Here are seven simple ways the Titanic disaster could have been avoided.

  1. Build it with a double-hull. Single hulls save money. Double hulls save lives.
  2. Use steel rivets, not weaker wrought-iron rivets (40% of the 3 million rivets used to weld together the hull’s steel planks were inferior). 
  3. Seal the top of the watertight bulkheads. Watertight bulkheads are great if the water is shallow, but if the water gets deep and you haven’t sealed the tops of the bulkheads, water will just flood over the top, making a watertight bulkhead a waterfall bulkhead.
  4. When in dangerous waters (especially where you cannot see too far ahead of you), slow down or stop completely. In other words, don’t continue going at near maximum speed. Other ships in the North Atlantic that night took this advice to heart. None of them sank.
  5. Once you see an iceberg dead ahead, turn the ship immediately. Don’t waste 37 precious seconds pondering what will happen if you do nothing (Will you miss it? Will you crush it? Will you bump it? Will it melt?).
  6. Don’t meet the minimum requirement demanded by law. Instead, have a seat in a lifeboat for everyone on board, plus a few extra (for dogs, cats and stowaways).
  7. When the time comes, make sure the orders are clear. Make sure everyone knows the situation. Make sure everyone knows time is of the essence. Make sure everyone knows to abandon ship. Don’t give a command like, “Women and children.” Instead, give the order “Women and children first.” That way, no one is confused about what to do if there are no more women or children around. Put some men on that lifeboat! Don’t lower the lifeboat half full!

In our previous post, we talked about what could sink a community (it was worms). And let’s face it, so many Christian communities fail miserably that it seems like the disaster is unavoidable. Sadly, it is the rare community that lives up to its calling. But every fellowship disaster in the church can be avoided if we apply these seven guidelines from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We are looking at chapter 4 of Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship. Here’s Bonhoeffer’s big idea: “In the church community, we are to serve our neighbors, not ourselves.” In other words, don’t let the worms sink your fellowship. Instead, invest in these seven ministry practices (three today and four next time). Let’s get underway.  

First, guard your tongue. The Bible talks a lot (a lot) about the proper use of our speech. It talks about slander and gossip and mocking and insulting and criticizing and a host of other sins of the tongue. Proverbs alone is a treasure trove of wisdom on how we should speak to one another. For instance,

  • 10:19 — Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.
  • 11:12 — Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.
  • 21:23 — Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.

But the New Testament also speaks to this issue.  Peter writes (1 Peter 3:10):

  • For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.

But in my opinion, James is the high-water mark for guarding our tongues in the church:

  • 1:26 — Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.
  • 3:9-10 — With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 
  • 5:9 — Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Bonhoeffer writes:

“Where the discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning,
each individual will make a matchless discovery.
He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person;
judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place
where he can gain ascendancy over him
and thus, doing violence to him as a person.
Now, he can allow the brother to exist as God made him to be.
God did not give this person to me to dominate and control,
but in order that I might serve him.”

The Bible talks a lot (a lot) about the proper use of our speech. Unfortunately, we choose to ignore it. It is just too difficult. It requires too much of us. As a result, our fellowship suffers.

Second, embody humility. Without a doubt, humility is the essential component of all healthy communities. Paul’s great opening words in Philippians 2 tell us everything we need to do (3-4):

  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

But knowing what to do (embody humility) and living in humility are two different things. It’s hard for us to put the needs of others above our own. But Bonhoeffer gives us several insights on how to do this; none of them a quick fix or a simple formula, but instead, profound truths that we continually fail to grasp. He writes,

  • “Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.”
  • “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
  • “How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?”
  • “Faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it. And faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”
  • “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Again, the Bible talks a lot (a lot) about humility, but again, sadly, we choose to ignore it; and as a result, our fellowship suffers.  

Third, listen to one another. We often think that our primary ministry consists in us speaking into the lives of those around us with God’s truth. However, that is not true. Our primary calling is to listen. Don’t miss that: our calling is to listen to our brothers and sisters and to listen to them well. Bonhoeffer says it this way:

“Just as love for God begins with listening to his Word,
so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.
It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word, but also lends us his ear.
So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.
But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening
has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener
and whose work they should share.
We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.

That one line is worth the price of the book ($2.95 in 1954!). It is the key to our ministry to one another: 

We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.

Listening has such great power, but we often fail to wield that power, being more interested in what we are going to say next than actually listening to the person in front of us. But just think of the impact we could have if we were given over to the ministry of listening to one another.

And in case you still think speaking is more important, let me share this great line from Bonhoeffer (and I share it as a pastor who seems to specialize in long sermons):

“Is there anything more perilous than speaking God’s Word to excess?”

Again, the Bible says a lot about listening and humility and putting the needs of others ahead of our own, but we rarely listen to these verses. As a result, our fellowship suffers.

Perhaps, you are as jaded as I am when it comes to Christian communities and feel they always fall well short of my hopes and dreams and expectations. Perhaps, you also feel there is nothing you can do to stem the tide, but Bonhoeffer will have none of that talk. Instead, he calls us to follow Jesus, die to self and give ourselves to minister to the people around us, putting their needs above our own. But what makes Bonhoeffer so wise is that he roots our call, not in ought and obligation, but as a response to God’s grace. We give ourselves to our neighbors because we have been recipients of God’s uncontainable grace. Listen again to the motive Bonhoeffer sees in our call. He writes:

“Not self-justification, which means the use of domination and force,
but justification by grace, and therefore service,
should govern the Christian community.
Once a man has experienced the mercy of God in his life,
he will henceforth aspire only to serve.
The proud throne of the judge no longer lures him;
he wants to be down below with the lowly and needy,
because that is where God found him.”

When God’s grace takes hold of us in such a way that our greatest desire is to love God and love others, then our fellowship will be smooth sailing. More next week. In the meantime, try to expand your listening skills.