Half Baked Thoughts on Community at Sea and in Church

I recently wrote about the temporary community that rapidly developed among the 1300 passengers on our month long cruise in the Pacific, and said I would have more on that later.  Welcome to later. 
What surprised me was the ease and speed of community formation.  Some were organized by ship’s staff around shared interests such as bridge, trivia and exercise.  Others were spontaneous but developed in venues, such as the pool and theme oriented bars, designed for that to happen.
In a sense there were three distinct community groups on board.  First was the permanent crew of the navigation, deck, engineering and hotel departments.  They are Holland America employees, most having, or intending to have, long careers with the company.  Second was the temporary crew of entertainers and spa and gym staff.  Their time aboard is comparatively short and they are not likely to make a career out of serving on cruise ships.  Third was the boatload of passengers who, on a cruise as long as this one, quickly formed their own distinct community.  What I want to discuss is the passenger community.
Most people have asked us about the average age of the passengers.  Considering that it was a month long voyage on a somewhat smaller ship that prides itself on a certain subdued dignity, the passengers were almost all retired with equal distributions of passive, active, physically fit, less physically fit, and females outnumbering males by some small amount.  They were almost all white.  More were from western North America, but there was a large contingent of east coasters and a few midwesterners.  Some people were on their trip of a lifetime.  Some claimed to have been on 20 or more cruises.  Others were frequent world travelers, but not regulars on cruises.   My unverified guess is that the average age was about 75.
Cabin class was not a significant factor in community formation or recognition of status.  With one exception all public spaces and services are equally available to all regardless of cabin class.  Unless you are rude enough to ask, how much someone paid or what class of cabin they occupied was irrelevant.  A deck devoted to the largest staterooms with a private lounge and concierge had no bearing on anything else going on, and it was accessible to anyone who wanted to wander through.  There was one other anomaly.  One group of passengers were members of a travel group that buys up unsold cabin space at the last minute for “cut rate” prices.  They spent the first week together with a certain celebratory smugness about how clever they were to get such a deal.   Some people opted for evening dining at one of two fixed seatings, which meant that they spent each night dining with the same people.  Others preferred to take their chances with open seating.  That was our choice, which meant that we got to meet many others at random tables of four, six or even eight.
Like any community, passengers tended to congregate in something like affinity groups, some of which were organized and quickly came into being.  The bridge players were undoubtedly the first to find each other and form bonds that extended throughout the day and voyage.  Other instantaneous groups such as Friends of Bill W, daily worship services, bingo enthusiasts, trivia nuts, etc., enabled people to meet each other and possibly develop friendships that could extend to other parts of the day or trip.  
In a more organic way, groups tended to form around those who spent much of their day around the pool, in the hot tubs, on the aft deck, or gathering in one of the bars for drinks, music or dancing.  I imagine that each of these venues was designed not only for certain activities but also to creation the conditions in which spontaneous communities might come into being.   Moreover, on a longer voyage such as this, the role of the cruise director has much to do with facilitation, monitoring and aiding the formation of community.
The point is that small group social bonds and friendships came into being that recognized their place in and connection to the larger community of shipboard life.  To be sure, people could not go elsewhere for community.  Either they found it aboard, or they didn’t find it at all.  Small group leaders emerged, not without some bumping and shoving, in many ways.  Those with strong, assertive personalities were the first to make their play, but it all depended on whether anyone was willing to pay attention to them.  Skill and knowledge about a particular event or activity generally won out.  As important was the ability to find ways to welcome others into the group and make a place for them.
I wondered if there were any observations that could be applied to congregations.  Mega churches seem to have discovered how to engineer conditions under which community can be formed, but I’m more interested in the small congregations that populate most places.  How could we be more intentional about designing and maintaining venues leading to spontaneous community development?  How could we be more intentional about organizing affinity oriented activities that would attract persons into community?  How could we more creatively understand how our congregations are subsets of the larger community in which we are located?  How could we free lay persons to explore their full potential as leaders without having to chair committees or serve on councils?  Most important, how could we better do all of this so that everything points toward God?  It seems to me that the week’s principle worship service is key.  It sets the tone and expectations for everything else.  So what sort of tone and expectations emanate from it?

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