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Getting on the boat

January 8, 2013

The metaphor of rescue at sea has served messengers of the Gospel very well for generations.  Old hymns such as “Rescue the Perishing” and “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” are well-known to most Christians over the age of eighty and perhaps to a few of those a little younger.  Several more contemporary authors have used similar rescue metaphors in exhortations to evangelism.  We in the church are, they tell us, the crew of the rescue ship “The Church” and need to bring as many on board as we can to bring them to the safe harbor of an eternity with Christ by presenting the Gospel.

We have been discussing the Gospel in our adult Sunday School class recently with a focus on having an urgency for presenting it and a clarity on what it is.  It has been, as always in that class, a good discussion.  I am happy to say that the entire class seems to be in favor of the Gospel.  What is more, there is agreement that “some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save” is a pretty good idea.

The analogy that The Church is a boat safely headed to an eternity with Christ is a good one.  I also like the exhortation that we are the crew of the boat, not merely passengers.  The reality is however that what the world sees is not a great big boat but thousands of smaller ones called churches.  All of them, to one degree or another, call to the unsaved to get on their boat so we can bring them home to Christ.  My image of the church is not some big luxury liner steaming majestically to port but rather a ragtag collection of boats of all shapes and sizes all calling out to the fainting struggling seaman to get on board.

This got me thinking last night of the Battle of Dunkirk in WWII.  In 1940 the British and French armies, along with some allies, attempted to stop the German advance into western Europe.  That effort was a spectacular failure.  The result was that hundreds of thousands of retreating soldiers were left stranded and surrounded on the beaches of Dunkirk.  Were they killed or captured the war would be lost.  To rescue the soldiers the British assembled, almost on an ad hoc basis, a “fleet” of rescue ships of every shape and size.  Over 850 military ships, commercial ferries, tugboats, fishing boats, garbage scows and pleasure yachts all made the trip across the channel to go to the rescue.  There has never been an armada that was as haphazard in appearance.  Because of German attacks and the unseaworthy condition of many of the boats more than 200 of them sunk.  But in the end over 335,000 soldiers were rescued in nine days.

It is a good analogy for The Church.  Our churches are a motley collection of all types of boats seeking to rescue others.  There is one problem however.  Unlike Dunkirk, a lot of those we seek to rescue don’t want to get on our boats.  We sit on the beach waiting to shove off and plead in vain for people needing rescue to get on board.  By every measure known the percentage of people responding to our rescue pleas is dropping steadily.  Worse yet, by those same measures, the crewmen of the boats, particularly younger ones, are jumping ship. The key question is why?

Our favorite response is to seek external answers.  It is the blindness of the world.  It is the secular, atheistic, material culture.  It is the godless media, godless schools, godless government, etc.  Our favorite solution is that we need to shout louder.  We need to evangelize more, evangelize better, and evangelize with more urgency.

But there is another, harder, question we need to ask ourselves.  Is there something wrong with my boat?  The church universal, and each church individually, needs to ask why are so few willing to get on and some even jumping off.  Is it possible that we have so buried the Gospel under issues and programs and attitudes that are comfortable to us but may be obscuring the centrality of our rescue call?  Is it possible that our rescue crafts are so encumbered with non-essentials that they don’t look like a rescue at all?

What would be the key to making our rescue call clear?  Do we need better techniques and more training?  Do we need to be schooled on a precise understanding of the theology of the Gospel?  While I am surely not against such things, I don’t think that they are the answer.

Instead my heart tells me that we need to live with a passion that Paul shows in I Corinthians 11:1.  “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”  It sounds almost cheeky of Paul.  He is calling people to be just like him.  But that call only has worth insofar as he is just like Christ.  And it is the same with us.  Is it possible that the key to getting people to climb into our boats is for me and my church to more accurately reflect Jesus?  Am I willing to knock off the pretty things I have added to my boat because they obscure the view of Jesus?


From → Christianity

One Comment
  1. Joseph Justice permalink

    The Battle of Dunkirk is an amazing piece of history Tom. I was delighted to see your allusion to it here. I think you are hitting part of the problem on the head here, that is, that the “rescue boats” we Christians are driving don’t always look so appealing to those sinking after all, because we Christians do not live out the Gospel in a real, practical and life changing way. I struggle every day to faithfully live out my call in Christ, in fact, some days (especially the days when I am physically and mentally drained), I doubt the message myself. The truth is however, Christ is indeed forming us slowly and faithfully. I pray he continue to grant us the strength and passion to trust him, and to live in such a way that others want to climb aboard!

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