John Steinbeck on Ministry

You may not have known that John Steinbeck ever commented on ministry.

Neither did he.

In his classic work, Cannery Row, Steinbeck offers us a ministry gem hidden in a conversation between Doc and Hazel. As they sit there, shelling oysters, Hazel brings us a man by the name of Henri who seems to be constantly working on his boat but never finishes it:

"But that boat—" he cried. "He's been building that boat for seven years that I know of. The blocks rotted out and he made concrete blocks. Every time he gets it nearly finished he changes it and starts over again. I think he's nuts. Seven years on a boat." Doc was sitting on the ground pulling off his rubber boots. "You don't understand," he said gently. "Henri loves boats but he's afraid of the ocean." "What's he want a boat for then?" Hazel demanded. "He likes boats," said Doc. "But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it's finished people will say, 'Why don't you put it in the water?' Then if he puts it in the water, he'll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat—so he doesn't ever have to launch it."

There are a lot of ways to apply this. Here's one:

There are ministers and churches that are the same way. They are forever analyzing, forever criticizing, forever lamenting, forever studying. But, they are, deep-down, afraid of the open waters of ministry. They aren't sailors, they are boat-builders. Make no mistake, there is a place for all of those things…as a preparation for ministerial practice, or growth in understanding for the common good.

However, the Christian faith is supposed to be lived, not merely studied. We shouldn't pervert the rightfully symbiotic relationship between knowledge and practice into false dichotomies: either "knowing" or "being" or "doing." Doing without understanding leads to apostasy and ministerial malpractice. Understanding without "doing," makes us little different than Henri the boat-builder. Take time to learn, to pray, to grow. It's vital and necessary to a vibrant, holistic Christian walk. But then, remember that boat-building does not a sailor make. As William Shedd said, "Ships are safest in the harbor, but that's not what ships are for."

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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4 thoughts on “John Steinbeck on Ministry

  1. A very thoughtful reflection that drives to the heart of Christian mission and identity. We have too many “believers” and not enough “disciples.” For too many years we have treated the stories of discipleship in scripture as one path of belief among others. The truth is, there is only one form of discipleship and that is to simply follow Jesus in one’s everyday life. The only beliefs we actually hold are the ones that we live by every day, regardless of the consequences. All the rest of our beliefs are simply theories, unproven theories, at least by us. We cannot persuade others to follow Jesus if we have failed to be persuaded ourselves. This is the single greatest challenge to the church in the years to come. The quickest, and most enduring, way to reverse the church’s decline is simply to become the people we say we are.