The Parable of the Ocean Liner

Once upon a time, in the gilded age of ocean travel, there was a great ocean liner. Sumptuously appointed, no cost was spared as it was outfitted. Its construction, technology, materials, finishings, and craftsmanship were unsurpassed. Mahogany, teak, walnut, marble, Tiffany glass, crystal, gold, copper, and brass--these were among the materials lavishly employed. The staffing--the captain and crew--were highly professional and well-trained. From design, to engineering, to meals and service, the ocean liner was top of its class. Its purpose? To speed the transport--and facilitate the comfort--of trans-continental passengers. Its navigation systems reflected the best science of its times. Passengers filled the ship as it sailed from continent to continent. There was even a waiting list for travelers to find a berth aboard.

Naturally, to deliver these services much activity occurred behind the scenes. Meetings of captain and crew were held with regularity. Staff in various departments--cooking, housekeeping, engineering, maintenance, navigation--all met regularly to be sure their tasks were coordinated, polished, and professional. After all, the paying passengers deserved this; and the mission was a worthy one--state-of-the-art world travel for the guests. In its heyday, the ocean liner received numerous awards and was well-rewarded by full bookings and the recognition and appreciation of governments and industry. It was an indispensable part of society and highly regarded.

But, over time, changes in travel and technology cut into the liner's relevance and importance in global transportation. The advent of airplanes, of jet liners in particular, made the ocean liner seem ponderous, quaint, and outdated. Now, for the relative few who chose to travel by ship, the destination became less important, but the creature comforts remained paramount. The captain and crew still served with professionalism and excellence. The various staff still met frequently to plan the details of their unique services: the ordering of food and preparation of delicious meals; the maintenance of the boilers and engines; the cleaning of the rooms; the entertainment of the guests. Countless hours were spent in discussion and debate about the best ways to conduct these activities aboard the ship--but, sadly, fewer and fewer passengers chose this means of travel. In fact, the ship sailed less and less frequently, often remaining anchored in the harbor for months at a time.

Yet the meetings continued. The budgets were still developed--though, with fewer passengers, services and staff needed to be scaled back. Great debates occurred among the management and personnel about new furnishings for the ship: which carpets would look best (and which could be afforded)? Much capital was spent on repairs and maintenance. As the income from passengers all but dried up, hard choices needed to be made. Could the ship really expect to sail, with reduced crew, limited maintenance, and antiquated navigation systems? With great reluctance, it was finally concluded that the best way for the ship to have a role in society was for it to remain at port, moored in the harbor. Tours would be offered to those interested in exploring its history and viewing its staterooms and grand dining facilities. Minimal maintenance, therefore, was needed, just enough for its doors to remain open. The captain retired; the staff were let go. All that remained were tour guides dressed in period costumes, typical of the golden age of ocean travel--and fewer and fewer visitors paid the fees for entry.


John said...

i think the rate of change imposed on us by technology has been freaking you out lately!

Carl Hofmann said...

Possibly...but more likely, it's got me wondering (perhaps worrying) about how we seek to renew the older mainline church in such a decidedly different era that's emerging. How do we keep afloat, let alone sail, on these high seas? What do we toss overboard? What do we keep? Glad to have people like you in the mix helping the thought process!

John said...

i think it's really hard. though i love it, there's something faustian about this new tech. picture this: an individual sitting at home on saturday night, reviewing facebook posts and posting on friend's wall. in some ways the height of loneliness in a medium that supposedly is creating intimacy.

how do we tell what is real any more?

Allan Harvey said...

While this veers away from your point, the metaphor breaks down (or should) in that the church should not be a professional crew carrying along a bunch of passengers who are just along for the ride and the entertainment. We are all passengers and crew together on the journey.

I think that, as we navigate ahead in these days of increasing "flatness" in society, part of the answer to the issue you raise has to be changing the culture from one of religious professionals being seen as doing all the real ministry and marketing their product to the rest of us consumers to one of the Body of Christ serving together as the interdependent family following Jesus. Modes of communication, worship, etc. will need to reflect the philosophy of an interdependent community with shared ministry as opposed to the old top-down approach. Easier said than done ....

mbpbooks said...

My favorite line in this post:"Yet the meetings continued."

If there's a massive earthquake on shore, though, I'm sure thousands of homeless people will find refuge in the liner.

Or maybe the destitute, hungry, and homeless are already sneaking into this once fancy venue. Those outdated bunks look pretty good when you're sleep-deprived on the streets, and the sick, injured, and dying don't need a bunch of overpaid maids and waiters -- they're looking for healers or hospice care.

Carl Hofmann said...

Good points, Allan--and indeed, the metaphor breaks down when pushed too far. The main point, of course, is the need for the institution to pay attention to changes in society and seek to renew its mission in a new era, rather than to be reactive or, worse, to blithely sail on and "rearrange the deck chairs", if you know what I mean!

Unknown said...

Good and thoughtful posts, all.

Isn't it interesting how structures that serve us sometime become institutions that transcend their original purpose -- things to be built up, optimized and sustained?

Yet, the structures themselves are neutral -- they have no rudders or destinations -- its what we passengers and navigators make of them.

I'm pondering why God wired us with feelings like nostalgia and a fondness for the places, things and structures in our lives. Could it be to help us recall His work in our lives along way?