Friday, December 22, 2006

Liquid Church: Great Flexibility But a Missions Mix is Needed in the Fluid

When I first read the description of the book, Liquid Church (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), I was intrigued. The book noted that in the changing cultural environment of the West "the church must be like water - flexible, fluid, changeable." That the book was written from a U.K. perspective was also of interest to me in that I have found materials coming from the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand more beneficial on average than that coming from America. The dramatic post-Christendom context of these Western countries has forced church leaders to think outside the box in ways that many Americans have yet to grapple with.

Liquid Church is written by Dr. Pete Ward who teaches at King's College in London. Dr. Ward teaches in the area of popular culture and theology, and he has written on these topics as well well as on various aspects related to youth ministry.

My interest in reading Liquid Church, like that of Neil Cole's Organic Church (Jossey-Bass, 2005), is to gauge the extent to which those in the emerging church are aware of broader cultural trends in the West, how church forms may be reconceptualized in post-modernity, and the extent to which contemporary authors are interacting with various academic disciplines in order to help the church understand and respond to cultural challenges. In this regard I was pleased to see Dr. Ward not only consider issues of theology and ecclesiology, but also the insights provided by sociology and cultural studies.

The central thesis of Ward's book is a contrast between what he describes as "solid church" forms and "liquid church." Ward draws upon the writing of Zygmunt Bauman who explores contemporary Western culture and who notes that modernity has produced institutional expressions of church that tend to be more solid and rigid. Ward also describes various mutations of solid church that he describes as heritage site, refuge, and nostalgic community.

In contrast with solid church Ward notes that within modernity we are also observing cultural changes that evidence increasing fluidity. As Ward quotes Leonard Sweet on cultural change while drawing upon the metaphor of liquid:

"If the Modern Era was a rage for order, regulation, stability, singularity, and fixity, the Postmodern Era is a rage for chaos, uncertainty, otherness, openness, multiplicity, and change. Postmodern surfaces are not landscapes but wavescapes, with the waters always changing and the surfaces never the same. The sea knows no boundaries."

The shift of culture from modernity to postmodernity, from what Ward describs as solid culture to liquid culture, necessitates new expressions and understandings of church from solid church to liquid church. But while such talk often makes more traditional church leaders uncomfortable with the fear of abandonment of all of the past, Ward strikes a balance here. He states:

"I do not argue that we should abandon all existing patterns of church in favor of this new idea or proclaim that all is 'post' and that this heralds an impending apocalypse that will sweep solid church before it."

Instead of sweeping dismissal of solid church forms in modernity, Ward offers two suggestions. First, that mutations of solid church "has seriously decreased its ability to engage in genuine mission in liquid modernity." Second, that fluid expressions of church are essential in that they take "the present culture seriously and seeks to express the fulness of the Christian gospel within that culture."

As Ward describes the liquid church alternative he provides brief but helpful theological considerations such as what it means to be in Christ as compared to in the church, reflections on the body of Christ, and how the New Testament teaching on the Kingdom of God relates to the church, particularly in the context of liquid church in post-modernity.

Special attention must be drawn to Ward's discussion of liquid church in consumer culture. Ward notes the church's function within an increasingly diverse and competitive spiritual marketplace and this has resulted in the commodification of the church as expressed, for example, in the Alpha Course in the U.K. (later exported to the U.S.) and "seeker" church approaches such as that of Willow Creek Community Church. Ward states that he believes that "commodification is essential for evangelism," and he provides an example from the "What Would Jesus Do?" or WWJD product marketing. Ward views this positively and states that "WWJD managed to incarnate Christ inside this fairly arid world [of fashion-conscious adolescence], and it did so by commodification."

In this area I must share my disagreement with Dr. Ward on multiple fronts. First, while it is true that the church has been shaped by consumerism and commodification within modernity, and to a certain extent there has been some benefit from the utilization of marketing aspects related to the seeker movement, it would seem that the modern church which is so often concerned about the dangers of syncretism has already been compromised by syncretism in its combination of consumer culture with its expressions of church in order to reach the seeker and its creation of an evangelical subculture that is consumer driven, as evidenced by the emphasis on programs, buildings, and the production of evangelical products for religious consumers inside and outside the church.

Second, I find it hard to find much that is positive with the WWJD phenomenon, whether for adolescents, children or adults, and in my thinking this provides a negative example of commodification rather than a positive example of penetrating the culture. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate and beneficial to have our lifestyles of service and self-denial serve as our personal identifiers of connection with Jesus rather than WWJD bracelets.

Third, I strongly disagree with Ward's contention that commodification is essential for evangelism. Instead of commodification we ought to be considering contextualization through reflection on intercultural studies and missiology. This area represents another weakness in Ward's thesis in that while he does reference David Bosch's Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), he does not provide any indication that his theological and cultural reflection on liquid church has interacted with missiology or the history of Christian missions. This is especially evident in chaper 10 where he provides examples of worship for liquid church that include a contemporary setting from St. Paul's Cathedral in London and its use of a labyrinth, a medieval church before the Reformation, and Greek Orthodox worship. While I appreciate Ward's attempt to engage the history of the church in order to draw upon elements of the past for the present in worship (an example of influence from discussions of ancient-future worship?), he seems to lack recognition of the importance of cultural considerations related to missions wherein cultural forms of church are determined by the culture in order to inculturate expressions of worship appropriate for that culture.

Liquid Church provides a resource that will stimulate the thinking of those who are aware that something just is not quite right with many contemporary expressions of church in late modernity, and who want to take some initial steps in rethinking church in light of cultural change. But in my view the book demonstrates blind spots in the interaction between church and culture that would have been addressed through reflection on missions.


Sally said...

At last- a decent critical review of this book- it is much heralded and applauded, but I found the lack of reall missional and contextual thinking disturbing.... and I really really dislike the whole WWJD trend!

John W. Morehead said...

Sally, thank you for your compliment. I was prepared to benefit more from this book than I did given the praise over it in emerging church sites. As I said in my review comments, I appreciate much of what was said, but in my view it falls short in missional interaction with the post-modern contexts of the U.K. and U.S.