To yearn for the wide boundless ocean

This quote by the writer of The Little Prince gets at the nub of the problems many of our churches are facing. Too many church leaders have tried to marshal their members into the technicalities of ship-building – that is church growth – without having first inspired them with a yearning to sail the high seas. Christians, though, should live for the sea. If we can reinvest our members with a yearning for the wide, boundless ocean of mission, the issues associated with building church will be far easier to address. How do we teach people to yearn for the ocean? Allow me to suggest a number of ways:

Some years ago I heard Scott Peck say that he felt that the Gospels were the best kept secret in Christianity and I’m inclined to agree. It’s the dangerous stories of the life of Jesus that need to become the reference point for Christians. What do I mean by ‘dangerous stories’? The stories in the Gospels, far from being soothing stories for baptized children, are the most dangerous element of the Christian experience. They are radical, daring, unsettling, disturbing, even frightening. Our memories of God’s human manifestation will continue to perturb us, inviting us to an alternative set of values that transcends our normal allegiance to our post-Christendom society.

The Gospels are replete with stories that shake us out of our preference for the level-headed reasonable memories that the church often presents to us. Jesus is not level-headed, nor is He reasonable. Just when we imagine we have Him figured out and boxed in, He wriggles free, confounding our formulas and simplistic explanations. Let’s face it: the Gospels aren’t bedtime stories at all. Far from sending us drifting off to a carefree sleep, they trouble us, forcing us to reassess the deals we have done with the “spirit of this age.”

The Christian missional identity is bound up in an understanding of who Jesus is and what He does and says. When we become obsessed with the Jesus of the Gospels we cannot but yearn for the high seas. He is free – marvellously, frighteningly free – from the structures of institutional religion. What would Jesus do? If we’re serious about answering that question we could find ourselves in the most liminal, missional experiences of our lives. Church leaders need to teach their friends to marinate their lives in the Gospels themselves.

Following Jesus means engaging meaningfully with the lives of others. How could we possibly believe that we could model our lives on Him and remain distanced from the poor, the confused, the struggling and the lost? Following Christ means more than not drinking or not swearing in polite company. It means facilitating a program for teen mothers. It means preaching the Gospel in a refugee camp. Jesus’ life is not primarily marked by retreat, reflection and solitude, though He did have such experiences. For Jesus these experiences were rarities, punctuation points in a life of engagement, action, connection. In Matthew 9:35 we are told that “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, preaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing every disease and sickness (italics mine).” This is an awesome itinerary and indicates a high spirituality of engagement. We need to take a stance that assumes that engagement is normal and retreat is an occasional but necessary feature of our spirituality.

To believe in prevenient grace is to assume that God goes before us even into the most irreligious situations and creates fields or environments in which our Christ-like example can be received. Think of the verb to prevene. It is related to the idea of convening. When one convenes a meeting, he or she opens that meeting and conducts it. But someone had to prevene that meeting before it began. A hall had to be booked, an agenda had to be determined, seats had to be set out. To prevene is to go beforehand and prepare in advance.

Says the writer of Ecclesiastes; “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11). It’s the eternity in our hearts that draws us into the search for God, the very same God who is searching after us always. We should acknowledge that and go confidently into the world on the assumption that God goes beforehand. Our job then is not to make things happen, but to cooperate with the God who is already making them happen Himself.

If Christians are looking for where God is already working they might be surprised by what they find.
They might find Him in the bar or the biker gang, in the strip club or the casino. Of course, they will find Him evangelising young people, but they might find Him in the Green movement or protesting against the WTO.

No one in Jesus’ time thought they’d find God eating with tax collectors or playing with children. He shattered the preconceptions of religious people as He does today. I have met bands of Christians heading up a biker gang in Melbourne, Australia; running a dance venue in Pomona, California; hanging out in an inner city bar in Birmingham, England; heading up a public art co-op in San Francisco; managing a skateboard park in Gisborne, New Zealand; running a pub in Bradford, England; managing a mobile drop-in centre in downtown Toronto, Canada; and managing a floating café on a canal in Amsterdam. Following God’s missional impulse, I know people who have developed Christian collectives in such businesses as a shoe store in San Francisco, a record store in Brisbane, a sporting goods store in Mission, British Columbia, a hot dog restaurant in Pittsburgh and an Italian restaurant in Melbourne.

If church leaders marinated their people in the dangerous Gospel and its radical spirituality of engagement, as well as inculcating a belief in God’s prevenient work in the world, and then led them out into the unlikely places He can be found, great changes would occur. Their members would have to confront the needs of the lost and the power of the Gospel. If just this much could be achieved, we might be surprised by the way that ordinary Christians, filled with a passion for the wide, boundless ocean of lostness they see, as well as with a fascination for the equally wide, boundless ocean of God’s love, would discover ways to build the ship needed to sail that ocean.

Adapted from Exiles: “Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture”, Hendrickson/Strand, 2006, by Michael Frost.

Michael Frost is the Vice Principal of Morling College in Sydney, the Director of the Centre for Evangelism and Global Mission (, and a member of the missional community, Small Boat Big Sea in Manly. Email: [email protected]

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