Tug boat or cruise liner?

... or why inherited and new forms of church need each other

Cruise Liner

While I was in the process of being introduced to a church as their prospective minister,  I awoke one morning with an image of a tug boat floating alongside a cruise liner.

The prospective church was a large, traditional one in a wealthy area. The people were lovely and the job interesting, but I really wasn’t sure why on earth God might want me to go there. I was used to being part of a small, innovative community, where traditional forms of worship and structured management patterns were a misnomer. What did I have to offer a flagship church, and why on earth would they want me?

During my prayer time later that morning God spoke:

“You are currently captain of something that is equivalent to a tug boat. You know your waters, you have control of the tiller, and you can choose exactly where you go and the route you will take. The prospective church is like a cruise liner. It is large, unwieldy, and will take ages to change direction. All the passengers and crew already know where they want to go and how they expect to get there. You have the ability to be captain of either vessel – it is your choice – but be under no illusions as to the nature of the job you are considering, and choose wisely.”

As it turned out, the introduction went no further. It was the right decision on both sides. But it gave me food for thought.  At present I am content being the captain of a tug boat. I know my context, I love my job and I can be of real value in the place where I am.

But the picture stays with me – possibly because in my image the two vessels are attached to each other, and necessarily so. The purpose of the tug boat is defined by its association with the cruise liner, while the cruise liner would struggle to leave harbour without the tug boat’s help. In the same way the church needs both flagship congregations and small, experimental ecclesial communities. One without the other would lead to an impoverished church.

But let’s face it, not everyone wants to navigate the oceans in a tug boat…

Click here to find out more about: Why inherited and new forms of church need each other.

One thought on “Tug boat or cruise liner?

  1. Hi Janet,

    thanks for the link to the blog – looking good. I like the visual image of the tug boat and cruise liner. The contrast seems to fit the situation of exploring a call to a new pastorate that you began your article with. I wonder if the visual image becomes less useful as you broaden it out to refer to “flagship congregations and small, experimental ecclesial communities” as if they were the only two options for being church. (or what you call “inherited” and “new” forms of church in the longer article.)

    In my experience, most of the churches that would fall into your category “inherited forms of church” do not feel or act very much like the “cruise liner” description you gave of the church you were being introduced to. They are not big, not luxurious, not particularly comfortable and not very likely to have a clear and settled idea about where they are going or how to get there. In my experience it is certainly not true to say that they are all “unwieldy, and will take ages to change direction”. The vast majority of the churches that would fit into your category of “inherited forms of church” are actually quite small – very small – and hence very capable of being fast on their feet.

    I don’t think there is a dichotomy of form-options for being church – but even if there is, then to have you as a self-identified practitioner of ONE of those forms without a vast amount of experience in the other, describe BOTH feels like a weakness. The blog is only young and i am sure you have more to come on this. A deeper exploration could be had if you allowed someone deeply involved in what you call the “inherited” form of church to be the spokesperson on the other end of the towline and present a dialogue. There is always a danger when I favour one model of something that I will describe the other model in such a way that my own prejudices are confirmed and my own model seems enhanced! I think there is a real possibility that your description of the “cruise liner” falls into this trap!

    One of the insights I have been pondering about my own ministry among struggling churches in Devon is that whilst decline is often thought of as a negative thing, it can offer exciting opportunities. I think that as churches decline they spend a good deal of their time in the decline curve struggling to keep the ship afloat (to join in with your nautical analogy!) – there is a point up-to-which they persuade themselves that they still have just about enough in the tank to keep it all going. But after that – there is a brief and exciting window of opportunity where the church has to let go and accept they have not got the strength to do it anymore – and in that window is the POSSIBILITY that they will open their minds to allowing God’s strength to lead them somewhere unexpected. But it’s only a small window because by that time it will only take one more bad winter to see them off completely!

    For those reasons, I’m not sure that the two-types-of sea-vessel analogy continues to be very helpful….

    I hadn’t intended to be this long – maybe that’s a sign that you have made me think a bit – which I hope is encouraging! I look forward to more episodes 🙂


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