island“The Church needs navigators tuned to the voice of God, not map-readers. Navigational skills have to be learned on the high seas and in the midst of varying conditions produced by the wind, waves, currents, fogbanks, darkness, storm clouds and perilous rocks.” (Eddie Gibbs, Leadership Next, 66).

In the spring of 1980 I was looking for a job. I crossed paths with a college friend who had just secured a summer job as a fishing guide. He planned to head up to Stuart Island in May to start training. They were looking for additional trainees. I decided to head up to Stuart Island with him.

My first day training was eye opening. I thought the ocean was a large, predictable body of water. I found myself instead being ferried around in a small boat in tidal waters between islands. Imagine a river that flows north one day at 4 knots. The next morning you return to the same place and it’s flowing south at 6 knots. Hugh whirlpools spun off rocks, sometimes reaching two hundred feet across and fifty feet in depth. Change was constant. The “terrain” of the ocean and its currents was unpredictable because of the islands, underwater obstacles, and the weather. While the phases of the moon offered us a guideline in terms of the time of maximum flow, that was nearly all we could rely on.

I could tell many stories from my eight seasons as a fishing guiden but what I want to do instead is flesh out a connection to missional shift and missional leadership.

LenWe live in a time where the landscape has become fluid. What was once predictable and stable is now like the rapids I faced while fishing. One day 4 knots south, the next day 6 knots north. The settled and predictable ways of Modernity and Christendom have given way to plurality and fragmentation.

Maps are amazing tools. They allow us to locate ourselves in relation to the landscape, using features and indicators that rarely change. In Modernity and in the settled and predictable ways of Christendom, we used internal maps to orient to the culture and to find our way forward. Moreover, when we made mistakes we could reference our maps to step back and start again.

That was then — this is now.

We are now in a time where the pace of change outstrips our ability to locate ourselves. What we assumed were stable and enduring features have either disappeared or morphed so much that we no longer recognize them. Today context is king – adaptive responses must be local.

What do we do when maps no longer describe the territory? How do we locate ourselves, and then find the way forward? Eddie Gibbs offered us the clue: when maps stop working, we train navigators.

The Competencies of Navigators

Navigation is a significantly different skill than map reading.The points on a map are fixed, and so when one wants to locate a point in the real world one simply locates oneself by correspondence to known geography or artifacts, and then proceeds step by step methodically to the next point. If you have a compass, this is really, really easy.

sextantBut navigation requires no fixed planetary points. Instead, one learns to read the sky – the stars, really. Map reading is a skill that can be learned on a table top in any school room. Any ten year old can master it. And with a compass, any ten year old can go out and use that knowledge with a high degree of confidence.

Navigation, on the other hand, is a skill that is learned in the wilderness or on the ocean. It requires courage and the ability to withstand harsh conditions. And it requires something that is never required of map readers: faith and a fundamental inner peace. When there are no physical points to locate ourselves, we rely on an internal compass. That internal compass is tuned not to earthly points, but to an external reference point – the North star.

We don’t really need navigators in times of cultural stability. We need them desperately in seasons of transition. Seminaries and churches are fairly good at training map readers; not so good at training navigators. The navigator is a spiritual pilgrim. Brad Brisco argues that the first step in missional shift is counterintuitive. To anchor the outward journey we foster an inner journey, because our goal in mission is to form a certain kind of people. He writes,

“God calls the church to be a sent community of people who no longer live for themselves but instead live to participate with Him in His redemptive purposes. However, people will have neither the passion nor the strength to live as a counter cultural society for the sake of others if they are not transformed by the way of Jesus. If the church is to “go and be” then we must make certain that we are a Spirit formed community that has the spiritual capacity to impact the lives of others.

“This means the church must take seriously its responsibility to cultivate spiritual transformation that does not allow believers to remain as adolescents in their spiritual maturity. Such spiritual formation will involve much greater relational underpinnings and considerable engagement with a multitude of spiritual disciplines.”

And as we might expect, we have great stories of navigators in the Old Testament. There were no maps for the people of Israel leaving Egypt, only a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

sextantFrom Captivity to Freedom

Israel had been in captivity for four hundred years – enough time to learn some bad habits. But the root issue was personal: which God would they worship? Egyptian religion was man-made, offering predictable gods who could be manipulated. Religion puts us in control. We develop religious technologies so that we can actually avoid the encounter with a living God.

The God of the Exodus, on the other hand, was unTamed and demanded complete loyalty. He didn’t offer Israel a game plan for the coming miles or the next forty years. Instead, he offered them his presence and Promise – to go before them.

Why not simply give them a map? There are at least two reasons.

First, God himself wanted to be the way forward. He wanted a people radically dependent on His Spirit.

Second, the process was as important as the destination. God wasn’t just providing deliverance. He isn’t on call like a standing army. He’s the king! He is forming a people for himself. Eric Hoffer gives us a hint toward the difference.

“Moses wanted to turn a tribe of enslaved Hebrews into free men. You would think that all he had to do was to gather the slaves and tell them that they were free. But Moses knew better. He knew that the transformation of slaves into free men was more difficult and painful than the transformation of free men into slaves…” – diary entry, May 20, 1959

Map readers, and navigators, are actually two different kinds of people. While it is possible to make map readers into navigators, it is not easy, and some will never make the transition. Map readers as leaders make good managers; navigators as leaders are explorers. Map readers love stability; navigators enjoy the wilderness. Map readers are impatient with process; navigators enjoy the journey. Map-reading is a lonely vocation; navigators value company.

Navigation is both an old skill and an ancient metaphor. John Climacus uses the Greek work kubernetes in the early seventh century Ladder of Divine Ascent. The word means pilot, helmsman, or guide, and he used it to speak of spiritual direction. When a ship is entering a harbor universal knowledge is no longer adequate, local knowledge becomes critical. The pilot comes alongside the captain and crew to guide them safely through unfamiliar waters, past hidden obstacles. Traveling in a straight line in unknown waters can get you killed.

Travelling off the Map

When Moses led God’s people out of Egypt it would be easy to imagine he was leading a journey from Point A to Point B. That simply was not the case. Moses was not really leading people at all; he was leading a process where God could form people in their hearts and imaginations into a people submitted to the Spirit.

There are at least four reasons that map-reading is no longer an option.

1. the landscape has changed and become fluid
2. we live amidst competing narratives. The Christendom world is passing away and the Christian story no longer has a place of privilege.
3. the skills required to lead in transition are completely different than the skills required in a stable culture
4. we have to learn new ways of being God’s people together and be re-formed internally

If we can’t count on maps and predictable terrain, then we can’t plan the way forward. But is this a problem – or an opportunity? We serve a God who loves it when we depend on him. And if we can’t plan, we can prepare. Toss away the old maps; they are merely a distraction. We can form a new kind of leader – navigators – those attentive to the ways of God.

Navigators don’t have maps, but they do have tools. Navigators use the sextant. We can work with tools and frameworks that help us “read” the fluid ocean or read the sky. We can embrace ancient practices that root us more deeply in the shared life of Christ. If we would venture into the unpredictable waters of missional life we will need to embrace rhythms of solitude and community, gathering and dispersion. We need to get comfortable with process and with mystery.

On a quiet morning in 1998 I was lying in bed when suddenly in my mind I saw a three masted sailing ship. The sea was calm and the sails were down. The ship wasn’t going anywhere.

Suddenly the wind came up. The sails were full. The ocean changed from blue to gold. But there is something different about sailing ships. They never travel in a straight line. They can only go where the wind will take them.

God is active in our neighbourhoods and cities. If we learn to listen, and watch what he is up to we can partner with him, following the cloud by day and the fire by night.

The prayer of St. Brendan, the navigator.

(Note: I have since expanded this article substantially, and it will appear this fall in CRUCIBLE).

2 Comments on Navigating Missional Waters

  1. Maria says:

    Len,
    Thanks for this — I’ve been reflecting on Ps. 25 (and I’m sure it could have been any of a number of them) and noticed how often the psalmist asks to be taught or shown God’s ways/paths. It’s easy to think of the law or the Bible in general as mapping out the way: stay on the path and you’ll be safe. But clearly there’s another view here — constant revelation/discernment is required to know and follow the path. That’s navigation.
    Blessings,
    Maria

  2. Kirk Bartha says:

    Clairvaux Manifesto, bottom of 102, top of 103,

    “If we are to make the ascent, we need clarity and safety. Direction needs to come from a clear source who knows the way, like a stalwart lighthouse beacons from a rocky shore. Someone who knows the way must provide clear navigation, like a lighted three-dimensional compass on a map which can be easily followed to safety through a violent storm.

    The entire Bible can bring clarity and safety to any situation, especially if the scriptures are read and applied as Jesus read and applied them. Scripture is often prescriptive or descriptive. Quite often scripture is pure medicine. At other times, it describes a situation without giving any
    prescription at all. We learn as much from a horrible negative example as we might from a direct command; avoiding snake pits is critical. One of the cardinal rules of biblical study is that scripture always interprets scripture…

    … Along with clarity, we need to establish credibility. Credibility is about maintaining clarity over time.”