by Jon Lewis / February 4, 2010

After a recent visit by Alex Araujo here at our Partners International office last week, and a subsequent stimulating discussion about the famous Sailboat-Powerboat metaphor, I came away with a troubled feeling about how this illustration is being understood. My sense was that different people are interpreting the metaphor from different contexts leading to misunderstanding of each other’s points of view.

This became clear to me when Alex was arguing that the Sailboat paradigm was clearly the “right” perspective and the Powerboat paradigm the “wrong” one. I had always maintained that there were good and bad qualities on each side. Upon further discussion, however, I realized that Alex was thinking of the metaphor primarily in terms of a spiritual context relating to how we should work out our dependence vs. independence in our personal relationship with God. I, on the other hand, had been viewing the metaphor purely from a cultural context and attributed the two different paradigms as relating to the contrasting worldviews of the Global North (the West) and the Global South (non-West.)

In looking back over the various blogs and discussions on this metaphor, it appears to me that many others have been mixing these two different contexts in the discussion. The result is that there has been an overall “muddiness” to the metaphor discussion that has even led some to question if the metaphor is useful at all.

I would like to propose a new way of thinking about both of these two contexts with the metaphor by adding them BOTH to a two-dimensional chart. My proposition is that both the spiritual and the cultural aspects of the metaphor have validity, but they must somehow be separated out in order to gain pragmatic value to any application that might be attempted.

This two-dimensional chart would look like this:

Having defined two different continuums according to the X and Y axis, it now allows us to discuss some practical implications. Here is my attempt at that—with the caveat that these are extremely broad generalizations.


  1. The Global North has a tendency toward a worldview that is somewhere in Quadrant II. Not only does our “rugged individualism” keep us from living in dependence on God’s Spirit day-by-day, but our industrial/technology heritage pushes us toward a “goal-oriented” approach of problem solving. I will label this typical starting position on the chart for the Global North = N1.
  2. The Global South has much more of a relational worldview and understands flexibility due to dependence on circumstances and situations usually out of a person’s control. Therefore, their relational approach to life and problem solving puts them in the lower half of the chart. However, Global South people can also tend toward independence from God, too, though probably differently and not to the same extent as those of us in the Global North. I’ll call this starting point in Quadrant IV for the Global South = S1.
  3. The Global North has a need to learn greater dependence on God’s Spirit as opposed to using self or secular management approaches to determining Truth. Therefore, in general, it has a need of moving leftwards on the chart. It also has a need to be much more sensitive to relationships and not always so intensely goal-oriented in worldview. So it also could use moving downward on the chart as well. However, the Global North has a huge and rich heritage of learning how to get things done, so I think it would be wrong for it to totally give up its understanding of strategic planning, etc., and demand that it live only in a Quadrant III worldview. I suggest a good ending point for the Global North would be the lower part of Quadrant I = N2.
  4. The Global South also has need of learning greater dependence on God’s Spirit as a primary guiding force. It, too, can use movement to the left on the chart. It could also benefit greatly from learning something about the Global North’s experience in management practices and goal orientation.  Therefore some upward movement is also appropriate. Its ending point could then be in the upper part of Quadrant III = S2.

My conclusion is that the new positions of N2 and S2 now give a place for truly healthy partnership to work well. By both being sensitive to God’s Spirit (the same Spirit for each!) and both bringing to the table the value of their heritage worldviews (goal- and relational-orientation, respectively), there is the potential for new synergy that can produce great effectiveness. It is from this position of N2 that I would hope Partners International is interacting and working together with its Ministry Partners from the Global South who, in turn, have learned from our partnership, how to end up at S2.

My hope is that by combining these two different interpretations of the Sailboat-Powerboat metaphor in this manner, we not only clarify the dialog about its interpretation, but also have the potential of extracting an even deeper and richer understanding from it and thus inform and configure our global partnership endeavors  for even greater impact for God’s Kingdom.

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