Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Is Your Church A Cruise Liner Or A Racing Yacht?

Is Your Church A Cruise Liner Or A Racing Yacht?

Long before my suspicion of maritime analogies, I remember preaching on Ephesians 4 and using the crew of a boat to illustrate a common church problem. I argued that very few congregants contribute to the life and ministry of the church, with most people happily sunbathing on the metaphorical deck rather than getting their hands dirty mopping floors (see here). In this post I want to ply that illustration differently, showing that the bigger a ship gets the fewer people it involves proportionally in the primary work of sailing. The bigger a church the more room it creates for passengers. But at the same time—and more to the point of this post—big churches require less in the way of gifts and demand more in areas of service.

Church As Cruise Liner

Compare a racing yacht to a cruise liner. Having never been on either, please forgive my rudimentary understanding of both. In the case of cruise liners, the larger ships can carry close to 7000 people. As many as 4000 of those will be passengers, while between 2000 and 3000 make up the crew.

As eye-watering as those numbers are, consider how many of the total (7000 people) are actively involved in sailing. Ignoring the vast amount of passengers, consider the 2000 to 3000 crew members. Ask yourself: how many of them are meaningfully engaged in navigation or engineering. How many of them can be found on the bridge?

Church As Racing Yacht

Alternatively, the crew of a racing yacht is typically smaller than 10 people. Contrast with the cruise liner, every single crew member is actively and strenuously engaged in the sailing of their vessel. No one bartends on a racing yacht. Nor is anyone sipping a piña colada on the deck. Significant demands are placed on each member of that small crew. Everyone is committed. They strive together towards the goal, heavily relying on and spending themselves for one another (Philippians 1:27). The crew of a racing yacht is lean. Their task is immensely demanding. But each member knows that they are there to sail.

Service Over Gifts

Now let me bring this illustrative contrast to bear on the specific point I am trying to make with this post. The comparison between a racing yacht and a cruise liner can be pressed to illustrate the problem of bigger churches typically having a vast number of ‘passengers.’ But, as I have already indicated, my purpose in this post is different.

The entire crew of a racing yacht are involved in the act of sailing. But the majority of a cruise liner’s crew are not. Very few of the latter can be called sailors. The waiter serving afternoon tea does not determine whether the cruise liner reaches its destination. The women dealing cards in the casino is not integral to navigation. These and related roles on the cruise liner cater to experience and comfort. They make the trip more enjoyable. But it would be an exaggeration to call them meaningful contributors to sailing.

Applying my illustration to church size does not require much hard thought or imagination. In my experience the bigger the church the more it resembles a cruise liner, both in that it holds more passengers and in the increasing demand for roles that resemble bartending or card dealing.

Sure, big church create more areas for service: pouring tea, parking lot marshals, stewards, and ushers, to pick a few. These roles cater to experience and comfort. They exist to make the ‘Sunday voyage’ more enjoyable. However, none of them are integral. None of them can really be viewed as fulfilling the kind of corporate commitment and exhortatory role Christians are called to take in the life of their local church. But big churches end up creating all sorts of peculiar and—dare I say it—unnecessary positions and berths for service.

What About Gifts?

In the upcoming series theme I hope to explore my suggested distinction between gifts and service, between bartending on a cruise liner and bravely facing the seas on a racing yacht. Of course, God exhorts us to service. I do not deny this. And the willingness to serve is undoubtedly a mark of Christian maturity. However, I worry that the desire for larger churches—along with the typically unstated conviction that bigger is better—puts us on a dangerous course.

At the end of that course are big churches offering hundreds of arbitrary positions for service but little to no emphasis on gifts. In these churches both the leadership and congregation are easily lulled into complacency by the extensive ‘involvement’ throughout. This makes the church a comfortable place for believers who are content to pour tea once a month, along with leaders who prefer drawing up rosters to training individuals for ministry.

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