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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Contributed by a mission leader from SE Asia who requests anonymity.

Are you a powerboat or a sailboat?

In my last circular I referred to the metaphor of sailing and the question of Dr. Roger Parrott, “Are you building a sailboat that will catch the wind of God, or are you only fine tuning the engine on your powerboat so that you can keep going no matter which way the wind is blowing?”

Mindful of the fact that power structures affect relationships, I find this a helpful way to illustrate that it is very appropriate to place our trust – not in the engine of our powerboat – but in the Wind of God, to take our sailboat where he wants us to go! Using a sailboat frame of reference, we realise that success depends completely on the sailing team’s ability to trust each other and co-operate together and with the external elements.

The journey itself is as important as the destination. The sailors know that a strategy that worked yesterday might fail them tomorrow. They respect and carefully assess the context, and realise that flexibility is one of their greatest resources. This can really be scary: to dare more boldly, to dream bigger, to sail out of the safe harbour and farther away from the shore, to venture on wilder seas where we might often times lose sight of land … to only “find the stars”, as Sir Francis Drake tells us!

But, there may be just as much danger in not stepping boldly out in faith, as there is in the journey itself, as Mark Twain said so vividly, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

The partnership journey can be a messy and hazardous one, but it can certainly also be an exciting and challenging journey of exploration and discovery. Let us continue to place our trust in the Lord to guide and direct us as we set sail as a flotilla of partnership boats to reach the destination God has set before us.

We have argued that a paradigm of control over the process of advancing God’s kingdom leads to ministry structures that are not sufficiently flexible to respond to unexpected leading from the Wind of God. This is true even when in our hearts we really would like to be responsive.

If you lead a ministry with a formal organization, buildings, staff, and contracts with providers of goods and services, you have daily responsibilities and commitments that cannot be ignored while you wait for divine direction. How do we reconcile the basic demands of living and working in the world with the need to be flexible to God’s leading?

I am helped in my reflections by looking at the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under Moses’ leadership.

There were two realities Moses had to consider:

1. He had to lead his people to Canaan;

2. And he had to provide for their well-being and security during the journey.

These are not contradictory but complementary realities. How was Moses to exercise his leadership responsibilities concerning the two areas?

God was very clear about the first one. God said concerning his mission to reach Canaan: I will provide you with spiritual guidance concerning when to move and when to stop. A pillar of fire will guide you at night and a cloud during the day. When they move, you and the people move. When they stop, you and the people stop. It would be foolish for Moses to continue moving when the cloud stopped, and foolish to stop when the cloud kept moving.

As to the second responsibility, there was no cloud by day or pillar of fire by night. Does that mean Moses did not need to do anything about the people’s well-being? Of course not. He did not need special guidance from God to manage the needs of the day. Camping space was allocated to families; provision was made for herding the cattle, for fetching water, and for all the activities that a large people must fulfill on a daily basis. There were also preparations to be made for the journey when the cloud moved again.

Moses and the people were not idle when the cloud stopped. When we talk about ‘sailing’ as a better metaphor than ‘powerboating’ for Christian ministries, we are not suggesting that we just sit idly waiting for the wind to blow. The Israelites were not idle when the cloud was not moving.

The issue with powerboating is not with regard to the operational aspects of running an organization; it has to do rather with plans and strategies that drive us to move when the cloud is stopped. Our model of ministry is generally based on ambitious strategies and timetables that demand we keep moving. They encourage skills related to relentless pursuit of results and target dates, and they undervalue the need to develop our spiritual sensitivities to the Wind of God. Therefore we may not be skilled at knowing how to wait: we equate waiting with lack of commitment, even disobedience.

If we conclude that our powerboat model is harming our desire to serve God well, we need to keep in mind that changing to a sailing model will involve learning how to be obedient as we wait. Moses was not idle while he waited for the cloud to move. But he had the flexibility to move and to stop as the Lord directed.

It is amazing how rich this metaphor about sailing can be. There are many applications for different purposes. We can imagine how specific parts of the boat illustrate ministry tools, how sailing skills suggest certain spiritual practices, etc … This richness of possible interpretations, though stimulating, runs the risk of obscuring the primary value of the metaphor, which is to call our attention to a paradigm change.

Here is one way to summarize the core of the sailing metaphor:

1. God advances his kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit: the wind, in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus (Jn.3).

2. The Spirit, like the wind, is beyond our control; if we want to serve the kingdom well, we must depend on the Spirit’s leading as far as intensity, timing and direction of our service – we do not set the times and seasons or control the wind of the Spirit.

3. Spirit dependence as a way of life and service is in conflict with the Western entrepreneurial paradigm, which is predicated on our ability to control the forces that enable us to achieve our objectives.

4. To the degree that Western entrepreneurial thinking shapes how we seek to serve God’s kingdom, it undermines our very heart’s desire to serve Christ well. However sincere and well-meaning we are, we must work within a paradigm that resists the life of dependence on the Spirit’s guidance.

5. A change to sailing can free us from the pressure to control God’s work and put us in a place of surrender to his control.

6. I have used the metaphor of contrasting powerboat and sailboat simply to show how the pursuit of the same objective can have radically different characteristics when pursued from different paradigms.

7. In the classic sailboat, the motive power is outside the boat, and we need to develop skills related to understanding and working with the wind; in God’s work, as in sailing, the force that enables the church to serve Christ is beyond our control. The Spirit will empower our work, set timetables and direction. We need to learn to discern the Wind, and understand how to set our souls (sails) so as to catch the Wind.

8. The powerboat image, by contrast, with its motor and fuel tank, seeks to accumulate and store power within the boat so that the operator can determine when, how and where to go. The wind is not necessary.

Any other application of the metaphor may indeed offer helpful insights, but it needs to be used with care so that it does not distract us from considering the need for radical paradigm change.

[Note: at the top of this entry, just below the title, you will find some words in blue. Please click ‘leave a comment‘ to view and enter your own comments. I would love to know what you think.]

Is sailing realistic? One of the most common reactions to the sailing paradigm is whether it can really be done at the organizational level. It is easier to believe it works at the personal level. Organizations, on the other hand, are objective entities with working relationships with the outside world. There are commitments to staff, clients, investors and government.

How does one wait on the wind to blow while there are salaries to pay, supplies to purchase, and government forms to fill? Is it easier to see how sailing works with a small mission agency, with volunteer staff and an understanding board of directors? Can a complex multi-level organization even dream of abandoning powerboating for sailing? These are very good questions that deserve good answers.

The answers are more accessible that we might expect. Dr. Roger Parrott, president of Belhaven College in Jackson, MS, has been applying sailing principles for several years, and has amassed a lot of practical experience. I have had the opportunity to meet Roger and visit the college twice this year.

The second time I visited Belhaven, I was part of a group of ministry leaders examining together the implications of a sailing paradigm in our work. Roger was part of our meetings and we were able to question him concerning practical applications of the paradigm. His answers consistently demonstrated that leading a large complex organization according to a sailing paradigm is not only possible but also quite beneficial to students, faculty, staff and the larger community.

Dr. Parrott has collected his insights and lessons learned in a very practical book for leaders released this month with the title “The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders”, (David C. Cook Publishers) The book is available at If you have been intrigued by the sailboat paradigm and wonder whether it is practical, I believe you will find Roger’s book very helpful.

The Church as a Body

Dennis Tongoi writes a helpful perspective, in the March 09 issue of Connections ( He suggests a probable birth of powerboating in the church as he notes a historical increase in dependence on human institutions to achieve Kingdom purposes. I think you will find his insights helpful in understanding how the church began changing from sailing by the wind of the Spirit to putting greater trust in human ingenuity and institutions.

Here is Tongoi’s text:

In the first two centuries Church was more of “family”- people gathering in homes eating together and fellowshipping as key activities. As the Church grew and the Greek culture embraced it, church became more of a philosophy- with the focus on logic and defense of the faith. After Roman culture embraced the faith the church became an institution with the focus on systems, titles, positions and power.
In the last fifty years or so, the Church under the huge movement of missions from the west and in particular America became an enterprise- complete with the pastor (or Bishop) as the prime mover or CEO. With the resultant focus on programs, reports and results, relationships began being defined on a contractual basis; as partnerships often with one partner dominant or dictating the agenda.

The centre of global church is now acknowledged to have moved south. A prominent Church leader has proposed that we in Africa, model “church as a body”. In the body there is no dominant or dependant member- the primary relationship becomes interdependence and the focus is on service. Even the least honorable member is given honor. We need to remove the focus from individualism that is the dominant value in the secular western culture and survival that dominates the African mind. This will enable us move to mutuality and interdependence. How can we do this? Mutuality will not be accomplished through debate and agreement on doctrine- the only way we can do this is as we serve, not ourselves but others.

A colleague recently raised the concern that most of the current dialogue regarding a ‘sailing’ paradigm are ‘North’ people. He wonders if we are not missing something by not bringing ‘South’ people more fully into the discussion. It is a good question.

When I first began speaking about changing from powerboating to sailing, it was in the context of finding language that would help ‘North’ people understand why there are still lingering concerns and frustrations around the world with the ‘North’s participation in global missions. Also, as a result of my presenting the topic in the presence of people from the ‘North’, I have been asked by ‘North’ people to make presentations on the topic.

It is very clear that this topic directly impacts ‘North’/’South’ relationships. ‘South’ leaders who have been exposed to it have received it with open arms because it may help them make progress in communication with their North brothers and sisters. Perceptive ‘South’ people also recognize that they are not immune to powerboating, and need the message as well for that reason.

I have spoken twice in an international context where ‘South’ people were present, and found them very interested in participating in the discussion. My intent is that this blog will draw them into the discussion as well.

I often hear that the North people in particular need to look at ‘sailing’. There is good historical reason for that, since we in the North have been most active in developing and operating a powerboat model. But I want to be careful not to encourage any sense among the South people that because they are not ‘North’ people they have got ‘sailing’ right.

The temptation to rely on our own power and control is universal. Western societies just happen historically to have recent success in the material realm and have been bolder and more confident in their own abilities.

The comparative material poverty of the South in relation to the North happens to favor them in a switch to ‘sailing’, but it is not a given. Powerboating is a universal tendency among humans of any culture. Some times the difference between ‘North’ and ‘South’ is not of paradigms but of resources. A rowboat is just as much a powerboat as a motor boat.

Once everyone grasps the meaning and implications of the metaphor, we all can begin to learn to ‘sail’ together.

What do you think?

Welcome to our sailing blog. You are part of a group of colleagues who have been exploring implications of changing paradigms from powerboating to sailboating in world missions.

Since Feb 2008 we have been engaged in a vigorous international dialogue about the need to switch from a control paradigm to one of dependence on God in our ministries. Each time I have participated in this discussion, new insights, corrections and questions emerge.

There seems to be a consensus among us that the Lord is calling our attention to something that needs to be examined for the sake of his church around the world.

In this blog, we will be writing many thoughts for consideration and comment. May the Lord use this tool to bring us all closer to what he wants to teach us.

I am honored to be yours in the Lord,

Alex Araujo

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything,
but only God who gives the growth.”
(1 Corinthians 3:6–7 ESV)

The Bible teaches that when it comes to spiritual fruit, “God gives the growth.” But with our modern management orientation in Christian ministry, we often think we can control outcomes. This is understandable because of the secular environment in which we live in the west; but is it biblical?

In early September I attended a small gathering of mission leaders for a “Sailboat Retreat” during which we compared the powerboat mindset with the sailboat mindset—and what it could mean for Christian mission ministry. One of the things we discussed is that money is very often a controlling force in ministry. As a result, fundraising is what often shapes ministry. This can be quite unhealthy, an example of “the tail wagging the dog.”

In keeping with the sailboat theme of “catching the wind of God”—one of the things we considered in our sailboat retreat is this idea: Instead of having money as the single greatest catalyst for ministry, what if that catalyst was simply listening—listening to God and listening to people?

To make this contrast clear, take a look at two “formulas” for ministry. With the “powerboat” formula for Christian mission, the catalyst is money:

Money drives ministry for results

Money drives ministry for results

  • Money drives the process; no funding = no ministry = no results.
  • Money comes first; listening is sometimes optional and comes last.
  • Primary emphasis on fundraising and methods to raise money.
  • Western nations have more funds, therefore wealthy nations tend to control ministry.
  • Implies reliance on expensive structures, technology, “missions machinery.”
  • Money makes “mission” go fast.
  • Tremendous pressure on people for results—measurement of outcomes—in order to maintain funding. This shapes ministry strategy and reporting protocol.

With the “sailboat” formula for Christian mission, things are very different. The variables are the same, but the priorities are different. The catalyst is listening—to God and people.

Listening shapes ministry for faithfulness

Listening shapes ministry for faithfulness

  • Listening replaces money as the catalyst for global missions.
  • Listening comes first; money is sometimes optional and in balance with other priorities.
  • Primary emphasis on—listening to God—catching the wind of the Holy Spirit.
  • Implies a quantum leap by Christian mission leaders in the west relative to listening to Christian mission leaders in the global south—while at the same time adopting more of a servant role rather than a leadership role in missions.
  • Ministry can go forward without excessive reliance on funding.
  • Sometimes fast, sometimes slow; it depends on the wind of God.
  • Results are up to God, and can greatly exceed the plans of people, or not. Either one is okay, because God is in control. What is required is that God’s people be found faithful.

Obviously, there are generalizations involved in making formulas and it would be easy to critique specific pieces of the formulas above. Nevertheless, the point of this is to imagine: What would be different in your cross-cultural partnership, if you put listening ahead of funding? What if listening to God and to people was by far the most important, the most catalytic practice, in your cross-cultural partnership ministry—or any ministry, for that matter?

NOTE: This post is excerpted from a “A report on Catching the Wind of God—A Sailing Retreat: Contrasting the Powerboat and Sailboat mindset for leadership,” collated and edited by Alex Araujo and Werner Mischke. You may download a copy of this report by clicking here.

In John 3:8 Jesus speaks of the total freedom of the Spirit of God to move when he wishes as he wishes. The Spirit is not controlled by any one. He, like the wind, blows where he pleases. We hear his sound, but we cannot tell where he comes from or where he is going.

Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:3-8 speak of our utter dependence on the Spirit to do serve Christ. Jesus, having commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes to them, before starting out on their mission. Yes, there was an urgency to the mission, but not without the Spirit’s empowering and guiding. We must adjust our sense of urgency to the parameters of the kingdom.

We know very little about times and seasons; we have almost no concept of the specific circumstances that determine how and when God will act in the world. Yet, we are given an assignment within the kingdom. How are we to know what to do?

This utter lack of knowledge of when and how God will act is likely to make us very uncomfortable. In fact, we are so uncomfortable that we resort to our best human resources to come up with plans to do what God asks us to do. We try to make up for the fact that God has left us in the dark about his plans and agenda by coming up with our own. When we do this, we fail to understand something very basic to being people of Christ in the world. What is this very basic thing?

Here is essentially what the Lord seems to be saying to us about our role in his work: ‘I will tell you very little in advance about what I will do next and what specific part you will play. Instead of giving you advance knowledge, I will give you my constant presence. What I ask of you is to stay close to me, wait for me and follow me to the degree that you see and understand me’. Jesus concludes his instructions to the disciples in Matthew 28 with the words, “and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Instead of giving us advance knowledge of the plan, he gives us something the he determines is much better: his abiding, guiding and empowering presence.

I believe Jesus meant for us to feel relieved by witholding from us control of the process and energized by the promise of his presence. He takes from us the burden of knowing and controlling the steps of our obedience. As he said before, he can make even the stones to praise him; he can send his angels to do the work of world evangelization if all he cares about is the task. Instead, he wants us involved, and has made us integral part of plan. It is not about the task, but about our fellowship with him as he goes about the task. Our effectiveness in the task is more related to our familiarity with him, our closeness to him, than it is with our mastering of times and seasons. Should this not bring us immense relief? Apparently not, if measured by how we go about serving him.

What I see in myself and my missions colleagues instead of walking closely with Christ is a fair amount of anxiety, of frantic attempts to fill in the knowledge gaps Jesus intentionally left. We still want to serve him well, and we fear that unless we know the details and grasp the controls of the process, we will fail him. Yet, the truth is the opposite. The more we try to fill in the knowledge gap that he left , the farther we risk missing the mark of his intention for us.

How are we then to respond? If he has given us his presence instead of plans and timetables, I strongly suspect that the best way for us to be obedient to his command is to learn how to stay close to him. If his presence is described as the wind of the Spirit blowing at will on us and in the world, our hope is in learning how to sail. We need to learn how to discern the sound of the Spirit’s voice, and how to stretch our spiritual sails to receive the wind and trim our souls to best be moved by him where he wants us to go.

What does this say to our existing approaches and structures of obedience? How are our organizations structured to catch the wind?