In the spring of 1980, I worked in the fishing industry off Stuart Island, Washington State. My first day of training was eye-opening. I had previously thought of the ocean as a large, predictable body of water. However, I soon found myself in a small boat being ferried around tidal waters between islands. Imagine a river that flows north one day at four knots, then south the next day at six knots. Huge whirlpools—sometimes reaching 200 feet across and 50 feet deep—spun off rocks. The “terrain” of the ocean and its currents were unpredictable because of the islands, underwater obstacles, and weather. Change was ever constant, and you never knew for sure what was next.
Similarly, we live in a time when the landscape has become fluid. What was once predictable and stable is now like the wild waters that I faced while fishing. The settled and predictable ways of modernity and Christendom have given way to plurality, fragmentation, and distrust.
It has been said that truth is stranger than fiction. Today, truth is even stranger than in the past. Turbulence has become the norm. The pace of change outstrips our ability to adjust. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube—these things did not exist 20 years ago. We have incredible tools, but technology sometimes offers an illusion of control—a deceptive promise of greater meaning and real community.
From maps to navigation
What do we do when maps no longer describe the territory that we once knew? How do we locate ourselves amid such confusion and change, and then find the way forward? Church-growth expert Eddie Gibbs offers a clue: “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.”1 When maps stop working, we train navigators.
Navigation is a significantly different skill than map reading. The points on a map are fixed, and locating a point in the real world simply requires locating oneself by correspondence to known geography or artifacts and then proceeding methodically to the next point. If you have a compass and a bit of logic, it’s easy.
But when the markers are missing, navigation is needed. Navigation requires no fixed points on this planet. Instead, one learns to read the sky—the stars, really—and orients by a point outside the world. This requires a sense of 3D space and the ability to move without logic. Instead, an imaginative framework is applied to the real world.
Navigation requires courage and the ability to withstand harsh conditions. Faith and a fundamental inner peace are needed—something map readers do not need. When there are no physical points to locate ourselves, we rely on an internal compass. That internal compass is tuned not to earthly artifacts but to an external reference point—the North Star, Jesus.
We do not really need navigators in times of cultural stability. We need them desperately in seasons of transition.
When the signposts have disappeared and our maps fail us, we know One who does not change and can read the waters and guide us.
From captivity to freedom
We have great stories of navigators in the Old Testament. After their Egyptian captivity, the Israelites followed their Lord, the God of the Exodus. God did not offer Israel a game plan for the coming miles or the next 40 years. There were no maps for the people of Israel leaving Egypt, only a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Instead of a map, God offered Israel His presence and a 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 was not just providing deliverance. He was forming a people that mirror His own heart. It was not simply a journey from point A to point B. Moses was not really leading people at all; he was following the Lord and leading a process where God could form a ragtag mob into a people of the Spirit.
Eric Hoffer gives us a hint about 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.”2
Navigation is both an old skill and an ancient metaphor. 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.
Traveling off the map
Years ago, when I helped plant Metro church in the urban core of Kelowna, British Columbia, the mother church was entering a crisis. The Metro community and ministry were growing rapidly. With more than 50 percent of our community homeless or addicted, the needs were endless. With barely a budget, how would we hire staff? We sought individual donors and began building bridges with other agencies. New partnerships would provide stable funding. Today Metro is a hybrid: it looks like an agency from the outside but like a faith community from the inside. Metro is a novelty within the denomination but may be the future.
We can embrace ancient practices that allow us to live more deeply—the context and culture, solitude and community, gathering and dispersion, and prayer and work. We had to do that with the formation and running of Metro church.
How do we begin to cultivate navigators? By practicing skills that represent a response to adaptive challenges. What follows are a few of those adaptive skills.
Navigators require imagination. The problem of funding at Metro required a new imagination about partnerships. A different vision of belonging required a new language around community, especially the way we divided the world into us and them. Our community is not providing services; we are inviting everyone into a new kind of family.
One day I asked a friend to read from Isaiah at a midpoint in my teaching. Tim was not a gifted reader; he had never finished high school. He struggled through the passage, but all could see the joy on his face. In Living Gently in a Violent World, Stanley Hauerwas relates a similar story. He notes that we often exclude people not because they lack gifting but because of our ideals of progress, which require speed.3 The “problem” of an unskilled reader is the potential that we can learn a new way of living together, a new opportunity for inclusion in a new kind of family. And this requires imagination.
Navigators invoke memory. Navigators invoke memory by telling the story. Stories create and maintain the culture.4 In many congregations, the narrators are too few and often those most distant from living the daily adventure. At Metro church, we structured a sharing time each week. This informal sharing time often dominated our gathering. We heard stories of victory, pain, hope, and longing—and this decentered form of preaching gathered our community around the activity of God in our midst, often hidden just below the surface of our lives.
Navigators take risks. “Organizations, like living beings, are hardwired to optimize what they know and to not throw success away.”5 Being hardwired makes it difficult to learn. The advantage of a new community in a new location among street people and addicts is that we are de facto outside our comfort zones. We are forced to experiment our way forward, to become learners together.
At Metro, we took risks in numerous ways. First, we risked meeting in a dance venue downtown. Second, we risked hiring staff who had little specialized training but obvious passion. Third, we risked welcoming a few needy or at-risk people into our homes. The cost of that kind of hospitality is the censure of the established social agencies. A few of us still have bad reputations (“You have no boundaries!”) as a result. Finally, we risked including recovering addicts in our decision-making process; they understood the needs and potential uniquely.
Navigators convene conversations. How do we cultivate missional partnerships when values differ?6 Metro was invited to an interagency table, but our vision of human flourishing and the path to achieving it was radically different from most agencies. We were impatient with those conversations: we wanted to get on with the work.
While it takes time and effort to listen and develop trust, partnerships both broaden our base and strengthen our learning. Sally Morgenthaler writes, “Groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning because each member is bringing less and less to the table.”7 Paradoxically, the more unlike we are, the more we can learn together. We made time to convene conversations with the mayor, civic leaders, and other agencies because we believed the wider community could benefit from our collaboration. We saw the beginnings of dividends in slowly building trust as the agenda of homelessness and the hope of finding answers together took root. We believed God’s mission was as much about community transformation as about individuals.
Navigators offer new language to their partners. In The Sky Is Falling, Alan Roxburgh describes the poetic leader as one who helps us make sense of our experiences.8 The prologue of John tells how Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, NKJV). We must live within the traditions and narratives of the people.
One winter, my wife was driving when she saw a woman walking along the street whom we knew through Metro. Liz was a cocaine addict and a prostitute. It was cold, so Betty stopped and picked her up and gave her some gloves but also asked her about her experience of Jesus. It went something like this:
“Do you know Jesus?”
“How do you know Him?”
“When I’m cold, He’s like a warm blanket. And when I’m hungry, He’s like a warm meal.”
That exchange brought tears to Betty's eyes. She was able to pray with Liz before dropping her off at a shelter.
Navigators listen to God. The more gifted our community, the more inclined we are to rely on our own abilities. Prayer roots us outside ourselves. Prayer is an act of subversion that acknowledges our dependence on God.
Prayer is all about attention and requires that we slow down and listen. Moreover, prayer invokes possibilities beyond this world.
When the signposts have disappeared and our maps fail us, we know One who does not change and can read the waters and guide us. When we slow down and listen, we have the chance to be led by the Spirit and engage in fresh ways. Plans may fail us; strategies may expire, but when we partner with God, as His purpose unfolds, we become navigators.
God is active in our neighborhoods and cities, bringing His kingdom. Learning to listen as new possibilities unfold, we can fix our gaze on the North Star, raise our sails in the wind, and learn the ways of the Navigator, which we need in the very turbulent waters we, as missional leaders, are fishing.
- Eddie Gibbs, Leadership Next (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2005), 66.
- Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, a Journal: June 1958–May 1959 (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1969), diary entry, May 20, 1959.
- Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas, Living Gently in a Violent World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008), 45.
- See the helpful insights of Gary Nelson in Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008), 101ff.
- Kevin Kelly, “New Rules for the New Economy,” Wired, September 1, 1997, 192–194.
- See, in particular, the work of Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco, CA: Barret-Koehler, 2008).
- Sally Morgenthaler, “Leadership in a Flattened World,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 183.
- Alan Roxburgh, The Sky Is Falling (Eagle, ID: ACI Pub., 2005), 164.