THE calm blue sea around the Mediterranean island of Crete was something to behold when I was there recently for a consultation. I tried to imagine the stormy sea that wrecked a ship long ago. The story is in Acts 27.
Paul must have found it very difficult to convince his fellow travellers that they were making a potentially fatal decision. They had set sail and already experienced many difficulties along the way. They had changed ships and landed at the ironically named Fair Havens (v. 8). They had to decide whether to continue sailing. Paul warned against such a move for he felt deep in his heart that setting sail at that time was very dangerous (v. 9,10). But he found it difficult to be heard for he was against a triumvirate of powerful voices.
Firstly, there were the experts. The pilot and the owner of the ship advised that they should set sail (v. 11). Who can argue against the experts? After all, the pilot and the owner of the ship knew more than anybody else about ships, seas, and the weather.
Secondly, there was the majority. The travellers must have taken a vote or straw poll and found out that the majority agreed with the experts and decided to set sail from Fair Havens (v. 11). Paul’s lonely voice was easily drowned by the popular vote.
Thirdly, Paul had to contend with the circumstances. A gentle south wind began to blow as if to confirm the wisdom of the majority’s decision made on the experts’ advice (v. 13). Surely they had made the right decision. Even the circumstances showed evidence of that! This hardened the decision and Paul failed in his attempt to convince the travellers. Once they set sail, the gentle wind showed its true colours; it gave way to a fierce hurricane that resulted in a shipwreck. It was only by the grace of God that all were saved from what was certain death.
This incident in the Bible may help us to reflect on how we make decisions in our churches, especially at this time of the year when we have local and annual conference sessions. It is possible that we can arrive at decisions relying on expert advice, majority voting and careful analysis of circumstances and yet be wrong.
Why can expert advice go wrong? Specialised knowledge may not be helpful all the time. It can be too narrow and myopic in contrast to a biblical wisdom that is broad in scope and deep in understanding. Also, expertise, as understood in the modern world, and spiritual maturity may not be the same thing.
To ask experts to run the church may not always be good. In choosing church leaders we must ensure that our focus does not shift from clean people to clever people. Of course, purity and professionalism, character and competence are not mutually exclusive. But it is foolhardy to assume that competence guarantees character and that one’s worldly success in the marketplace shows sound inner spirituality.
The contemporary church seems to be also excessively guided by what is popular. However, the majority and what is popular can be wrong. We in the church are also citizens of the world. We rub shoulders with people who thrive in the modern world. We visit the same cinemas, restaurants, shopping centres and holiday resorts. We watch the same TV shows, listen to the same songs, and surf the same worldwide web. It is easy to like what is popular in the world. It is also easy to bring all that into the church. One can see why the majority and the popular vote are not infallible sources of guidance in the church. The church that is led more by opinion polls than by Word and Spirit is in great danger.
Relying too much on circumstances to guide us makes the church pragmatic. We live in two worlds. The greater part of reality is unseen and we need to remember this when we make decisions. Our heritage as the people of God includes invisible armies of God and the still small voice of God. Everyone can see the bush but not everyone sees the burning bush (as Moses did). The only way to see beyond our human and finite horizons is to pray and study God’s Word which are, incidentally, two primary tasks of pastors and those in spiritual leadership (Acts 6:4). Unfortunately, we often keep our leaders so busy that their eyes are focused only on the horizons which everyone else can see. Everyone felt the gentle south wind but it was Paul the spiritual leader who could see beyond and sense a hurricane coming (Acts 27:13-14).
Experts, majority votes, and circumstances (or the professional, popular and pragmatic) all have their rightful places in guiding the church in making decisions but we may have given too much credit to them. They can all lead us astray without prayer and the faith that has been passed on to us. Paul had a better experience with another group of people — the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). There too the people made a decision. They sent Paul and Barnabas on a missionary enterprise. That decision was a godly decision because it was made in the context of worship, prayer and loving fellowship. Corporate guidance in the church, after all, is not essentially a management technique. It has to do with relationships, vertical and horizontal.
The people in Acts 27 were a crowd whereas those in Acts 13 were a community. It is very difficult to make a godly decision in a crowd. Godly choices cannot be planted in the barren soil of a crowd. Rather, they are planted and they bud and bloom and bear fruit in the fertile soil of an authentic community. As churches, our hope in ensuring that we make good and godly corporate choices is to allow God to transform us from a crowd of individualistic and self-centred Christians into a community of cross-bearing lovers of God and neighbours.
Just when we feel comfortable and confident about our decision-making processes, God’s Word disturbs us. When it comes to making the right decisions in church, there is no better way than for the church to be at the Master’s feet and for it to learn to hear His voice — in, against and beyond expert advice, majority votes and market surveys.
HEAR THE MASTER’S VOICE
‘When it comes to making the right decisions in church, there is no better way than for the church to be at the Master’s feet and for it to learn to hear His voice — in, against and beyond expert advice, majority votes and market surveys.’