This is one of a number of posts refecting on Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat and what that teaches us about church and leadership.
In the introduction the author shares a basic insight from Joe, one of the members of the University of Washington crew team: that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both— it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition (Brown, Daniel James The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (p. 2)).
The image of a boat has become a symbol of the church from it its earliest days. In Mark 4 Jesus and the disciples make their way in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (a metaphor for moving beyond the acceptable and safe places for ministry). In route, they encounter and storm. It is a storm that Jesus calms simply with his words causing the disciples to wonder again: who is this one? In 1 Peter a connection is made beween the church and Noah’s ark (1 Pet 3:20f.)
Like the fish symbol, the image of a boat was an undercover way to identify believers/congregations in time of persecution— the mast of the boat formed a cross In church architecture the central gathering space of the church is called the nave—it comes from the Latin word for boat. Some churches, like Gothic cathedrals or the ancient Coptic church in Cairo, Egypt, deliberately takes the shape of an upside boat.
The first readers of Mark’s gospel were Christian communities. This book was not just set of stories about Jesus It was also a manual for discipleship and mission. The first readers would have caught the message: The good news of Jesus is not just for Jews, it is also for Gentiles. Jesus’ followers must get in the boat & go to the other side The good news will not always be received well. Sometimes it will be received harshly, with persecution There will be storms—it will feel like we are drowning. Stepping out on mission with Jesus is risky.
Advancing the gospel will not be easy But we must get in the boat. It is meant for sailing. We don’t stay safely on the shore. We don’t take the easy path . We hear Jesus say—Lets go to the other side.
For the members of that Seattle crew team in the 1930’s, “the boat was more than just about the shell or the crew.” Together they were a team. Together crew and shell they made history. It was a mystery; this mingling of shaped wood and men. In greater ways, the church is mystery–the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit. This church sets out on mission together. It sets out to the other side. Those who set out are humans, women and men, girls and boys, flawed and broken, and loved and redeemed. This messy crew, gathering locally, all over the world is the messy part of church.
But it is this church–mystery and messy–that, in the power of the risen Christ, sees transformation in the lives of people, and impacts the world for good.
The church, like the boat, is shell and crew, and so much more.