Occasionally I visit a leaders’ network evening-gathering in Bluewater Bay, which lies at the northern-eastern end of Algoa Bay, home to Port Elizabeth. The double carriage way runs along the beach front, and one of my delights is, going and returning, to cast an eye on the many, many ships lying off Coega Harbour. The ships are beautifully lit up, look warm and inviting, and they make up every kind and size. The fleet at anchor is obviously made up of local ships as well as craft from every corner of the earth. They come to re-fuel, re-plenish, off-load their cargo and take on new cargo destined for distant ports.
Every time I see this, it seems to be (to me at least) a kind of parable of the kingdom of God, and more specifically the place of the Church in relation to the harvest-field. [Please don’t push the metaphor too far, as all metaphors eventually unravel spectacularly]
A word about the harbour. To me, in a way, this represents the Church, the community of Jesus Christ. It’s a place of communion, nourishment, edification and encouragement [ideally the Church at large is made up of so many smaller grassroots communities living out the life of Jesus – pardon the mixed metaphors!].
The ships? Ships take shelter and are replenished in the harbour, but they are not meant to stay there – those that do, soon turn into rusting hulks cluttering up the harbour. Ships are built for the open sea. I have never quite grasped why so many modern yacht clubs degenerate into drinking holes filled with people who never actually go yachting and know nothing about the sea. Fishing boats permanently moored in the harbour are a total contradiction. Ships are meant to carry cargo to other places where there is need of food, fuel or whatever. The cargo we as ‘vessels’ carry is Jesus himself and the ‘Good News’ of the kingdom. Yes, we may carry that precious cargo in ‘jars of clay’ (oops, mixed metaphors!), as the apostle Paul indicates in 2 Cor. 4, but indwelt by the risen Christ those vessels are incredibly effective and life-transforming. The benefits of the cargo on arrival are not in human hands but in the hands of the Creator and Redeemer, which is comforting!
Something else about ships. They have common basics like sea-worthiness and mechanical power, but are amazing in their diversity. It seems to me we do ourselves a disservice when we:
- Insist that our personality and talents and giftings must be be like someone else’s. [on a corporate scale, each local fellowship’s gifting-mix is different and unique: cf. Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4; 1 Pet. 4]
- Project our personality and talents and giftings on to others. [again, on a corporate scale, God is not into cookie-cutting when it comes to local assemblies: here I think denominations and ‘international ministries’ planting identical offspring are getting it all wrong]
Finally, let’s consider the picture as a whole. There is at least one perspective that struck me when re-reading Frank Viola’s ‘Finding Organic Church.’ In terms of my metaphor, while intimately inter-related, don’t confuse harbours and ships. Writing about apostleship and apostolic ministry (functional rather than official), Viola points out that the Church itself, in a certain sense, is separate from the work. He bases this conclusion on his observation of Paul’s ministry in relation to the churches he was part of. Typically, Paul would spend several months establishing the ground floor of a believing community, only to leave it to itself (and the Spirit) for periods of time. While away, he would offer advice, occasionally visit, but he never took charge of and governed its affairs (cf. Acts 15:36, 18:23; 2 Cor. 12:14, 13:1) [how totally off-the-mark is the postmodern, popular concept of an ‘apostle’ in certain church circles]
Viola concludes that churches are local, whereas the work is transient. The churches are settled. The work is a roving association. At the end of the day, apostolic workers (church-planters, etc) are not settlers but travellers. Viola, like many others, pleads for the re-introduction of the NT church-planter in the establishment of the kingdom. If I had properly grasped this truth earlier in my ‘pastoral ministry,’ I think I would have done things differently. It is unbiblical and dangerous to try and do evangelism (the bulk of it) in the local church – we tried this as a ‘cell church’ with initial but waning success. Rather, I believe, the church/fellowship is the place of teaching and encouragement and equipping (Acts 2:42) (with the corresponding gifts operating), while each believer is called to incarnate Jesus in the world: in his or her home, neighbourhood, marketplace, ‘mission field.’ God of course will also sovereignly gift and call out persons and families as cross-cultural church-planters both locally and to the ends of the earth.
Returning to Viola, the church must never become the extension of the worker’s own ministry, so that it becomes a kind of ‘franchise KFC‘ of the worker. The church produces the workers, and the workers produce churches. ‘So the church – which is the corporate expression of Jesus Christ in a given locale, is both the goal and means of God’s grand mission. God desires to fill the earth with His Son! (Eph. 1:9-10, 22-23; 4:10ff)
Next time you and I witness ships entering or leaving the harbour, perhaps we’ll ‘think on some of these things’…