But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.—1 Peter 2:9-10
Peter’s words here are an inspiring reminder of what the church is called to be. We are all priests equipped and commissioned to proclaim God’s glory to the world around us. As a pastor, it is your job to help your church members embrace their role.
We should be growing into the awareness of our shared mission to spread God’s love and salvation to the world.
Sometimes the structure of the church service makes it difficult for Christians to understand their calling. It is incredibly easy to fall into the dual positions of serving priests (pastors and staff) and spectating worshipers (church members). This has a dramatic effect on the church’s mission and places the burden of growing the church entirely on the staff.
When you are struggling to diagnose an issue like this, a metaphor can be extremely helpful. The right analogy can make the coin drop in the slot and give you a real a-ha moment. If you are working through some of your church’s growth obstacles, it is helpful to ask yourself:
“Am I the captain of a cruise ship or a battleship?”
The cruise ship mentality
Cruise ships exist for people to get away from the stresses of their lives and relax. Princess Cruises launched a $20 million ad campaign in 2014 with the tagline, “Come back new.”
Similar sentiments have been expressed by church goers: “I go to church to get refreshed so that I can survive next week.” That is not necessarily bad, unless people view church as a time to get a shot of spirituality that they are expected to live off of until they can get recharged next.
Passengers are there to be entertained
A cruise ship offers a banquet of programs and shows intended to keep people enthralled and occupied. Passengers can attend if they want, or they can sun themselves on the deck. People go to get away from responsibility, and a cruise provides the ideal environment.
Ultimately, a passenger is going to judge a cruise ship based on their preferences. Did they enjoy the shows? Were they engaged or bored? Did the trip meet all their expectations?
There is a pretty natural tendency among churches to slide into this mentality. Because we want to serve and minister to the people who worship with us, it is easy to spin up a lot of different studies, classes, groups, and programs. None of these things are intrinsically bad, unless they start to sap energy from the church’s focus—which is to reach outside of the church walls.
You can tell when this attitude is getting too strong of a foothold by the kind of feedback you’re receiving. It is good if you notice a general spirit among your church of wanting to do more and be more productive. An aspirational, forward-thinking sense of disquiet is actually positive. Once you notice that criticism is starting to focus on insider wants and preferences—like music styles and decor—you might be slipping into cruise-ship territory.
The staff serves the passengers
Because the merit of a cruise is based entirely on the passengers’ feelings, the staff is there to cater to them 24/7. Whether you’re working the spa, the deck, or the engine room, you have a customer service position. You want people to have a great time, recommend you to friends, and book another trip.
Cruise ships have a strange turnover. Passengers come and go. If you are lucky, you can create the kind of atmosphere that will keep them coming back. You will definitely create brand loyalty among certain individuals, but there are others who will get itchy feet and wonder what they’re missing from other cruises.
As consumers, people are trained to choose what will please from a seemingly never-ending range of options. This applies to churches too. Unlike the staff on a cruise ship, churches are not trying to create an environment that draws people back based on preferences; we want them to return because they are growing.
Our goals are fairly simple. We want to introduce people to Jesus and then we want to disciple them to maturity. Providing opportunities to serve others and focus on needs that are not their own is an important part of the discipleship process—and leads people away from the cruise mindset.
Life on a battleship
A battleship draws people from contrasting backgrounds and experiences to work together toward a common assignment. In the end, everyone serves a mission that is greater than any particular individual.
No one on a battleship judges the experience based on their own personal criteria. They simply want to know if they accomplished the mission. They ask questions such as, “Were we prepared? Were we productive?” They are willing to make personal sacrifices in order to meet the objective.
Working together toward a common goal
Everyone on a battleship has a job to do, and everyone is counting on the person next to them to fulfill their role. This reliance on each other creates a bond that is entirely different than one based on shared interests and common opinions.
Whether the battleship’s crew can work together is a matter of life or death. This creates a camaraderie and kinship built around something deeper than similarities in lifestyle and experience. The crew is not looking after their own interests (independent) or expecting others to look after their needs (dependent). A common mission forges a relationship where everyone is responsible for everyone else (interdependent).
Creating a battleship church
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.—John 15:9-11
As we disciple people into Christian maturity, they should be growing into the awareness of our shared mission to spread God’s love and salvation to the world. The surprising turn of events is that as we turn our attention away from what we think will keep us happy and find our identity in God’s love and our shared mission, that’s when our joy (and our churches) can become full.