Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Swim or Suffocate

Written by: on February 3, 2022


There is a widespread myth that sharks must continually swim or they will suffocate to death.  In truth there are only about two dozen species[1]—including the Great White, the Whale Shark, and the Hammerhead shark—that have a need to be on the move.  They have what is known as “obligate ram ventilators,” meaning they must continually force water across their gills to breath, usually accomplished by swimming; in moving they stay alive.

My knee jerk response to our assigned reading, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, by D.W.Bebbington, was “ugh not church history”. I then called to memory how much I learned in the church history class in seminary. Swim or suffocate is a good analogy, if we don’t move through our history and glean the important pieces like: it helps us understand the Bible better to avoid theological mistakes[2], resist being captivated by fads[3] and reevaluate common church practices[4], without forward motion, the church may indeed suffocate.

Bebbington unpacks the historical journey of Evangelism in Britain beginning in the 1730’s. His survey of this movement thoroughly recounts the sway Evangelism has on society as well as how Evangelism has modulated from its first emergence due to the contexts of its adherents. It is this church history that Dr. Jason Clark utilizes as foundation for his argument that capitalism has invaded the Evangelical movement and has, if not effected, at least affected the faithful/spiritual lives of those who would call themselves Evangelicals in his dissertation, Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship.

Although Clark touches on the quadrilateral of conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism that Bebbington depicts as the priorities of Evangelism[5], Clark’s tether in chapter 2 is to the activism quadrant (the manifestation of one’s faith in action). He makes the argument that the strong enfolding of the doctrine of assurance (through conversion, one receives the gift of permanent salvation and becomes aware of this gift) is related to how one lives out their activism.  As one has assurance of salvation  that occurred through the enlightenment period.[6] Clark paints the inevitability that assurance modulated into the doctrine of providence by forces of emerging capitalism.[7] I am not sure if Clark makes the further leap to the prosperity movement but it seems that is clearly where it would lead.

As a pastor in Protestant, non-evangelical parish ministry I find that the dynamics of consumerism and capitalism are very much in play with not only members of the church but those whom we hope to  reach with the gospel. The ways churches engage today in or understand what it looks like to be a church clearly has a heritage from the modulations of the Evangelical Movement.  It is important to address the consumer identity of our humanity; this is how humans often approach faith, scripture, picking the church we want. We see the act as a product or purchase and pull out our checklist of likes, desires, what feeds our wants.  If the church stops gratifying or satisfying our deal breaker lists or makes us uncomfortable, we move on to find another church…another group…or turn to our own things that “feed us”.  I wonder if the shark analogy can be applied to “church shopping”?

Bebbington and Clark remind us of the dynamics that shifted communities from church/state identity to separation of state and individual.  Something they hint toward, but I am not sure it is fleshed out, is how these theological shifts created an ethos of separation of church and life. A major concern for me as a pastor, is how to lead a faith community that does not grasp importance of being the body of Christ together.  The capitalist/consumer identity, albeit subconscious, has broken down the heart of being Christian community. Humans live in disconnected silos, constantly running back and forth, and in between.  How do I help them find life by living entirely in God?

I started off talking about the sharks that find life by forcing water across their gills usually by swimming. But swimming isn’t the only way to accomplish finding breath.  If a shark finds a strong current, they can also find rejuvenation while hoovering and breathing. The theology of shark-breathing reveals it isn’t always swim or suffocate, sometimes it rest and rejuvenate.



[1] https://poseidonsweb.com/some-sharks-have-to-swim-to-survive-but-most-dont/#:~:text=OBLIGATE%20RAM%20VENTILATION%3A%20WHEN%20SHARKS,–%20“obligate%20ram%20ventilation.”

[2] https://www.knoxseminary.edu/blog/5-reasons-to-study-church-history

[3] https://www.reformation21.org/blog/six-benefits-of-studying-church-history

[4] Ibid.

[5]Bebbington, D.W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain as cited by Clark, Jason Paul. n.d. “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” 2018. Page 52.

[6] Ibid. Page 53, 59.

[7] Ibid. Page 56

About the Author


Nicole Richardson

PC(USA) pastor serving a church in Kansas City. In my spare time I teach yoga and scuba diving

16 responses to “Swim or Suffocate”

  1. Nicole, such a good, therapeutic read – Thank you for blending church history with spiritual formation. 🙂 I’m sure you know the say, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” We can’t seem to “get out” of our hyper-individualistic, hyper-consumeristic culture, so how do you image the church getting further into it? I’m thinking in terms of “Yes, and…” approach. Any ideas?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Michael, sorry it has taken me so long to get around to responding. Thank you for your words of encouragement.
      Regarding your question: I am not sure I have an answer. I like your Improve Rule (Yes…and) as a way to consider the practice of problem solving the issue of consumerism.

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Nicole, a “shark week” post – love it! I like and agree with you connection about consumerism and “church shopping.” You wrote about people’s need for assurance and the resulting activism to gain that assurance. In your experience, is that what people still wrestle with the most (or at all)? It sounds like your desire is to connect people with each and create an interdependent community. What ways have you found effective for casting vision and creating the kind of community you desire for people to experience?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Roy I am sorry it has taken so long for me to get around to responding.

      I do believe that many engage in mission with a goal of self-congratulating….to feel good that they have “helped” out, and along with that comes the sub-conscious belief that their work is another notch in their belt of salvation. YES I AM VERY CYNICAL! Mind you I come from the reformed protestant community where often the messy work of getting down and cleaning someone else’s toilet is demeaning. We like our mission to be easy, clean, and requiring no long term commitment.

      I have been attempting to encourage an interrelated community that move beyond the nicities of Sunday morning to deep covenantal relationships. But it is hard to loosen the grasp people have on the things they find enjoyable in the other spheres of their lives.
      I have yet to convince people or cast a vision worthy of that kind of commitment.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Nicole, great post, and the shark image was great. I was sad when you didn’t continue on with your thought, only to be delighted to learn that it was your finishing piece! A, as stated above, a therapeutic one at that. For me, a doer, fast charger, always on the move, I SO appreciate that reminder as it relates to my life. But in thinking about the ‘church’ world too, wow, a powerful statement. We don’t need to always be fast charging, moving, etc, but there is also real life (and power) in the rest and rejuvination that can be founding the Lord.

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Eric, so for the late response.
      Thank you for your words of affirmation!
      Yes I too am one who tends to be on the move. Finding the mental, emotional space to rejuvenate is an important reminder for myself.

  4. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Nicole: Great analogy, sharks. I liked the sort discussion, too, about the dynamic that has changed between church/state to state/individual. It is happening in our culture and will continue to pan out in our lives. How can the church best minister to such a culture? Everyone has become so individualistic, ben on their own rights, is there room for Christ to move in someone like that? It is a fascinating discussion because it is so relevant to our time. Nice post.

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Troy I apologize for the late response….life has definitely been happening.
      Thank you for your words of affirmation.
      I think that one important thing to be done is to engage this openly…to confront the people of God with our divided lives that are driven by satisfying our own likes. There is so much comforting the afflicted going on but I think we must afflict to comfortable more often.

  5. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    “The capitalist/consumer identity, albeit subconscious, has broken down the heart of being Christian community. Humans live in disconnected silos, constantly running back and forth, and in between. How do I help them find life by living entirely in God?” I can only imagine from your perspective how much more exaggerated or reinforced COVID has made this statement ring true. I’d be interested to know if you’ve discovered any approaches to helping your church remain engaged while living so separately these last few years?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Kayli, unfortunately I have not been successful in finding ways. The community I currently serve quickly settled into online worship. It fit their subconscious comfort zone. There has not been an inclination to be connected on a deep level.

  6. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Nicole, your images are always wonderful and thought provoking~ thank you for sharing. Loved the shark analogy too~

    “A major concern for me as a pastor, is how to lead a faith community that does not grasp importance of being the body of Christ together. The capitalist/consumer identity, albeit subconscious, has broken down the heart of being Christian community.” I also have been wrestling with this concern too. How do we continue to passionately lead a faith community when the world around us speaks the language of individualism and indifference? The beauty of faith community and togetherness is truly needed to be rested and rejuvenated.

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Jonathan so sorry for this late response.

      I believe we must confront the truth of the consumer mindset. Asking our communities to rethink what it means to be a community tied together by a covenant through a covenantal God is important.

  7. mm Andy Hale says:

    The personal salvation message is a misrepresentation of Jesus’ message, ministry, and invitation. Yes, Jesus is calling individuals to follow him and find salvation. And yet, Jesus is calling people to the work of the Kingdom and the fellowship of the church. Last time I checked, no one person can be the body of Christ unto themselves, let alone the head of the church.

    I think the single greatest threat to the church today is the individuality of faith. Just listen to the lyrics of most Christian songs in the first person singular pronoun, and you will discover why it is so hard for people to understand that faith-centered on self is not a faith at all. Your relationships with Jesus is worthless if you do not care about the plight of your neighbor, turn a blind eye to your community, care more about lower prices and care less about the impoverished workers that were underpaid to make it, passionately preach about being pro-life but could care less about people needing affordable healthcare, proper education, and upward mobility. The great contradiction of a Capitalist Christianity at its finest.

  8. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Great questions! I too struggle with the silos; except they remind me of a cross between a fast-food drive through and monasteries. I have this sense that the key can be found somewhere in congregants lack of sense of purpose in the kingdom that emerges out of a deep love for their Creator. I am not sure how to get there. I would be curious what you think and if you have any idea how to engage people in an organic way to partner with God’s purposes.

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Denise I apologize for this last response.

      I think the lack of sense of purpose has more to do with a lack of identity. Being a Christian doesn’t mean much in their minds. I think an important piece is that leaders need to come back around to reminding the people again and again not only who they are but even more importantly WHOSE they are. I also believe that getting back to a more full Trinitarian understanding can impact the ways the people of God identify with God and each other.

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