Liquid church

4 09 2008

Alan Hirsch posted the following on August 5:
When we use the word “church” it is very hard to get some kind of building out of our minds.  But this is not the way that phenomenal expressions of Christian movements experience it.  This is due partly to the fact that the early church didn’t have such buildings and the Chinese had all their church buildings taken away from them.  But it is also because buildings are not what is meant in any of the theological images of church in the Scriptures.  Since Constantine it seems that we have simply got it all mixed up.  On comparison, the Chinese church is much closer to what the New Testament intends, as well as more consistent with the New Testament experience, of church.  It is we who are inconsistent in this regard-it’s that simple.  So what do networks look like?

Peter Ward has written an excellent book exploring the theological, ecclesiological, as well as sociological dimensions of networks. Following Zygmunt Bauman’s brilliant analysis of culture in terms of liquid and solid modernity, he uses the term liquid church to describe the essence of what a truly networked church would look like; a church responsive to that increasing fluid dimension of our culture which Bauman called “liquid modernity.” He contrasts liquid church with what he calls “solid church.” To simplify this, solid church is roughly equivalent to what I have here described as institutional church. Because of the continuing existence of solid modernity he does not counsel the total abandonment of solid church, but he does suggest that it is one of decreasing effectiveness. Solid church is related to solid modernity. And solid church has generally mutated from its original basis into becoming communities of heritage (that embody the inherited tradition), communities of refuge (a safe place from the world), and communities of nostalgia (live in past successes). He suggests that almost all manifestations of solid church fall into one or more of these categories.

He says that “the mutation of solid church into heritage, refuge, and nostalgic communities has seriously decreased its ability to engage in genuine mission in liquid modernity.” This is so because the church finds itself increasingly stranded from its surrounding culture. He remarks that this has seriously damaged the gospel genetic code of the church because the church cannot truly be and become itself in such a condition. Solid church has mutated the gospel code because it has by and large ignored cultural change and found itself changed in ways that are less than planned or perfect. In catering to the religious needs of some (largely the insiders) it has as a consequence failed to respond to the wider spiritual hunger of not-yet-Christians. What is more, “the mutant genetic code within these kinds of churches means that they are a poor starting point for a new kind of church that connects with the flow of spiritual hunger evident in our societies.” This highlights the need to engage liquid modernity with a liquid form of church. Liquid church is essential because it takes the present culture seriously and seeks to express the fullness of the Christian gospel within that culture. The defining element of this is church as a living, adaptive, network highly responsive to the deep spiritual needs and hunger expressed in surrounding society.

Make no mistake; liquid church as Ward defines it is theologically much closer to the conception of ‘church’ advocated in the New Testament teachings. Not only because it is missional and responsive to the surrounding context, not only because it is structurally more consistent with biblical ecclesiology, and because it takes the twin doctrines of what it means to be “in Christ” and the ‘body of Christ ” with utmost seriousness and reworks them in light of the missional situation. It is clear that the church in Corinth was distinctly different in structure and ethos than the church in Jerusalem and yet they were both legitimate expression expressions of the Body of Christ. There is little by way of uniformity of structure in the NT church.

The reality of the church is to be found only “in Christ”. “Christ is our origin and our truth. To be a Christian is to be joined to Christ and to be joined to Christ is to be joined to his church.” This is what constitutes the body of Christ. It is this primal connection with Jesus that defines what it means to be a Christian and to be in his church. How this expresses itself will depend largely on missional context. In a liquid culture, Ward says we need a liquid form of church that can express truly what it means to be “in Christ.”

He comments….”To be joined to Christ is to be joined to the body of Christ. This corporate and corporeal expression of Christ is fundamental to any theology of the church. The idea of the body of Christ goes very deep into people’s minds. Yet it is worth reflecting on how we express this truth, for to say that the body of Christ is the church is not the same as saying that the church is the body of Christ. The implication of my reading of Paul’s theology is that we should place significantly more emphasis upon the way our connection to Christ makes us part of the body, rather than the other way around.”

Our problem it seems is that we too quickly identify the concrete-historical expressions of church as the body of Christ. And while there is a truth to this, for the church is the body of Christ, perhaps the greater truth is that the body of Christ is the church. When we say that the church is the body of Christ, it claims a certain authority for a particular expression of church. To say that the body of Christ is the church is to open up possibilities as to how it might express itself. This doesn’t just localize it to one particular expression of church. The body can express itself in many different ways and forms. The distinction is paradigmatic. To restate it in these terms enables us to escape the monopolizing grip that the institutional image of church holds over our theological imaginations and allows us to undertake a journey of re-imagining what it means to be God’s people in our own day and in our own situations.

So how can liquid church express itself? Ward points out that all liquids are characterized by flow. In contrast, solids are located and firm. Shape or solidity, to use Bauman again, is the equivalent of “fixing space” and “binding time” and therefore there is no need for change or movement. However, if we are to envisage a liquid church, then like liquids themselves, movement and change must be part of its basic characteristic. “We need to let go of a static model of church that is based primarily on congregation, programs, and buildings. In its place we need to develop a notion of Christian community, worship, mission, and organization which, like the New Testament ecclesia, is more flexible, adaptive, and responsive to change.” Rather than the later centralist and more ‘solid’ hierarchical structure of the later church, when we look at the structures of the New Testament church we can observe the more fluid network.

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