led obedience, spiritual leadership, practice spiritual discernment over human decision-making, and so on. This calls for acute sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Recognize God as a Person rather than some mere prayer-answering machine. Let the Spirit build the community to work for God, rather than to depend on a handful of power individuals to do things for everyone. For the Spirit is our Teacher, our Guide, our Advocate, our Divine Power. The rest of the book shows us how to move from a rowboat to a sailboat church. The Church’s mission must be re-focused. The Church must develop sailors who keep Jesus central in their lives; adopt armor-of-God living; practices faith; remembering God is the One who saves; and letting God’s Word shine forth. Gray also has tips on how to transform a rowboat Church to a sailboat Church.
  1. The power to change is God’s prerogative
  2. Prayer is the key way to relate to God so much that we can know what is the next step
  3. Acknowledge God is Sovereign
  4. Discern God’s will and timing
  5. Be prepared to sacrifice our human tendency to control, our infatuation with comfort; and to trust that God will provide.
  6. Worship that incorporates a readiness to respond in becoming living sacrifices to do what God calls us to do
  7. Giving God the glory in thanksgiving and testimony
Other tips include a return to intentional spiritual formation just like the Early Church. Learn to exercise “spiritual imagination” that goes beyond the pros and cons, the cans and cannots, toward the call to be faithful to what God is calling us to do. Rise about “self-interest” and humbly move toward doing whatever it takes to bring forward the mission of the Church. Cultivate and use the spiritual gifts of members. Love one another.

Gray helpfully prepares readers to anticipate conflicts and the reality of spiritual warfare and further tips on spiritual discernment and navigation.

So What?

At first, the book does look like another “how-to” book on transforming sleepy churches from one old form into a newer one. When I read more, it is essentially a book about spiritual formation and discernment as a people of God. Gray recognizes the problems of doing Church man’s way, and rightfully proposes the need to set aside human wisdom in favour of God’s. This is not easy because many churches are already deemed to be entrenched in a “rowing” mentality through the years. It is easy to point out past successes to refute what Gray is saying. That is precisely what Gray is speaking out against. Doing God’s work must be done in God’s way. The tendency for humans to take upon human wisdom to do Church work is why people get burned out so easily.

Here is how I suggest this book can be used. First, recognize the problem. Keep an open mind about what Gray is saying with regards to the flawed strategies many churches have adopted. One may become defensive about their own churches, but if we adopt a humble spirit, we have nothing to lose to assume the worst. After all, it can help highlight any blind spots we may have. It can also hold down pride. Second, return to God’s Word and promises and clear our decks of human priorities. The various steps mentioned by Gray can be used as a starting point. Readers do not need to worry about following every single step. Do what is most appropriate. Otherwise, use the plan as an initial guide. Adapt and modify along the way. Third, restore God’s purposes and plans. This final step is necessary in our quest to do God’s work in God’s way. Prayer, spiritual discernment, and trust will lead toward a humility of heart that all sailboat churches will need.

The forty days of prayer at the end of the book is one way to help move Church leaders and members to wean themselves away from the entrenched mentality of a rowboat church. What are we waiting for?


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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