The Church Is Not A Rowboat


I recently heard the statement “The Church is not a cruise ship, it’s a rowboat” from someone in leadership at a church. It bothered me the moment he said it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on “why”. 

In my first year of college I went on a Caribbean cruise with my family. My most prominent memory of that time is the stomach virus I came down with on day 2, but the service also stands out in my mind. Everything was choreographed to perfection so that I could have a nice vacation. I could order anything I wanted to come straight to my stateroom. I didn’t have to do anything except enjoy myself and let everyone else serve me. 

The cruise industry is corporately owned. There are boards of trustees who have voting power over the business side of the company. The board employs a captain to steer the boat. The captain has a team around him to make sure the details of steering the boat are attended to. The ship has a crew to make sure the day to day details are taken care of - the cooking, cleaning, and entertaining. The rest of the people are passengers who are there to be entertained.

As much as it pains me to make the comparison of the bride of Christ with a cruise ship, the analogy fits many of the North American churches I’ve known. The bigger the church, the more likely this description fits. 

As much as it pains me to make the comparison of the bride of Christ with a cruise ship, the analogy fits many of the North American churches I’ve known. The bigger the church, the more likely this description fits. Click To Tweet

The pastor is hired to make sure the current direction is kept. He’s a CEO who makes sure the business of the church is attended to, the leadership is excellent, and the programs maintained. He is subject to a board that evaluates his performance and gives him the marching orders. He is then to surround himself with paid staff who can take care of the different ministries under his supervision.  Everyone else is there to enjoy the fruits of their labors and get their “spiritual fix” for the week. Twenty percent of people in the building exist to make sure eighty percent of the people are entertained and well kept. 

This is a true description of the North American model of church, but it doesn’t sound anything like The Church Jesus taught about. Jesus taught about a Kingdom that brought salt and light to the earth. A Church that existed to love Him, glorify Him, and share Him with those who don’t know Him yet. The Church is supposed to be a colony of heaven on earth. A gathering of “sojourners and pilgrims.” A radically counter-cultural community.

The cruise ship model of church sounds more like the movie Wall-E than the Church Jesus taught. But the slow fade of time, and the enemy, has brought the North American church closer to a Carnival Cruise ship than ever before. 

He was right, the Church is not a cruise ship. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. 

But is the Church a row boat?

A rowboat has no power of its own. It either sits still in a body of water or follows wherever the current takes it. The power in a rowboat comes from human effort. If the boat is going to move it is because people are striving to create momentum.

A church comparable to a rowboat would be a church that largely depended on human effort. When the budget shrinks or the membership plummets, a rowboat church would frantically row harder against the current; the leadership is often frustrated and disappointed at the effort of those straining at the oar. The Coxswain would yell louder for them to ROW, ROW, ROW! If someone wasn’t pulling their weight on the paddle, they would be reprimanded and eventually replaced.

This is exhausting and leads to burnout. We deplete people's strength. We exploit their gifting. We use up their energy. This is why many large churches are always begging for volunteers. We never have enough people rowing the boat. The larger the boat the more manpower is required to keep it moving. 

This, also, does not sound like the Church Jesus taught about. 

How did we get here? There was no rapid shift in thinking that put us where we are, the enemy is too crafty for that. We would have noticed and, hopefully, put a stop to it. No, it was a slow fade as we gradually drifted off course. 

It’s often the subtle small things that, over time, cause the most damage. Like water erosion over thousands of years.. 

The slow shift from the idea of “priesthood of believers”, where everyone is taught and encouraged to use their gifts for the Kingdom, to giant churches where most of the people in the building are consumers of religious goods and services. 

The gradual expectation of the Pastor to be a leadership expert who can be the CEO of a corporation rather than a shepherd who will love and protect his sheep. This creates an environment where money and numbers rule, and the sheep are malnourished and unprotected. 

Jesus said it best (of course) - “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” John 10:12.

The Church that Jesus taught about is not a cruise ship or a rowboat. 

It’s a sailboat. 

On a sailboat there is a captain to give leadership. There is a crew to do the work of sailing the boat. Everyone knows their places and are trained for their positions, they all work together toward a common goal - to move with the wind.

They know that ultimately, the movement of the boat is not up to them. They know the direction is not up to them. It’s all contingent on the direction of the wind. The Old Testament word is ruach—which means spirit, wind, or breath. The New Testament word is pneuma, which means the same thing.

The Church should be a breath powered boat. 

On a cruise ship the people’s gaze would be toward themselves, making sure they were enjoying all the moments; looking over the list of amenities and deciding which ones they want to take advantage of. On a rowboat the people’s gaze would be toward the oars, doing their part with their heads down and “nose to the grindstone”. But on a sailboat the people’s gaze would be toward the horizon, waiting expectantly for the wind to come, eagerly anticipating the breeze, praying for wind. 

Are we sipping cocktails while the hired crew makes sure all our needs are met? Are we rowing with all our might to make sure the vessel goes somewhere? Or are we, in the church of today, waiting expectantly for the wind of the Holy Spirit to come, for the breath of God to fill our sails and move us into the future He has for us? 

It’s time to check ourselves. To look deep into our theology of the Church and determine whether we are on course, or if we have drifted in the wrong direction. 

May the “mighty rushing wind” fill our sails once more. 

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