Author: Sadiri Joy Tira
Before the creation of airplanes, there were boats and ships! Like planes, ships are evolutionary machines. They have gone from small boats to super tankers, from fishing boats to cruise ships, from tug boats to container ships, from sail boats to steam ships and from diesel to nuclear powered-warships.
In my previous blog, The Flying Communities (15.03.2010), I wrote about jumbo jets hauling people on the move. Now, I want to write about another segment of “diaspora people” – the people who are living on the oceans and seas. People move and traverse the globe by ships. These Seafarers live and work on board ships for months and even years. I call them the Floating Communities. They are traders, armadas, fishermen, researchers, and pleasure-loving people. As long as there are oceans and seas, there are “floating communities” --- people who live and work onboard ships! Some of us have forgotten that there are actually people living on the oceans!
Before the tabernacle, the temple, and the cathedral, were erected for worship, there was the Noah’s ark! When I was a 10-year-old boy, my Sunday School teacher told me that “Noah’s ark was like a church because Noah’s family worshipped the Lord inside!” Obviously, my Sunday’ school teacher did not go to a dispensational school of theology. She was a plain layperson who loved Jesus Christ and children. She had no theological and hermeneutical training, but she was right on theologically. She made a complex theological concept understandable to a 10-year-old boy! A floating community and a floating church?
What is a church? This is a perennial question among theologians and parishioners. In recent years I have heard and read about “house-churches,” “mega-churches,” “meta-churches,” “cell-churches,” “friendly-seekers churches,” “rural and urban churches”, “underground-churches,” “the persecuted churches,” “Purpose-Driven-churches” and others. All these so called “churches” are but descriptions of a “local church” and what these congregations are doing. To be honest nothing really is new to me. But a church on the ocean? And church planting on board ships? This really caught my attention because I myself lived onboard ships including the “first floating library” – Operation Mobilization’s (OM) M/V Logos. I worked as one of their marine engineers for four years. My job was simple and it involved making the ship float and worthy for sea voyage. Like normal communities, OM’s former ships: M/V Logos, M/V Logos II, and the M/V Doulos; the current ship, the M/V Logos Hope are like “villages” – people lived, worked, and worshipped on board these ships. The crew and staff represent different nationalities. They are men, women, young people, married couples, families, children, and some older adults! These communities had rules and regulations to maintain peace and order. There is a hospital, and a school on board, and the director of the ship serves like a “pastor” or spiritual leader! (See OM websites).
Dr. Martin Otto, a German missions practitioner, who is based in Hamburg, has a lot to say about this subject. The readers of this blog may want to read Otto’s ground-breaking book, Seafarers: A Strategic Missionary Vision (Piquant editions LTD.: 2002; and Church on the Oceans: A Missionary Vision for the 21st Century (Piquant Editions LTD.: 2007. For more information and reviews (www.piquanteditions.com). In his foreword to the Churches on the Oceans, the world re-known missions researcher and author of the Operation World, Patrick Johnstone wrote:
A church on a ship? Why not? We have grown so used to the concept that “church” equals building, while the bible teaches that church equals people…This goes back to the sad deterioration from the New Testament Christianity, which was based on people, to a Constantinian Churchianity, which was based on structures. Our concept of planting churches is more concerned with places to meet than with disciples to gather…Over the last decades of the twentieth century much more effort and thinking was given to plant churches among Roma or Gypsy people in Europe and the beginnings of success among such peoples as the Fulbe of West Africa, the Mongolians on the edge of the Gobi Desert and the Sea of Gypsies of Southeast Asia. But what about the millions of seafarers who spend the majority of their working lives away from home and in the difficult transient life on board commercial ships? For too long, ministry among them sought to address their social needs and sometimes focused on evangelism, but to actually plant ship churches was hardly thought of. Yet so many seafaring peoples of the world have many Christians…such as the Pacific Islanders, the Filipinos, West Africans… Could they not be used of God to reach out to the many Muslim seamen --- Arabs, Somalis, Pakistanis, Maldivians, Indonesians?
Last month, I joined Dr. Otto and two other friends somewhere in the hills of Mosbach, Germany. For three days, the four of us prayed together and brained-stormed on how we could train 500 Seafarers-Church-planters from the Philippines every year. Why Filipinos? Many Filipino seafarers are Christians (at least by name)! There are an estimated 1.5 million seafarers; 25% are Filipinos! Twenty five percent of 1.5 million equals to 375,000; approximately 7% or 26,250 of them are evangelical Christians. Imagine these potential missions force or “tentmakers.” For the past two years, Martin Otto has been traveling to Manila every quarter to train dozens of Filipino seafarers including Captains, Chief Engineers, and other officers to plant churches on board ships. During our meeting in Germany the four of us --- representing the Operation Mobilization (O.M.), Seafarers Christian Friends Society (SCFS), and Filipino International Network (FIN) signed a Memorandum of Agreement to form the Alliance of Churches at Sea (ACAS) and partner to train 500 Seafarers every year as Church Planters on the ocean.
I have spoken with a couple of missions leaders who question the sustainability of churches among the “transient” people who work and live on the ocean. I believe many missions leaders do not fully understand the nature of the Church. Consequently, they cannot fully comprehend and deliver the mission of the Church to the whole world that is fast becoming “borderless,” including those nations who are living on all seas and oceans of the world! I would argue that Churches on the Oceans are missiologically valid! Why do we plant churches among the refugees in many refugee camps? They too are transient? It is OK to plant churches among International Students in the university belts of North America. Are they not transient? So what about planting churches among the Chinese, Nepalese, Indians, and Filipinos, Temporary Contract Workers in the Arabian Gulf? Are they not temporary residents? We even have the so-called churches for Missionary Kids inside their dormitories of their MK schools? It seems that many missiologists only see the land but not the “water.”
Ministry to the Diasporas is not land-locked and geographically focused. Indeed, we go wherever there are people. It is non-spatial. Diaspora missions addresses the migrating people to mega-cities, and celebrates the planting of churches on land, but also responds to seafarers on the oceans and seas of the whole world. The Lausanne Movement is committed to motivating the Whole Church to bring the Whole Gospel to the Whole World. Please pray for ACAS and their vision to see many more “Floating Communities.”
Sadiri Joy Tira (D.Min., D.Miss.) is the Senior Associate for Diasporas of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization; the Diasporas Specialist of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada; and the International Coordinator for the Filipino International Network.