The Surfer, the Sea, and Missional Transformation in the Small Church Environment: Chapter One

I first posted this a couple of years ago.  There are several other chapters that can be found by going to the sidebar and selecting March 2010.  Scroll down and you should find them…if you want to.


Chapter One – Surfboards

As a recovering surfer, I have found that there are many images of the ocean and its ways that are great metaphors for God, and life, and all things that matter.  I grew up around the ocean and have spent more than my share of nights sent to sleep by the smell of the salt air and the sound of the surf gently lapping the shore.  When I moved from the East Coast to Midwest, I found myself isolated from the spirituality of the waves, and I found my surfboard quiver exiled to the rafters of my garage.  One Labor Day weekend, I got an invitation to spend a few days on the Chain of Lakes in Wisconsin, a series of small inter-connected lakes with no-wake restrictions and the shelter of woods all around them. The invitation said, “Bring your boat if you have one”.  Well, I don’t have a boat exactly, but I looked up into the rafters of my garage and saw my Robert August 10-foot nose-rider covered in dust and garage yuck, and I thought it was time to get it down and get it wet again.  My son got his board down too, and we cleaned them up and strapped them to the roof of the truck, just like old times, and headed off for the weekend.

Upon arriving, we got some strange looks.  Our host sauntered over to my truck window with a well-meaning smirk on his face, and chuckling said, “We said boats, not surfboards.  These lakes don’t have waves.”  Without even thinking about it, I replied, “Hey, if this is the only boat you have, it’s the only boat you need.”  And that moment of clarity has served as my mantra in small church missional transformation and ministry.  I have become so tired of hearing the common wisdom that if you’re church isn’t over a thousand people, your church isn’t showing fruit of the Kingdom.  “Only big churches are influencing the community that you live in.”, I heard at one conference I went to.  Well, I’m here to tell you loud and clear, that if you are a small church, and a small church is what God has given you to work for His Kingdom with, then a small church is all you need.  Our little surfboard of a Christ-crazy community of faith has done more hands-on mission and has drawn more disconnected people into the mission than most “churches” five and ten times its size.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people in authority tell me that this little community will never make it.  And yet, we are thriving.  Being small means we deal with a unique set of hurdles to overcome, but we are definitely neck deep in the work of the Kingdom.  If a surfboard is the only boat you have, it’s the only boat you need.  God has given you what you need to do what God has prepared for you to do.  So be encouraged, and know that God can do great things with the community of faith that you participate in if you only turn the reigns of that craft over to God and His Mission to steer you.

Surfers Don’t Wear Lifejackets

Boating and surfing are not the same.  Surfers are in the hands of God and the ocean.  Wearing a lifejacket will wreck your board, keep you from being able to respond quickly to the waves, and can even take your life by holding you up in the pounding surf.  All you have in the raging sea is a leash that tethers your ankle to the board you are riding.  Life jackets will kill you.  If you can’t move freely with the water, at worst you will die, and best it will take the life out of surfing.

A lot of little churches I have seen, served, and worked with never quite grasp the idea that lifejackets may be exactly what is keeping them from becoming what they are best shaped to be and do – to surf.  Lifejackets come in many forms, and the truth is that only your community can really discern with God’s Spirit whether or not they are clinging desperately to one, or have one stashed under the seat to grab if the sea rises up and they get scared.  Even if we can’t name them all, there are a few lifejackets that I have found to be common in little churches that are dying and that can’t figure out why.

Too many little churches are strapped with endowments and they fall into the mindset that that endowment will be a life jacket in stormy weather.  Surfers love stormy weather because stormy weather means big waves.  And big waves and life jackets are a fatal combination.  Whether a church has an endowment or not, isn’t really the issue, or the danger.  The danger is in distorting what that endowment represents.  If that endowment takes away the urgency that is so much a part of surfing, then that endowment is a threat to your being.  I have seen people paddle out into the line-up and then sit there all day without ever catching a wave because they think there will always be another wave and they have all day. And then the wind dies down, and the sea goes flat, and the day is over. But spiritual surfers know the urgency of the moment.  “Seek God while he can be found”, the Bible teaches.  Surfers know that every wave is different, and all of them are once in a lifetime.  They came to surf, not to sit.  They didn’t paddle out to sit and talk.  They came for the ride.  They leave everything behind that gets in the way of the chance to catch one wave and ride it out.  It’s all or nothing.   It’s now or never.

Another lifejacket that we often find ourselves wearing thinking that it is the surfboard itself is tradition.  When we are first learning to swim, we need a lifejacket.  It takes away the threat of drowning and allows us to learn and develop a strong stroke.  “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is the mantra of a lot of small churches that are just not managing to get off the beach and into the sea.  And its opposite, “We’ve never done things that way before.”  Those things can help us when we are first learning to swim, but there is a reason that Olympic swimmers don’t wear lifejackets – at some point they become counter-productive.  The best surfers learn from the best surfers of the past and then innovate in order to move into a constantly changing sea.  It isn’t that we don’t carry the lessons of the past within us, we just don’t strap them around our necks with the superstitious idea that our traditions will keep the sea from pounding us to death.

Likewise, I think that a lot of little churches keep thinking that they are big churches and structure themselves as though they are, thinking that the structure – the boards, the committees, the staff – will keep them afloat if things get rough.  We can be surfers or we can be battleship captains, but we can’t be both and still be one or the other.  If we put too much structure on top of a surfboard it will either sink, break up in the waves, or else we will simply run out of room for people on it.  We lose the advantages that a surfboard gives us – maneuverability and the ability to dance on the sea.  Surfboards need fins to steer, but too much fin is a drag and not a help.  We need just enough fin to keep from being blown sideways or from tipping over.  A better word than structure is “stability” – just enough to turn but not so much that it keeps us from catching a wave.  When we begin to think that our complex organizational chart is what is keeping us from sinking, it has become a lifejacket that will get in the way of our ability to maneuver in the mission field.

The Parable of Surfing

Surfing is an edgy and dangerous gig because it’s just you and the board you’re tethered to in a sea you don’t control with the power to swallow you whole as if you never existed.  So what is this metaphor?  What is this parable for small church transformation to mission really about?  Well, let’s start with the sea.  What is the ocean we’re paddling out into?  I think it is the mission field.  It is the world into which we are called to bring the Good News, to participate in God’s emerging Kingdom.  When I first re-embraced surfing as an adult, I quickly also re-embraced a healthy respect for the power of the ocean.  Paddling into even a moderate surf is a daunting task for a novice.  I have a vivid image of this metaphor as I was a young person driving away from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, chased away from Nags Head by a hurricane warning.  The roads had not all been turned north yet, but most people with half a sense of what a hurricane can do to that thin strip of land had packed up, boarded up, and were on their way up to Virginia and higher ground.  Most people.  Except for a narrow stream of cars with surf boards strapped to their roofs headed down into the impending hurricane because they knew that the best waves are just out in front of the storm.  These people had a very different paradigm for life than I did, than my dad did, and certainly than most of the sane world did.  And yet, they did what they did, and they were what they were.  They were surfers.  They went where the waves were.

Everyone who follows Christ seriously also takes seriously that they are called into the mission field. Christ followers do what they do – they follow Christ.  They are what they are.  They are Christ-followers.  The mission field for your community is right outside its doors, just off its shore, if you will.  It is those places where the sea is and where God is at work bringing calm and order and God’s Kingdom.  It might be a nursing home in need of community support.  It might be a public housing complex.  It might be a corporate boardroom.  It might be a high school hallway.  It might be a street corner where kids are killing each other over the right to deal drugs or the colors of their gang.  It is the battleground where souls are won and lost for the Kingdom.  It is all of those places where God’s presence is very much contested.  And it is where Christ-followers do what they do and are what they are.  A surfer without the sea is not a surfer.  A Christ-follower not engaged in the mission on some level is not…well…living out the definition of following Christ.  Indeed, they may even be distorting the definition.

Like the sea, the mission field has long periods of flat.  And then it has days when it rages.  It is unpredictable.  It is dangerous.  It has rhythms.  It has heroes and it has martyrs.  It cannot be fought, but rather it has to be understood so that we can work within it.  It is bigger than we are.  Only God controls it. And we are called into it.  Some are called to go in huge crafts to carry out some purpose that that huge craft is designed for.  And some of us wade into the surf on foot with just a surfboard under our arm and the Spirit of God within us.  Gifted according to purpose, big churches and small churches are called and sent into the mission field.

Where does the board we’re tethered to fit into this emerging metaphor?  Is the surfboard the church?  Is it the building?  Is it the community?  Is it the Kingdom of God?  Is the Holy Spirit?  The only answer I can give with any integrity at all is that I’m still working to figure that out.  It’s easier for me to tell you what it isn’t, than it is for me to tell you exactly what it is.  Surfers are comfortable in ambiguity.  The surfboard is definitely not your church building.  The building for many people is just another lifejacket.  It will give you the illusion of safety but if it is misunderstood in terms of value and utility, it can actually wreck your board and kill you.  The building turns too slowly, it is too heavy, it is too much work to surf with.  It isn’t that a surfer doesn’t appreciate a nice place to rest and recover, it’s just that if that place takes all of our time, then we become simply beach-hut maintenance people instead of surfers because there is no time left to be in the water.  We surf.  It’s what we do.  It’s where our time goes.  What we surf on has to be something we can easily carry, that we can maneuver quickly, and that does not drag us down when strapped to it. And people who actually surf have boards with dings on them. Ugly is good in surfing.  It means that the board is actually exposed to the ocean frequently.  A perfect board hasn’t seen much actual use.  The building is definitely not the board.

But is the surfboard the community?  Maybe.  It’s part of it.  I think, though, that the surfer is the community.  It is the hands and the feet, the heart and the mind.  The members of the community acting as one body are the surfer.  Surfers are extremely well coordinated people.  They are in tune with their bodies.  Their body parts are all focused on a single purpose in a single moment, a moment of intense effort, momentary terror, total commitment, followed by unbelievable joy.  A surfer’s survival depends on their ability to focus totally, as a single coordinated being, for short and frequent periods of time.  I think small church communities are like that, too.  We don’t have to be together on everything all the time.  A lot of incredible surfers are actually a little bit flakey when they aren’t actually doing what they do – surfing.  The intensity of the mission means that a totality of focus all of the time will cause us to burn ourselves out.  Surfers are laid back, go with the flow, except in the crucial moment.  And good surfers develop excellence in the skill of recognizing a crucial moment when they see it.  Small churches that surf well are like that too.  Their atmosphere is laid back, cool, accepting.  But they recognize a crucial moment and come together with a coordination of purpose and focus when a wave of the mission crests and they have an opportunity to catch it.  Short bursts of total focus and coordination, not total coordination all the time is a part of small church transformation to mission.

Small churches have unique challenges similar to a surfer’s challenges in that one bad choice can kill you.  You have to be able to move quickly and to pull out of the wave if you’re in it on the wrong angle.  Uncoordinated people spend a lot of time “going over the falls”, vomiting seawater.  So even though the requirement for coordination and focus is short, the life of the small church depends on its ability to do that.  It is a unity of purpose that allows it to happen, and learning the discipline of focus on purpose will be a huge part of the transformational journey.  That is something we will cover in depth in a later chapter.

The surfboard. What then is the surfboard?  I have come to think of the surfboard as the Holy Spirit.  It is what I have tethered myself to.  It is what our community has tethered itself to.  It is what we seek to become one with.  It is what keeps us up and it is that upon which we “walk on water”.  Or rather, it is that upon which we fly across the surface of the water, one with its very currents.  If we aren’t tethered to the right thing in this missional journey, big or small, we’ll never surf, and we’ll likely drown or never get in the water at all.  The Spirit comes in many shapes and sizes, always appropriate for the wave we are destined to catch.  Sometimes the Spirit is a shortboard, sometimes a longboard, sometimes even a hydrofoil we have to strap ourselves into to ride, but never too big or too heavy.  Everything else can fall away and this community will still be together surfing because we are tethered to what is required to surf, and surfing is the point.  The pure moment comes when the surfer and the board become one, flying across the face of a giant wave rising in the wake of the complete unity. The pure moment for a small church is when the body and the Holy Spirit become almost one in the service of the mission, reaching people, changing people, seeing new life rise up huge in the wake of that unity.   A surfer is tethered to a surfboard.  It’s definitional.  A missional community is tethered to the Holy Spirit.  It’s definitional.

So where does the Kingdom of God fit into this metaphor?  Well, my friends, I have come to understand that the Kingdom of God is the ride.  It is the perfect wave.  It is the ride of a lifetime.  One day, we will have the ride forever, but for now, we live for the pure moment, knowing that those moments are here sometimes if we are looking for them with passion and focus and purpose.  For now, the ride always ends.  The pure moment is a moment.  And then it’s a paddle back out.  But the moment makes all the wipeouts, all the board dings, all the times we’ve bounced off the coral worth it.  That one ride, that one pure exhilarating ride makes the memory of all the effort and all the pain fade away.  And the moment will come again if we have the discipline to paddle back out and the courage to overcome the terror of the crest and the total commitment to pop back up to catch the next one.  This isn’t heaven, but there are heavenly moments.

By Max Ramsey (Copyright 2-1-10)


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