In the first part of this article I examined how the radical shifts in the American church paralleled the transformation of the passenger shipping industry in the 20th century. Prior to the 1960s, ships were primarily a form of transportation. When this utilitarian function was disrupted by jet travel, the cruise industry was born by transforming ships themselves into the destination and triggering a rapid increase in the size of the vessels.
Similarly, in the mid 20th century the utilitarian role of the church, transporting people into communion with God, was disrupted by secularism. This led innovative pastors to transform churches into destinations rather than vehicles, and attracting irreligious consumers required much larger churches with previously unimaginable offerings. The megachurch explosion began.
Read Part 1 of “How Churches Became Cruise Ships”
Both the cruise industry and megachurches have been incredibly successful ever since. In 1970 only 500,000 people took a cruise, and there were only 10 megachurches in the United States. In 2010 over 14 million people cruised, and there are now over 1,500 megachurches. If the transformation of the passenger shipping industry has helped us understand the emergence of the megachurch phenomenon, what might it say about its weaknesses?
In the early years of the cruise business ship owners believed the airlines were their competition. Rather than flying to Bermuda, the Caribbean, or Mexico, cruise lines tried to sell the romance and glamour of an ocean voyage (remember “The Love Boat”?) as superior to the speed of air travel. Eventually, however, cruise lines accepted that they were not in the transportation business, but rather the vacation business. This meant Carnival Cruise Lines wasn’t competing with United, Southwest, or even other cruise lines, but with Disney World and Las Vegas.
To win more of the vacation market some cruise lines began to downplay the allure of the sea and instead built amenities aboard their ships people expected to find at land-based resorts. Today there are ships with water parks, roller coasters, golf courses, planetariums, bumper cars, even tree-lined parks with carousels and ice skating rinks. Step on to Oasis of the Seas’ cavernous main boulevard with fountains, cars, street performers, and a bar that ascends four stories through a glass canopy, and you’ll hear awestruck passengers saying, “I can’t believe I’m on a ship.”
And that is the problem.
By trying to compete with land-based resorts, these cruise lines literally lost sight of their unique value proposition–the sea. Ships are so crammed with amenities designed to lure passengers and their dollars, it is now possible to spend all day on a ship and never see the ocean. While a passenger may catch a musical, play golf, or ride a roller coaster, the inherent limitations of a ship, no matter how big, mean these experiences will never match what is possible on land. Broadway will always have better productions and Six Flags will always have better rides. As a result the modern cruise industry is engaged in a strange delusion. It is ignoring the one thing it can offer that no one else can–the allure of sea travel–to compete in areas where it can never win.
The church can learn an important lesson from this delusion: Relevance backfires when it
overshadows your uniqueness. Not every cruise line has succumbed to this temptation, nor has every megachurch. Some, however, find the accolades of cultural relevance too affirming, and the pressure to fill thousands of seats every weekend too demanding. They will spend millions of dollars for state-of-the-art theater equipment, will stock their children’s departments with Xboxs and 3-story playgrounds, and even run live Twitter feeds during worship. Churches that can’t afford these “wow” factors or a tattooed pastor with electric personality, may still feel the pressure to run an expanding array of programs normally found at a community college or YMCA all to attract consumers away from their devices and health clubs to the church.
At the same time these churches strip away their distinguishing qualities. Gone are the crosses, stained glass windows, steeples, hymns, pews, and liturgies. Sanctuaries become auditoriums. Choirs become bands. Communion becomes a coffee bar. Like a cruise passenger who never experiences the sea, some attenders may be so occupied with programs and productions that they may never actually experience the church.
A friend recently told me about a convicting conversation he had with a newcomer to his congregation. The man, from a Hindu background, came to the large church about a month earlier because he was curious about Jesus. “Everyone here has been very friendly to me,” he reported to the pastor, “and my family has been enjoying all of the programs. But I do have one question. When am I going to learn about Jesus?” The church’s reason for having its mega-building and programs is to more effectively draw people to Christ, but the pastor wondered out loud whether they had gradually confused their methods and their mission. After all, the church could survive if people don’t meet Jesus, but not if they don’t meet their budget.
This story reminds me of recent research conducted by Barna. While pastors are scrambling to discover the secret bullet to engage young adults, Barna found the top reasons millennials want to attend church are to be closer to God (51%) and to learn more about God (31%). Imagine that. It’s like discovering people want to take a cruise because they like the sea–no roller coasters necessary.
Eventually we will learn that no matter how much money, effort, or innovation the church possesses, it will never be as cool as the culture. Relevance is a race it cannot win, but in our misguided attempts to compete with the culture we risk losing sight of the only thing of value the church can offer the world–Jesus Christ.
Part 3 about the fragility of big ships and big churches will be posted soon.