Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, New York harbor bustled with ocean liners transporting thousands of people between North America and Europe every week. Great ships like the Queen Mary and Normandie were celebrated as floating palaces, but very few passengers enjoyed their luxuries. Most who sailed on them were poor immigrants and refugees relegated to 3rd class accommodations. These ships served a highly utilitarian purpose—moving passengers and cargo from point A to point B. That’s why they were called “liners.”
But the glory days of the ocean liners began to fade in 1953 when a Comet roared across the Atlantic. The De Havilland Comet was the first commercial jetliner. The distance covered by an ocean liner in six days was traveled by a jetliner in six hours. Virtually overnight the vast Atlantic Ocean became “the pond.” By the 1960s the great ships were being laid up or sold for scrap. Many predicted the passenger shipping business would never recover. They were wrong.
A handful of innovative ship owners developed a new way for their fleets to produce revenue: cruises. Rather than crossing the Atlantic from point A to point B cruises sailed in a circuit, embarking and disembarking passengers from the same port. And their goal was not to transport passengers, but to get tourists to buy and consume more of the products and services onboard the ship. The shift from crossing to cruising was really a shift from transportation to consumption.
Because of this, over time cruise lines sought to increase the number of entertainment options onboard their ships. This triggered a rapid increase in the size of vessels being built, each one incorporating more of the features vacationers wanted. As a result, many of today’s gargantuan cruise ships dwarf the ocean liners of the past—something no one would have predicted 50 years ago when passenger shipping was believed to be on its deathbed.
Why am I talking about the history of the shipping industry? Well, I think it’s a helpful parallel for what’s happened in the American church over the last 40 years. Around the same time that jetliners were causing waves for the shipping industry, cultural changes were also rocking the church. Prior to the 1960s most churches in America were small with a very utilitarian function–they transported people into communion with God by providing the basic necessities for living a Christian life.
But by the 60s and 70s the Baby Boomers grew up and many stopped going to church. The culture had changed–secular values, youth culture, and entertainment had taken root and the church could no longer compete. Traditional churches, built for utility, struggled. But like some ship owners at the time, entrepreneurial pastors began tinkering to see if a new purpose for the church could be found.
What these “pastorpreneurs” found was that people would still attend church in a post-Christian culture if it appealed to their felt-needs. Rather than viewing the church as simply a means to an end (connecting people with God), they made the church an end in itself. The logic was simple: if the masses did not feel the need to connect with God then perhaps another “felt need” could draw them into the church: the need for community, or entertainment, help with their kids or marriage. While they consumed the upbeat music, support groups, dramas, and therapeutic sermons they will hopefully find God too.
But by starting with consumer’s desires they were mirroring the shift in passenger shipping away from liner voyages to cruising. They were making the church itself the destination rather than the vehicle. New jargon was even developed to articulate this shift. The goal was no longer connecting non-believers to God, but rather connecting the “unchurched” to our ministry.
Reframing the church as the destination triggered explosive growth in the size of congregations. Logic dictated that larger churches, like larger cruise ships, could offer consumers more choices to address their needs and desires. As a result, church growth went from a byproduct of the mission to its goal, and the programs and facilities churches incorporate today would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Coffee shops, bookstores, health clubs, recreation centers, even auto mechanics and production studios. Just as modern cruise ships have redefined the passenger shipping, today’s megachurches have redefined our understanding of ministry. And like the cruise industry, megachurches have flourished.
Today, half of all churchgoers in the United States attend the largest 10 percent of churches. What rarely gets reported, however, is that on average 50 smaller churches close their doors every week in the U.S. The church-as-destination model hasn’t advanced the church in America, it has consolidated it.
What does this mean for the future of the church in North America? Continue reading Part 2 of this article.