Direction-Setting for a Church


Setting the Course for the Church

Destination? Direction? Decision!

On March 24th 1989, a super tanker holding 41,000 cubic metres of crude oil ran aground in Alaska. There was no storm and the visibility was good. The rock that it struck was a very well-known navigational hazard and here was even a special radar reflector on the rock. In short: the ship just wasn’t supposed to be there!

Instead of navigating the usual shipping lanes, it had gone off course to avoid some small icebergs that were in the area. The captain was asleep below, sleeping off some overindulgence. The third mate was on the bridge but failed to realize what was happening. There was a collision warning system installed but it had not worked for over a year.

The result? The second largest oil spill in history – with the oil still killing wildlife in those parts to this day!


The Exxon Valdez, spilling oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989

A ship without a clear direction and a good navigation system can easily end up on the rocks. Thankfully God has given every local church a very clear direction in the Bible, and the Bible tells us how to steer clear of the rocks!

Why so many shipwrecked churches?

Why then are there so many shipwrecked churches in our generation? Some, no doubt, are the product of unique circumstances… the perfect storm in church life… and all we can do is look on with horror and sympathy. Others however are testimony to the reality that the church leaders somehow failed terribly in their duties to navigate well charted waters. Why would those making critical decisions, choose to steer their ships towards recognised dangers?

The tragedy is, that sometime ago now, many church leaders decided that God had not managed to make himself very clear with reference to the course which a church should take! How you choose to ‘do’ church is now put into the category marked “grey areas” in many people’s minds, and the idea of defining a biblical framework for church has been written off by many as placing too many constraints on our freedom!

The end product of such thinking is that many a pastor wants to steer his local church along a path that seems best to him. He thinks he can handle his ship well enough on his own! The disaster that so often unfolds as the church spills its precious cargo is a clear warning to this generation that we can’t do without direction from God!

What a relief when you realize that you can know exactly what we are supposed to be doing at every point. To say that is not the same as saying God tells us every detail. There’s no verse that says, “You shall have a bible study every Wednesday night at 7:30pm.”

compassBut we do have some very clear principles that can guide every decision we make. Like a compass bearing for the crew, God’s Word gives us the direction – our job is simply to steer the ship along that path. We dare not deviate to the left or the right!

In the nautical world, a time-tested way of finding direction has often been to look at the stars. Even sea-lions pop their heads out of the water as they swim along at night to check on the position of the stars, taking them safely to their chosen destination. Polynesian mariners do the same thing, checking the position of the stars on the horizon so that they can navigate successfully.

Their key to succes? They’ve done their research! As well as knowing exactly where they want to go, they also know which stars they have to head towards at any time of the night to safely get them there. You can well imagine that like sea-lions, they keep checking on the position of those stars as they sail along. After all, their survival depends on it!

Two Stars to Steer By

Borrowing this analogy as a point of reference, God has given us two stars to steer by. One of them is His chosen purpose for the church – if we get his purpose for our existence clearly in our sights, we won’t go too far wrong! The other star is God’s chosen character for the church. If we only see the purpose but miss the right character, we could still end up on the rocks, but with both of these to set our course by, barring mutiny or the perfect storm… we should end up where we’re meant to be, and avoid the rocks!

We’ll be unpacking what these “stars to steer by” entail over the course of the series, and in keeping with the nautical theme, we’ll have a few things to say about the attitude of the crew members on this ship as well 🙂

Sodom as a mission field

Lot flees from SodomHave you ever heard a sermon about Lot pitching his tent towards Sodom? Maybe, like me, you’ve heard people read quite a lot into that story. “Before long he was living in Sodom,” they say, “and look what happened to him and his family…”

A few questions have always niggled me about this approach. “Bad company corrupts good character” (1Cor 15:53) obviously still applies, but a logical application from this kind of message would also be to avoid living in immoral cities, since it might rub off on you, not to speak of the influence on your children. The problem with all this? It’s just not at all the instruction given to New Testament believers.

Location location location
(you need to know where you are)

Instead of telling them to escape to the hills, when Paul writes to the Corinthians, virtually the first thing he does is tell them about the amazing place that they are in, and call on them to live out their location!

Amazing place??? Corinth? Hang on – let me explain… Sure enough Corinth was a hell-hole. What can be seen on the screen today was out on the streets in Corinth. To make the link with Lot, they lived in a kind of 1st Century Sodom… but Paul wasn’t going to spend his time talking to them about that location!

What mattered to Paul was not so much where they lived, but the position that God had put them in, in Christ. They had been sanctified in Christ Jesus!

NowSanctified” – is a passive verb in the Greek, in the perfect tense. A literal translation could read, “having been sanctified” which raises a question or two if you think about it!

Corinthians? Sanctified?

You don’t have to read far in 1 Corinthians to realise that these Christians had not been made thoroughly holy… so what does this mean that they had been sanctifiedActually, this word is speaking more about their position than their practical level of holiness.

Just as in the Old Testament, pots and pans could be set aside to be used only for the Lord… so believers when they are saved, are set aside, moved into a new collection of people, a new category – holy to the Lord – dedicated to his own purpose and use. More than that, Christians have also been cleansed from their sin once-and-for-all, made holy in the Lord’s eyes by Christ’s sacrifice: “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” (Heb 10:10).

Don’t get out – work out instead

Now all that remained was for them also realise that they were called to live out their position in Christ… they had been called to be saints.

The good news is, that if you are in Christ, you might be living in Sodom, but in God’s eyes, you have been set apart to be holy for Him. You are now in Christ Jesus – washed clean by His blood, and made part of His body. That also means that God now has a special purpose for you. His purpose is that, as part of a church, you are called to live a holy life… and as you do so, to shine light into that terribly dark place.

It’s a scary thought to go back in time and think about what would have happened if Christians had fled Corinth, and Rome once they were converted. In those early days, as soon as the church was established, Paul seemed to rely on the saints in these bustling, immoral, worldly centres of the world to evangelise their area. He didn’t tell them all to flee the city, but to flee the sin in their own lives, and live in a way that would shine the light of the gospel throughout the regions they had such an influence on.

Life in Sodom can be scary for saints… but don’t run, you’re needed.

Can you smile in a storm?

A vicious wind swept down from the mountains onto the lake. Moments before, the water had been calm, but now plain sailing had suddenly become plain terrifying, as the wind whipped-up enormous waves.

The little fishing boat, open on the top to allow their trade, suddenly became a trap, for those fishermen. The great waves were breaking into the boat and filling it with water.

They all knew what was coming next. As seasoned boatmen, they’d long feared this sloshing water, knowing that at any moment it could suddenly destabilise the boat, and flip them into a watery grave.

And yet there was one person on the boat fast asleep. They woke him up with a rebuke, “Lord, don’t you care that were perishing?”

And there was Jesus, waking up the middle of a storm. What would you expect his response to be? “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I had no idea! Are you perishing? If only I had been awake. I would never have let you get into this mess!” But is that what he said?  No!

Mark his first words,

“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Matthew 8:26

After that, he got up and stilled the storm with a word.

If you add together the three accounts in Matthew Mark and Luke, you realize that he also questioned his disciples after rebuking the wind and waves: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” If that wasn’t enough, he questioned them a third time, “Where is your faith?”

Does Jesus expect us to trust in him, completely, in the middle of a terrifying storm? Actually, James tells us that when we’re suddenly surrounded by trials, we’re to consider it… to count it all joy! Now that takes faith!

With or without faith, storms come. With faith however, you can smile at them.
That’s worth having.

Into the fray

Starting something is usually easier than seeing it through, and for that reason, among others, I’ve held back the longest time, from starting a blog. After all, I’ve told myself, I’ve got plenty going on! Being a husband and a father, a pastor and a church-planter doesn’t exactly leave someone with gobs of time. That said, I can’t hold off for ever, and I’ve realised that like so many others, I’ve got stuff I need to communicate, and – well – this is the easiest way… so here goes.