Why We Need a Liquid Church

October 9th, 2009


Related article from Sept/Oct 2002 issue

There you are, hired by the local church to do the youth program. The pressure's on—now, you gotta produce the numbers.

So you look to the next great idea from the resource people. Before you know it you're hooked. One great package follows another. Soon you're a resource junkie.

Problem is, the young people are starting to see how fake it is—they're talking about spiritual discipline being authentic and real. This doesn't come in a package or a brightly colored magazine. It's hard won and takes time. You know that being real as a Christian is why you got into this thing in the first place, so what's the solution? The senior pastor is playing the numbers game, but we know that we have to kick the habit 'cause it's killing the ones we love.

We've got to think again about church and young people. Here's my suggestion, and it's not another quick fix. It's liquid church. Right at the start I want to give a health warning; liquid church doesn't exist yet. No, I have not set up and run a successful and thriving liquid church. This is an attempt to imagine (rather than describe) a different way of being Church. So don't expect a pre-packaged, how-to manual for contemporary ministry.

That said…I feel that there's a ground swell of opinion in the UK and the US that seeks a vision of a new way of being God's people in both worship and mission. This is an attempt to develop such a vision. So, at its heart, this is an act of theological imagination.

So What Is Liquid Church?

To get the imaginative juices flowing, we need a shift in mindset from seeing Church as a gathering of people meeting in one place at one time, i.e. a congregation, to a more dynamic, shifting notion of Church as a series of relationships and communications—something like a network or web, rather than an assembly of people.

An example of this was given to me the other day. One of the research students at my university saw nothing terribly strange in the idea of a liquid church that was made up of informal relationships instead of formal meetings. He explained that, before we met for our academic seminar, he was in a coffee shop with one of his Christian friends. As they talked, he felt that Christ was communicating between them. For him this was church. This, I suppose, is the familiar notion of fellowship. Interestingly, when you add the definite article, this word “fellowship” takes on a very different character. “The Fellowship” indicates a more structured, static, and formal notion of church. As opposed to liquid church, this shift towards structures, institutions, and meetings is solid church.

“This Is Church.”

So the first move in imagining a liquid church is to take the informal fellowship by which we experience Christ as we share with other Christians, and simply say this is church. This idea may not be too threatening and is certainly not revolutionary, but the implications are profound. First, it implies that church might be something that we make with each other by communicating Christ, so it's not an institution as such.

Secondly, it indicates that church happens when people are motivated to communicate with each other. In other words, its basis lies in people's spiritual activity rather than organizational patterns or buildings.

Thirdly, and more controversially, I want to suggest that a liquid church doesn't need, or even want, a weekly congregational meeting. Instead of going to church, the emphasis is placed on living as Christ's body in the world. Worship and meeting with others will still have a place, but it'll be de-centered and reworked in ways that are designed to connect to the growing spiritual hunger in society, rather than being a place for the committed to belong, like some kind of religious club.

What Will It Look Like?

Consider how contemporary media, business, and finance are based on networks of communication. Communication of Christ through informal fellowship creates connections, groupings, and relationships. These can be seen as a kind of network where the Holy Spirit is at work creating church. Stuart Murray described this as the shift from church as a noun to church as a verb. So we can say I church, you church, we church. Stuart has put his finger on something of real importance. For too long we've seen church as something which we attend. We might sing a few hymns and even play a more active role, but there's something passive and even a little alienating about the externalized and rather monolithic idea of church. If, however, church is something that comes about when we make it, then walls come tumbling down in our heads. Suddenly, being church and doing church becomes an exciting adventure.

So what is the place of the various productive and creative processes that characterize contemporary Christian culture—the festivals, worship music, evangelism courses, etc.? At present, the institution of the church, be it local or national, seems to be largely irrelevant to these creative and productive activities. The whole web of entrepreneurial activity and dynamism which makes much of our evangelism and worship effective (and fun) is sort of, but not really, church.

Liquid church would simply say that as these individuals, organizations, and groupings carry out their activities, they are being or doing church. Moreover, as we participate in and use the events and products produced by these groups, we're also being or making church.

The Real Motivation—Mission

Liquid church is essential because existing patterns of church are largely failing to connect with the evident spiritual interest and hunger that we see in both the UK and the US. For some, church as we know it is rewarding. Sunday worship is a meaningful activity, and the fellowship is a place where we can serve Christ and establish our identity with other Christians. For these people, and for those who lead their congregations, liquid church isn't a matter of urgency. Frankly, it lacks credibility to claim that these large churches will wilt and die in the face of cultural change (whatever “post” we use for it—post-Christian, post-christendom, postmodern).

The problem isn't with those who come to church, since it seems for them church is generally a positive environment.

The real question must be about those who no longer attend church or have never set foot inside one. How do we connect with them? Linked to this is the growing feeling among some young people that church needs to be different to connect with their world.

This brings us back to the youth group. Liquid church is needed because it builds on the good stuff which is out there and which we already embrace. It sets us free from being resource junkies running programs. At the same time, it redefines church as communicating Christ rather than showing up at church. If the senior pastor gets this idea, things will really change.

(For more on these ideas, check out Pete Ward's new book, Liquid Church, published by Hendrickson.)

Related article from Sept/Oct 2002 issue


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