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Religious cruising

Church-based theme cruises thriving  Aug 11, 2008

Every year hundreds of thousands of people take their first cruise. Most of them eventually take so many more cruises they qualify as habitual cruisers - jokingly referred to as "cruise addicts." This growth in the popularity of cruising has sparked a movement within the movement - special groups known as "affinity cruises." Affinity group cruises are growing in popularity at a rate that is even faster than cruising in general.

Now, if you happen to feel guilty about your cruise addiction, maybe you want to consider a cruise with a more spiritual component - like a cruise sponsored by a church group. Many religious organizations are finding group cruises to be very popular indeed - with unexpected benefits at the same time.

Types of Church-based Cruises

The most popular types of religious cruises today are Christian cruises. These come in two basic types -- a charter cruise where the group takes over the entire ship, or a group sailing with a smaller number of people cruising with regular passengers on an open sailing. With a group cruise, members book through the travel agent organizing the cruise, and in return they will get special amenities onboard. Generally, they pay a premium for these amenities with the profits going back into the religious organization's coffers. The group usually brings along some of their own entertainers and speakers, offering special activities onboard such as church services specifically for the group.

Full ship charters manage things in a much bigger way. Since they essentially "own" the ship for that sailing, they have the flexibility to customize the cruise entirely to the group's benefit. They may choose to rearrange port stops to allow for mission work in one of the poorer Caribbean islands, for example. Or they may make a special stop to visit a well-known pilgrimage site.

The charter cruise will generally feature Christian musicians and entertainers in all of the entertainment venues, giving the ship's regular cast and entertainers the week off. The most popular Christian speakers and musicians can fill a cruise ship very quickly. In many cases the host for the cruise is a well-known televangilist or radio pastor who is an especially gifted orator. There is also often a theme for the cruise, such as Family First, or Girls Getaway Cruise.

If the cruise is operating as a full ship charter, in addition to the special onboard activities centered around a Christian theme, often the casino will be shut down for the week and turned into a Christian bookstore. The bars and lounges will also be set up to offer a lot more "mock tail" type drinks than normal, since many Christians do not drink anything stronger than wine. Even the shore excursions are given a Christian slant.

Popularity of Christian-Based Cruises

There are several large travel agencies that focus on religious travel and they seem to make a good living from it. Christian cruises are a big part of that business, and it is not all that difficult to fill an entire ship -- something that would have been unheard of just ten years ago -- with members of a Christian congregation.

The agencies chartering entire ships for Christian-themed cruises utilize just about every cruise line, though Carnival and Holland America seem to be the most popular choices, mostly because certain ships in their fleets are "right-sized" for these groups.

A cruise featuring a popular pastor or made to appeal to one of the larger congregations usually starts when one of these travel agencies approaches them with an offer to organize and fund the cruise. But it can also happen when the pastor of a church with a large number of congregants makes the first move for contacting a travel agent -- hopefully someone in his or her own congregation. While they rarely fill a ship with just one local congregation, they can certainly fill a decent number of cabins. Full charter or not, the cruise still provides an opportunity for a church's congregation to get to know each other better, and have lots of fun in the process.

Local Churches

The bonding that happens on these cruises often contributes greatly to that integral feeling of community so important to a neighborhood church. One man who understands this concept extremely well is Dan Green, a member of the Everlasting Waters Church near Philadelphia.

"I've been organizing group trips for all sorts of secular organizations going on about ten years now," he told me. "Then one day I got the idea, why not put together a trip for the members of our own church? Our pastor is pretty popular in this area, and just about everyone in our congregation goes on a summer vacation. Wouldn't it be great to have a vacation option where we could take our Christian values with us? That's when I came up with the idea for a cruise. It seemed like the perfect venue. I talked to our pastor and got him onboard, and then I got to work with the cruise lines."

Green's first cruise, back in 2003, filled over 40 cabins. "I could have filled more, but we waited too long to begin planning that first one, and couldn't get enough cabins from the cruise line," Dan said.

Dan started planning for the church's following year's cruise the week after that first cruise was over. "In 2004, we had over a 100 cabins filled, not counting the ones we were able to give away free to the group's organizers."

Dan's second cruise was much more elaborate because he had the luxury of time to organize everything. "We brought along part of the worship band, and our youth pastor, in addition to the regular pastoral staff," Dan continued. "We focused the cruise on a family theme -- our own family, our church family, and the family of Christ. We had special activities for the children; their own services, so to speak, that supplemented the activities offered by the onboard children's program. Our pastor put together a special teaching series for the cruise, which he presented over several days. We had a couple of sunrise services, and even some praise services at night led by our worship band. Everyone came back from that cruise wanting to know when we were going to do it again. They didn't want to wait another year. I told them they had to, simply because I was just worn out," Dan laughed.

Cruising every year, the Everlasting Waters group has grown from 40 cabins on the first year's cruise to over 200 cabins on the upcoming cruise scheduled for Thanksgiving week, November 2008. "Our reputation for good, wholesome family travel has grown, and we even get people from other churches joining us now," Dan told me. This just goes to show that even local churches can get in on the Christian cruising boom.

Today most of Dan Green's travel business focuses on Christian travel, both group and individual, and plans are underway for a visit to the Holy Land in 2009 in addition to another cruise for Everlasting Waters.

Church-based theme cruises thriving

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