In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic hit, we were scheduled to take our sailing class the following June in Greece. I was excited to get our curriculum package in the mail! I opened up a large folder full charts, and unwrapped the protractor and the navigation divider. I had seen these in movies, but had never used one.
But before we got to navigation, we needed to learn the basics. The first section of our curriculum was about the parts of a sailboat. And right here, in the first few pages of our workbook, I found one of my most important lessons. The V-shaped part of the boat above the bow is called the pulpit — the same word that describes the place in a church where a preacher delivers a sermon.
(It’s also the place where, in the movie Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett shout and stretch out their arms into the wind. I’ll talk more about the Titanic and how it fits into “sailing uncharted waters” when I tell you about our time in Belfast, where the Titanic was built).
Churches have often used the metaphor of a sailboat to describe their community. At certain early Christian pilgrimage sites, you can often find graffiti of a boat carved into a stone wall or bit of plaster. After the early church stopped meeting in homes and started meeting in dedicated buildings, congregations referred to the main sanctuary as the nave, as in “navy,” because the vaulted ceiling looked like the ribs of a boat. They imagined the pews as seats in a galley, and the congregation as the rowers. The pulpit resembled the bow of a boat.
But I realized an important church-related truth in this sailboat diagram: you don’t steer a boat from the pulpit. You steer it from the pushpit (or the cockpit), in the rear (or stern) of the boat. The person in front is not necessarily the person who is running the show.
I think the early church communities understood, even after they began to become more institutionalized, that the clergy were not the only people in charge. See, it takes a lot of coordination to make a sailing vessel move. A boat probably has a captain, but a person on watch stands in the pulpit to see where the boat is going or to take bearings. A pilot stands in the rear to move the wheel or rudder and call out to the crew controlling the sails. A navigator takes measurements to make sure the boat is on course.
And early church theologians talked about the Holy Spirit, like a wind or the breath of God, being the power that filled the sails and actually moved the church forward.
When people talk about the church today, they typically talk about it as an institution or a business. I’ve heard people say “the church should be a hospital for sinners instead of a museum for saints,” which is true enough. But I wonder how it would change our perception if our main metaphor for church was not a static building or an institution, but something that actually moved under the power of wind or spirit. I wonder what would change if we traded our binary model of “leader” and “follower” for terms like captain, pilot, watchman, navigator, and crew.
Prayer: Jesus who stills the storms, help us to be your competent crew.
—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.