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Faith-based cruises: Rocking the boat

Courtesy Inspiration Cruises and Tours

The sound you hear as your next cruise leaves its homeport may be songs of worship.

With its festive atmosphere, beautiful destinations and all-inclusive pricing packages, cruising has become a favorite vacation option for Americans over the past 20 years. Since the start of the new millennium, cruising has surged in popularity among church groups and ministry organizations, and today’s Christian traveler can choose from dozens of faith-based cruises that sail every year.

The options vary widely, from contemporary Christian music festivals at sea to on-board conferences hosted by nationally known teachers and ministers. Some faith-based cruises are full-ship charters, and others take place on regular cruise line itineraries. Church groups can grab a spot on cruises being hosted by national organizations or use a cruise as an alternative destination for annual retreats or conferences.

Whether it’s for ministry purposes or just as an opportunity to get away and enjoy some of the most beautiful places on earth, a faith-based cruise might be just the ticket for your church group.

The Music Boat and more
It takes a lot of name recognition to fill the 1,000 or more cabins on a chartered cruise ship, but with concerts by more than a dozen of the top names in contemporary Christian music, Premier Christian Cruises has been selling out cruises since its first foray in 2003.

“Our parent company, Premier Productions, started 15 years ago in the concert world,” said Darrell Burrow, vice president of sales and customer service for Premier Christian Cruises. “We used to do all the Bill Gaither concerts, and then we moved into contemporary Christian music. We used that part of our business as a springboard to do the cruises. Our first cruise was the 2003 K-LOVE Friends and Family Cruise on the smallest Carnival ship sailing out of New Orleans.”

Sponsored by the national Christian music radio network K-LOVE, the cruise was an instant hit, bringing some of the station’s most popular artists on board to perform concerts at sea. Since then, the February K-LOVE cruise has become a popular annual event, selling out months in advance of departure, and Premier has launched a second Christian music cruise, called the Music Boat, which sails in November.

“We have more than 15 contemporary Christian bands, soloists, comedians and speakers,” Burrow said. “This year, it’s being hosted by Third Day.”

The cruises, which typically sail from southern U.S. ports on five-day itineraries to the Bahamas or Mexico’s Caribbean coast, combine traditional aspects of cruise vacations with a full lineup of Christian concerts. Days begin with a chapel and worship service in the morning before passengers disembark to visit ports of call. On sea days, the afternoons will include a concert or two at various locations around the ship, plus meet-and-greet sessions with the artists.

In the evenings, headliners such as Casting Crowns, TobyMac or Newsboys play a pair of shows during the ship’s two dinner services, ensuring that everyone on board gets a chance to attend. The fun continues after dinner, too.

“In the evening, we keep it rolling into the wee hours. We have a concert at 10 p.m. and another one at 11,” Burrows said. “There are three venues at 10 where different shows are going on. You have to pick between a band like Newsboys, a Christian comedian or an illusionist.”

Premier has also expanded into a number of other themed cruises each year. In 2010 and 2011, they are hosting Family Life’s Love Like You Mean It Marriage Cruise, the Live2Love Couples Cruise and a Girls Get-A-Way Cruise designed exclusively for women. All cruises now take place on board chartered Royal Caribbean International ships.

Retreats at sea

Christian groups without the numbers to charter a full ship can still enjoy a faith-based vacation on board a cruise. Companies such as All Christian Cruises work with churches and ministries to help plan and coordinate events at sea.

“We help them bring their conferences and retreats on board cruises,” said the company’s Lisa Mann. “They can help people combine a vacation with a spiritual emphasis. The ministry takes place while the ship is at sea, and then when they’re in port, they can go vacation as they please.”

All Christian Cruises typically works with groups of 40 to 200 people, booking them on Royal Caribbean or Holland America cruises to Alaska or the Bahamas or other tropical destinations. They arrange for the groups to use a conference room or lounge on the ship for their meetings during days at sea when the spaces are not being used for regular cruise activities.

Passengers are free to avail themselves of the cruise line’s regular programming, but many groups come with activities and an agenda of their own, including guest speakers and worship bands.

“What makes it Christian is the programming that we bring on board,” Mann said. “We give them a lot of opportunities to participate in programming that’s faith based, instead of going to the casinos and lounges. And it’s a good opportunity to really be a witness as a group so people can see that Christians do have fun.”

The company offers some opportunities for groups in port as well, such as doing missions work with a small church in Nassau.

Nationwide reach
Another company, Inspiration Cruises and Tours, works with nationwide ministries to plan larger events on cruise ships, inviting travelers from around the country to join them on any of the numerous cruises they host in conjunction with well-known teachers or Christian organizations.

“Our focus is for there to be ministry on the cruise, as well as a vacation aspect,” said Stephanie Dueck, Inspiration’s marketing and development director. “It’s kind of vacation with a purpose. We’re combining the vacation experience with like-minded people and purpose. You’re able to see God and his creation while you’re traveling.”

Dueck said that Alaska is the most popular cruise destination for their groups, because of its natural beauty and the spiritual awe of the Creator that it inspires. Groups also take advantage of the cruise line’s on-board activities, such as culinary experiences, basketball and Ping-Pong tournaments, dance classes and spa treatments.

The larger ministries that work with Inspiration often bring artists, singers, comedians and other entertainers to supplement their programs, as well as pastors and Bible teachers. The lineup varies according to the themes of the cruises, which include singles vacations, couples getaways and other gatherings.

But the planners also emphasize that participants should take some personal time during the cruise to grow spiritually.

“You can get away, get with God and find some direction for your life,” Dueck said. “We want people to be renewed in spirit. A cruise really allows you to do that, because you are away from everything and not completely connected to technology.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.