Chaplain of the Cultural Cruise Ship

Rodger Woodworth

Henry Nouwen, in his book The Wounded Healer, compares his experience as a chaplain on a cruise ship to the role of the church in our culture today – only needed if the ship encounters a serious storm “but not taken very seriously when the weather is fine.”

The culture we live in wants the church out of the way so life can continue on its vacation cruise and if there is real trouble only then will we be invited to offer a token prayer.  Too much of the church has gone along with this assessment that it no longer has any thing distinctive to offer.  Rodney Clapp refers to this as “sentimental capitulation” and points to one proponent who claims, “The only genuine way to ‘interact with the emerging world’ is to concede most of the game to it.” There is no need to make disciples because we are just along for the ride and to offer a ceremonial role at weddings and funerals.

Another response to the church being shoved to the sidelines is what Clapp calls “retrenchment”.  He sees two forms of this; the first is the desire to recapture the power the church had during Christendom and the second, and more popular today, is the idea that Christianity is really about making people prosperous and is a necessary component in the successful pursuit of happiness.

Reinforcing this approach are the many “isms” that surround us today offering to numb and buffer us from anything that would disturb our happiness.  To be happy life must be practical (pragmatism) and pleasurable (hedonism with a moral acceptability).  In order for life to be practical and pleasurable we need the philosophy of materialism – making material goods the center of life rather than God.  The result is consumerism has become the American worldview not just an economic system and church is just one more brand we consume on a given Sunday.  And as one author wrote, Jesus has been demoted from Lord to label.

Instead of recapitulation or retrenchment the church needs to reengage the culture.  Not with placation, power or prosperity but with an ear to listen, a mind to learn and a heart to love.  In the humility of the cross and the boldness of the resurrection. we cross the cultural barriers of race, socioeconomics, vocation and politics to be the body of Christ.  I love Clapp’s picture, “We sail … in shipping lanes shared by hundreds of other vessels, with a willingness to learn from the shipbuilding and seafaring skill of others, eager to trade at ports, Christian or not, never satisfied merely to stay afloat, since we bear a cargo we believe to be of infinite value to all other sailors.”


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