As opposed to?…
What does that mean even?
Pete Ward wrote a book by this title way back in 2001 when we were all busy trying to understand the impact of post-modernism on the church. The blurb for the books says:
The church must be like water–flexible, fluid, changeable. This book is a vision for how the church can embrace the liquid nature of culture rather than just scrambling to keep afloat while sailing over it. Ward urges us to move away from the traditional understanding of church as a gathering of people meeting in one place at one time to a dynamic notion of church as a series of relationships and communications. In the Liquid Church, membership is determined by participation and involvement. Liquid Church is continually on the move, flowing in response to the Spirit and the gospel of Jesus, the imagination and creativity of its leaders, and the choices and experiences of its worshippers.
Ultimately he was advocating church as a fluid community and set of relationships that could adapt to the culture, rather than the more rigid ‘modern’ structures that see the Sunday gathering as central and essential for church to exist.
Ward wasn’t overly suggesting we abandon existing structures, but he was pointing in that direction. Curiously he also advocated for us ‘commodifying faith’ and appealing to the consumer… Like we needed a voice to tell us that! But it does seem a bizarre thing to call for, when it’s clear that ‘consuming’ is one of our greatest idols. I didn’t resonate with that part of his book at all.
Anyway I googled Liquid Church and discovered an Australian church by this name, who seem in most regards to be a fairly stock model of Church of Christ. Is this what Ward meant? I don’t think so…
I don’t know exactly what the definition is for a ‘liquid church’, but I wonder if we should begin explorations more intently in this direction – begin trying to imagine a church beyond the gathering that is still genuinely a church.
It’s hard to do. Our imagination is calibrated so strongly to believe ‘Church = Sunday‘. No matter what we may say – this is our default paradigm and it’s almost set in stone! So to develop a conversation around a richer, stronger, more impacting form of church that is not ‘Sunday centric’ is really difficult for us. I know when we started Upstream our missionary church experiment in 2003, we did not meet on Sunday for over 3 years because we wanted to try and shift the thinking around what ‘church’ meant. Even then it was difficult and in time we all reverted back to the conventional understanding, largely because there were few willing to venture down an alternative path.
But – why should we even bother? Aren’t people just happy with Sunday as is?.. Hmmmm, some are, but I also know that:
a) for a substantial number Sunday gatherings don’t work especially well in forming them into disciples of Christ. (Which is not say they don’t work as helpful social gatherings of Christian people)
b) the compliance demands on formal expressions of church have become so onerous that it may be necessary to re-imagine informal ‘fluid’ expressions of church if we don’t wish to align with the various not for profit regulations.
The last 10 years especially has seen the role of the pastor in church life change dramatically as churches have become ‘Incorporated Not For Profit’ entities in the eyes of government and with this has come a plethora of administrative and bureaucratic tasks that must be done. For those in single pastor, smaller outfits the demands of compliance and conforming to regs has become quite a challenge. We’re talking ‘policies and procedures’, risk assessments, incident reports and plenty of other reports and administrative data that has created a black hole of bureaucracy for churches – and most of us didn’t sign up for this stuff. To master it takes time and effort – and it doesn’t end because we need to stay on top of it. It is tedious and weighty especially for smaller churches and it is one of the reasons I have intentionally changed roles. I could not muster the heart to stay on top of it all and yet the reality the person ‘at the top’ – or however you frame it – must be across it.
Yesterday morning we went to a local Anglican church in Darwin and my conversation with the pastor afterwards was around this exact subject – the burden it places on small communities and how we may be able to move forward?
The option most of us take is simple compliance and conformity – doing what’s asked and just working it out as best we can. For some people this is no issue. For some larger churches with admin staff they can outsource this to a person who finds joy making sure these i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. (I believe these people exist…)
But the other option is to ‘decommision’ or ‘dis-incorpate’ (is that the word?) church as we know it and simply gather as informal groups of people. I remember a few years ago when we had a Sunday event planned at a local park someone heard of it, rang the council and ‘dobbed us in’. Apparently there is form to be filled in, a risk assessment to be completed, and a fee to be paid before 50 people could have a picnic in a park. No kidding… We cancelled the event and on the Sunday before announced that church was also cancelled for the following week, but that a few of us ‘may be down at the park… if anyone wants to join in…’ The next week a group of 40 or 50 people met informally at the park.
I doubt we could ever replicate that type of thing on a weekly basis and keep it running. But perhaps we will find ourselves in a place one day when the screws tighten further where we simply say ‘ok, we are closing the book on this organisation, but we want you to keep gathering informally as ‘the church”.
I know some of you are already thinking ‘that’s a dumb idea and it won’t work.’ I agree in parts that it is very likely going to die a dismal death. But not because we couldn’t pull it off.
It would die because we are by and large more committed to the Sunday event as ‘church’ than we are to one another as church. Can you see the serious problem there? If we ditched Sunday events for a year how would your faith fare? Where would it be nourished and resourced? If Sunday didn’t exist who would you actively seek out to connect with and ‘fellowship’ with – as in talk of Jesus with?
I would sense that a way too large percentage of Christians ‘attend church’ but struggle to ‘do church’. If we were to move to informal gatherings, with no central pastoral team to make the wheels turn then would we see faith nourished and sustained or would we see it drop off a cliff? I have a sense that for some people the act of being in a church community is so linked to Sunday that they would struggle to imagine another way. I imagine some would actually thrive as they latched on to the opportunity to share life with others and sustain one another. But it would be fluid and may not look like church. Those who find security in ‘ticking boxes’ would get the jitters.
I sometimes get the jitters writing stuff like this, because I don’t know that I could give leadership to a bunch of people in this form – or that I could see missional intent sufficiently present in a group of this kind.
THe word ‘busyness’ keeps crossing my mind as a reason we would fail at liquid church. You need large slabs of available time to be with people. Too many of work too long and too hard for this to be possible.
And then if we did pull it off, how would we stop simply gathering with ‘people like us’? Those in our age and stage? How would we keep the diversity of the body? How would we connect with the broader body?
If church went ‘underground’ and was invisible except to those with eyes to see would we become better disciples of Jesus? Better missionaries? Better human beings?…
Would ‘The Church’ do better or worse in this mode?
My working ‘definition’ of church is that of a ‘covenant community of people committed to loving God, loving one another and loving the world’. A key concept in there is that we covenant to be those kinds of people and to be committed to one another. It’s a much bigger ask than a Sunday gathering and it’s intended to be how we operate today, but the struggle is that often ‘ticking the Sunday box’ leads us to believe we are fulfilling the requirements of church.
What if church was 2 or 3 families a couple of oldies and singles geographically based who were in each other’s lives to the point where when they gathered it was not to catch up on the news because they already lived in those kinds of relationships, but was rather to purposefully focus on Jesus and share what they had been experiencing of him since the last time they met? It was to purposefully pray for their friends and neighbours and to live as missionaries.
We could do this without all the red tape and hoops that we currently have to jump thru, but could we?… Really?… Could we?…
Nah – lets just stick with 3 fast, 3 slow, offering announcements and sermon followed by a cup of tea and a biscuit… that oughta crank out serious disciples!