Robert Griffith | 19 March 2023
Robert Griffith
19 March 2023


Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, New York harbour was always busy with ocean liners transporting thousands of people between North America and Europe every week. Great ships like the Queen Mary and Normandiewere celebrated as floating palaces, but only a few passengers enjoyed their luxuries. Most of the people who sailed on them were immigrants and refugees relegated to third class accommodations. Now these ships served a highly practical purpose – their primary purpose was transportation – to move passengers and cargo from point A to point B. That’s why they were called ocean ‘liners.’

But one event in 1953 signaled the end of the glory days of the ocean liners when a Comet roared across the Atlantic. The De Havilland Comet was the first commercial jet-liner. The distance covered by an ocean liner in six days was suddenly traveled by a jetliner in six hours. In one day, the vast Atlantic Ocean became “the pond.”

By the 1960s many of the mighty ocean liners were being laid up or sold for scrap. Experts predicted that the passenger shipping business would never recover. They were wrong, at least partially. A handful of innovative ship owners decided to develop a new way for their fleets to produce revenue: instead of promoting these ships as a means to an end – something which had a clear purpose in transporting people from one location to another – they decided to make the ship the destination and they no longer even called it a journey – they now called it a cruise.

So rather than crossing the Atlantic ocean from point A to point B, these new cruise ships sailed in a circuit, embarking and disembarking passengers from the same port. So they might travel for weeks, but in terms of transportation – people really went nowhere – they just cruised and enjoyed the ship, with no thought as to the original purpose of a ship being for transporting people to a different location.

Without apology, these ingenious promoters declared that their goal was no longer the transport of passengers to embark upon a journey, but instead, they would now attract tourists to embark upon the experience of being on the best possible ship as they were invited to consume more and more of the products and services onboard. When the vehicle became the destination, there was a monumental shift from transportation to consumption (and I really want you to remember that statement). The driving force behind this monumental shift was the one of the strongest forces known to human beings in the modern, western world: consumerism.

This new and vibrant cruise industry soon forced competitors to increase the number of entertainment options on board their ships. This triggered a rapid increase in the size of the vessels being built, each one incorporating more of the features vacationers wanted. As a result, many of today’s enormous cruise ships dwarf the ocean liners of the past – something no one would have predicted 60 years ago when passenger shipping was believed to be on its deathbed. Consumerism totally and radically changed the whole industry.

Now sadly, the power of consumerism impacted every aspect of our society during that time, not just the Ocean Liners. It also impacted the Church. Around the same time that jetliners were causing waves for the shipping industry, cultural changes were also bombarding the church. Prior to the 1960s most churches in our nation and nations like ours were relatively small with a very practical function – they transported people into the presence of God – they introduced them to the risen, living, indwelling Christ – by providing the basic necessities for living a Christian life – spirit-led teaching, genuine fellowship, the sacraments, opportunities to serve and a loving, God-centred and God-directed community of faith who encountered God together.

But by the 1960s and 1970s the Baby Boomers grew up and many of us simply stopped going to Church. The culture had changed – secular values, youth culture, entertainment, and the religion of sport had all taken root and the Church could no longer ‘compete’. Traditional Churches, built for utility, built to transport people to God – struggled. But like some ship owners at that 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.

This is the point in history where consumerism, stole the heart of the Church and redefined the entire purpose, nature and structure of the Church – little by little, decade by decade, until we now have a generation of leaders, many of whom have no personal understanding of, or any personal experience of a Church which is not in the grip of consumerism.

This change sixty years ago was monumental and devastating – but only to those who are brave enough and discerning enough to step back and look at what has happened objectively. If you are caught up in this consumer church and one of the many new ‘cruise’ ships we now see – I think we call them ‘mega-churches’ – then you might think this change rescued the Church from oblivion, just like the cruise industry rescued the passenger transport industry from oblivion. It’s all good, many would say.

Where there was once a few tiny churches in a location, there is now a church of 5,000, 10,000, even hundreds of thousands in some places! How could that be anything but a good thing? Well, we need be careful we are not be seduced by numbers – one of the most intoxicating aspects of consumerism is the focus, the near obsession, with numbers, size and volume.

What really happened sixty years ago is a change of understanding of the Church and its purpose. Rather than viewing the church as simply a means to an end (connecting people with God), our 20th century ‘reformers’ made the church an end in itself. The church ceased being a vehicle to transport people somewhere (into the presence of God) and became a destination (a place you ‘go to’ or a group of people you ‘belong to.’) It became 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 wholesome entertainment, help with their kids or marriage. While they consume the upbeat music, support groups, dramas, kids programs, community support ministries, social action sermons, advocacy programs etc., then hopefully, maybe, fingers crossed, they might even find God; they might find the essence of the church within those well-intentioned programs – most of which can be and are provided by better equipped organisations outside the Church.

This is where the alarm bells should have been ringing really loudly. Perhaps they were, but they were drowned out by the sounds of thousands of people rushing back into Church buildings and wanting to be part of a Church which had been dying until that point, or so people assumed.

Brothers and sisters, I believe we did exactly what the shipping industry did. By making the felt needs of our ‘consumers’ the starting point – the focal point – the purpose-defining point (which is what the ‘gospel’ of consumerism is all about) the Church was mirroring the shift in passenger shipping away from liner voyages to cruising – where people were given more and more to enjoy and relate to and consume on the ship and very soon the fact that they were not really going anywhere seemed irrelevant.

The fact that they were even on the sea was only relevant if they happened to venture out of the middle of this floating consumer heaven and notice the water surrounding them! In the same way the ship ceased being a vehicle and became a destination, so too the church sold its soul to consumerism and did exactly the same thing.

When the church mirrored this same transition, it had devastating consequences! The worst part about the change is that most people in the Church today are totally oblivious to it even happening and have no reference point to compare it to because most of the church has been this way for most, if not all of our lives. But this change most certainly occurred. We even developed new words and jargon to articulate this monumental shift in the purpose of the Church.

Our goal for generations had been to lead ‘unbelievers’ to God. Some of you will remember when we openly talked about and prayed about ‘unbelievers’ and God. But in just a few short years, right across the face of the church, we were reprogramed away from thinking about leading unbelievers to God but rather we are now connecting the ‘unchurched’ to the Church. Of course many people might assume that ‘leading unbelievers to God’ and ‘connecting the unchurched to the Church’ are essentially the same thing. How wrong we would be!

‘Leading unbelievers to God’ is the mission of the Church that Jesus Christ promised to build and is building, against which the gates of hell itself will not prevail.

‘Connecting the unchurched to the Church’ is the default mission of the human institution we have built over many generations, against which the gates of hell is unleashing crippling blows every day and the world retreats from us in record numbers as interest turns to indifference, indifference to hostility and hostility to hatred.

This monumental shift in purpose has been defended by many under the guise of becoming more ‘culturally relevant’ to the age in which we find ourselves. Let me just say it directly: Cultural relevance is a race the Church cannot win because the Church which Jesus has been building for over 2000 years has always been counter-cultural.

However in our misguided attempts to compete with, or change to reflect or embrace the culture of our day, we risk losing sight of the only thing of value the Church can offer the world – the only thing that transcends all cultures, all languages, all generations, all technologies, all socio-economic boundaries and the is: Jesus Christ. If and when we are really prepared to give the Church back to God, we will once again understand the huge difference between ‘leading unbelievers to God’ and ‘connecting the unchurched to the church.’

Jesus said, “I will build my Church!” He has just been waiting for us to give Him the green light to do that here, in our midst – here in our community – but most of all, here in our own hearts – for that is where it must begin.

Recent Posts