AQUACHURCH: the vocation of voyaging

     In July I wrote a review of Leonard Sweet’s
remarkable book (more than a book, it is a reading experience) called Soul
. I might hope that you would dig up the review as I am confident
the book would be useful to those in campus ministry. Dr. Sweet is a passionate
communicator, Higher Ed Bigshot at Drew, postmodern theologian and United
Methodist evangelist. Known equally for his work in preaching and
trendmeistering, he brings together an absolutely uncanny ability (read: gift)
to read the signs of the times. In postmodern lingo, he deconstructs social
signifiers and discloses how varied interpretations of social artifacts help us
understand not only the context in which we do ministry, but the very shape of
our ministry. In other words, he pays attention to stuff and asks us to get

     For instance, in an ever-increasing high-tech,
image-based, wildly-wired world, the church needs to be more techie with bigger
and better screens (I think he means this both metaphorically and literally).
And at the same time, we must be more human-scale, personal and high-touch. In
a postmodern world which entertains paradox, we need not ping-pong over the
extremes, but can and must embrace both/and. High-tech and high-touch. Internet
Bible studies and small groups. Got it? My two-page review of the book and the
wonderfully-interesting audio tape which perfectly complements the weighty text
didn’t do justice to the insight, contradictions and stimulations found in this
maddening work. Still, my phone isn’t ringing off the hook with orders for
Tsunami, so I’m back, giving it the plug again.

     Since my last column, I’ve had the opportunity to
interview Sweet (all on videotape, with daughter Steph doing the camera work.
Most memorable throw-away line, offered by Sweet when it became evident that I
was unaware of the women’s world soccer victory that day: “Stephanie,
you’ve got to get your dad out more!”) Under his inspiration, later that
week, in teaching a class on Presbyterians and postmodernism, I suggested that
the moment whats-her-name tore her jersey off, (and Nike bought the rights to
the image) could be seen/interpreted in (at least) four different ways. (From
early modernist, through high postmodernist, if you really want to know.) My
point: just hanging around Leonard Sweet for a day or so gets the juices
flowing; just carrying his ideas around make you see life in new ways. (On my
way to the interview, I passed a Dairy Queen which was selling “frozen hot
chocolate” and I couldn’t keep from thinking of all that signified about
our times.)

     So if we learn to see things anew, we might even
start to do ministry in new and fresh and effective ways. Who among us doesn’t
know that the same-old, same-old styles aren’t making it in the church, or in
the para-church? Struggling seriously with Sweet’s mind-boggling foray into the
windy waves of the postmodern tsunamis just might be how the Spirit works among
us to “think outside the box” and “sing a new song.”

     If I was troubled by some of what Len wrote in
SoulT (for instance, I think he too quickly dismisses the concerns of those who
are alarmed by the loss of the role of the book: like Nell Postman or Marva
Dawn), I might also say that his assessment of post-modernism is less
philosophical than practical. You may recall from your reading of Garber’s
Fabric of Faithfulness that Steve emphasized two complimentary ways of doing
cultural analysis, tracing the history of ideas and tracing the impact of
sociological trends which shape our lived experience. Under Garber’s tutelage
many of us have learned to appreciate not just the flow of ideas but the
structures, housing, transportation, factories, gender roles, advertising,
educational customs, which inevitably effect how we “lean into life.”
(This way of getting at things is termed the “sociology of

     Sweet, while surely aware of the ideas of Derrida
and Foucalt, postmodern philosophy and process theology, would tend towards
asking sociology-of-knowledge type questions. In fact, Sweet himself gives us a
great illustration of how this approach works: he tells of how the invention of
church pew racks caused a uniformity of printing and production standards for
hymnals, making them less likely to be used in home devotions as they had been
for a century, when they were made in a variety of sizes and styles. In a
generation, home use of hymnals practically ceased, and a subsequent shift in
piety emerged. All from a simple invention. (Note, those who want to fight
theological liberalism: this impious trend came not from an unbiblical
theological shift or any idea as such, but from a benign invention!) And so,
with this sort of sociology of knowledge schtick, Sweet asks us to wake up to
the social reality we find ourselves in. He is not nearly as interested (as I
found in my interview) in debating the fine points of what ought to be, but in
knowing well the missionary context we find ourselves in.

      We can bemoan what we want, we can wish for
whatever. Like it or not, though, I can imagine him saying with a wry smile, we
are all going into the 21st century in a few months, with all its modems,
satellite dishes, genetic engineering and double-ring contradictions. The
question is, will we do ministry there? And, if so, how? Of course, he is
right. But, still, I think that (especially for those working at the
idea-center of the social changes, the university) it is wise to know well the
history of ideas which brought with them the eventual changes in society and
culture. Thus, I plead for folks to read and reread Transforming Vision
with your students; work hard to wade through Truth is Stranger Than It Used
to Be
(still the best and most biblical book on post-modernity). Get a
really good handle on the technological age by studying Dordt College’s
reformational approach in Perspectives in Technology and Culture by
Egbert Schuurman. At the very least, we should know the flow of Western ideas
as outlined in Francis Schaeffer’s basic overview, How Should We Then
, and we should be aware of writers such as David Wells, whose serious
trilogy of books exposing the lack of a serious theological worldview amongst
many evangelicals ought to be being debated in our more sophisticated churches.
Nearly all of our students should at least get a general critique of the
history of ideas found in great books like The Secular Squeeze by John
Alexander (which traces the rise of rationalism and romanticism) and The
Dust of Death
by Os Guinness (which looks similarly at the culture and the

      I am not suggesting that Sweet is unhelpful in
matters more philosophical as he sometimes shows a stunning grasp of such
things. Still, the tidal wave book is finally about the ideas on our
hyper-modern, postmodern, anti-Christian, (pre)Christian world, not the ideas
as such. Balanced out with some of these other titles, I think
SoulTsunami is a very important book. Now comes Sweet’s brand new book,
published fast on the heels of SoulTsunami. AquaChurch is
subtitled “essential leadership arts for piloting your church in today’s
fluid culture” and it is a splendid example of how an author can unpack an
earlier work and show where his ideas lead. This is a new leadership paradigm
which emerges out of his understanding of our postmodern world. And, of course,
he gives us specific leadership traits (arts, not techniques, obviously) for
serving the Kingdom in these days.

     Even more than Tsunami, this book is clear and
well organized. And it is a model of his desire that a book be more than a
book, but an experience. The graphics are wonderfully playful, the recommended
webpages numerous, the metaphors well-developed. The nautical theme is carried
out even in the personal discussion questions (called “Captains
Logbook”) while the communal ones are in a section called “Ships
Log.” It sounds a bit goofy, but with the handsome and somewhat postmodern
illustrations and layout, it works. It is, in a crazy sort of way, one of the
most handsome books I’ve seen in a while. And, like SoulTsunami, it is
chock-full of great stories, fascinating literary quotes, poems and fables.
Sweet surely is right about the postmodern world being a fluid one. People feel
adrift and we seem to be in uncharted waters. As Bruce Cockburn so nicely sings
it, “Sometimes the best maps cannot guide us.” In a way which
illustrates Melville’s quote, “It’s not on any map, true places never
are,” AquaChurch shows that the truest church will be a church on
the move, fluid, sailing in the wind. In a brilliant exegesis of Hebrews
6:18-19, Sweet reminds us that we are anchored in Christ, but this particular
sort of anchor is not for harbor hugging or stationary drift. No, this type of
anchor is cast out ahead of us, into a storm, and the sailor wrenches the boat
away from the dangers of the rocky shoreline and into the storm, where at least
the ship has a chance.

     Again, Sweet uses here his word
“ancient-future” and suggests that we who are theologically
conservative, hanging onto Christ alone as our sure anchor, will be the church
most surely pulled into the future. “Post-modern mariners,” he says,
“are rearview visionaries.” As we blend the “venerable with the
vogue, we will truly be timely and faithful, not so much because we are
attempting to be up-to-date, but because we are carrying the old truths of the
tradition with us. And so, the navigational arts are these sorts of things:
orienting by the north star (Jesus the Christ), studying our compass, casting
the anchor, walking the gangplank (Leonard refuses to use the commonplace
“Take care.” “We take too much care,” he tells audiences.
“Ã’We should take risks!”), taking shore leave. Aquachurch
leaders, not unlike many Gen X-ers, are quick to signal with “flags and
semaphores,” value other crew members (his stuff on collaboration and
teamwork is very, very important) and are good at using the gyroscope of

     There’s more, but you’ll have to scan the horizon
of AquaChurch. His last leadership art is the seaman’s trick of feeling
the wet finger in the air. Intuition plays a big role in post-rationalist
worldview. It is an amazing and instructive chapter with its own insights,
recommendations and pitfalls. Leonard lives by his motto, “Take
Risks.” Some will criticize him for all this new age talk of creativity,
collaboration and intuition. The masters of organization, the bureaucrats in
the hierarchy and the carefully efficient will object to this splashy, watery,
“messing about in boats.” Get the book, explore the seascape, try out
some of the suggestions. Talk about his questions and check out the websites,
videos and churches he recommends. If even a portion of the church applied even
a portion of Sweet’s waterfall of ideas, we would be in a different place.
Perhaps being tossed in even more troubling waters. But it seems to me that
would beat being bored hugging harbor. And, ultimately, what is more safe than
risking all by stepping out into the water with the one who invites us to walk
there with Him?