As culture shifts, the ways we relate, interact and network are affected. The challenge facing the Church is to respond with fresh ministry styles appropriate to people living in this modified cultural landscape. Falling numbers in many congregations testify to this need.

Pete Ward, a lecturer in Youth Ministry at Kings College London, is advocating a move away from ‘heavy’ church structures with their expectations of attendance, focus on congregational life and one-size-fits-all approach. He believes the church must – in line with culture – liquefy itself and adopt an increasingly informal, diverse and fluid approach. Church along these lines would orbit less around Sunday meetings and more around the informal relationship and interest networks under-pinning society.

Anna Robbins, a lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at London Bible College, and Simon Hall, a leader of Revive Church in Leeds, met with Pete Ward to consider liquid church as a basis for future ministry. Assistant Editor Steve Adams chaired the ensuing discussion …

Pete Ward: At present Liquid Church is a provocative idea. There isn’t anything constructed that anyone can do, it ’s more like “lets try and imagine it differently ”. Either it’s just being bloody-minded and argumentative, or it’s prophetic. We currently run our churches like golf clubs, where belonging, membership and being part of the committee structure is “it ”. Maintaining the institution has become the price of spirituality and of being close to God. We need to cater more for the occasional golf player. I therefore want to ‘liquefy ’congregational life and the one-size-fits-all idea and to develop a community of networking and connections. I would abandon the notion of a gathered church – which I realise is very threatening to some people.

Steven Adams: What ’s your theological basis for this?

PW: Just as Christ is united to the Spirit in the Father through relational, mutual indwelling,so the Church as the body of Christ can relate through mutual communication.We can locate our unity with each other in this idea of relating,rather than in a static “we ’re all going to be in the same congregation, sitting listening to the same man ” approach.You could have a diversity of activities,but your unity is based on something that has a theological frame- work.

Simon Hall: The tendency is to go into our little clubs and just hang out with people that we like. Would there still be communication across the boundaries if we stopped meeting together and gathered in smaller, more informal groups?

PW: Yes, you would embrace difference and diversity as well as unity. So you don’t necessarily have to have the homogenous unit. On the other hand you might have communities of interest and passion that get together to explore art, spirituality, social justice, working for social change, or being involved in local politics. Instead of having all of those as an add-on to the congregation, you abandon congregation and embrace more and more diversity.

SA: Would there be a context for these networked interest groups to meet together?

PW: The problem is that we have the reflexes of congregation built into us. Everything that has come and gone and tried to be -or do something different, whether cells or Willow Creek, has been subverted by the congregation and so you’re back to a previous model.

SH: It ’s not just the ordinary person in the congregation who is enslaved by the traditional way of doing church. The leaders are enslaved too. As a pastor it’s my job to worry about everybody else – to make sure they are doing the right thing. Somehow I ’ve got the idea that its my responsibility, though members of my church are saying, “no, its not your responsibility to tell us what to do. We want to decide ourselves how we want to grow, and if we need your help then we’ll come and ask you”. That sounds rebellious, but that ’s the problem with the congregational system: it creates rebels because by saying “can I please do it my way?” you become a rebel.

SA: So what ’s the alternative?

SH: Lots of my friends just hang out with their friends. If they chose just one thing to keep them going as a Christian, nine out of 10 would select hanging out with their friends, eating food, talking about what ’s going on in their lives and sometimes praying for each other. That would be more important than any church structure. One of my primary expressions of church is friends who live all over the country. We talk on the phone and we get together –it ’s a really important Christian family.

SA: But isn ’t the congregation a tangible expression of God in the community? In going down this route what are the elements of congregation that are neutral, but tainted by bad experiences, which we risk losing?

PW: Getting rid of the congregation doesn’t mean you are getting rid of people or relationships. What you are doing is getting rid of a way of organising them socially. There are all sorts of things, like community, fellowship, cross-generational meetings, all of which are invested in this one social organisation – congregation. The point is you can have all these things differently. Having done some outreach with young people, and having tried to connect them up with church, I found that the models of church really don’t work and the patterns of church are not effective. A lot of churches are really good at creating a pure, safe, dependant place – places of refuge where you can go and feel safe. And we need that at various developmental points in our life. But there are other points where actually we really want to kick off the traces. The problem is the only successful things we have are these refuge communities.

Anna Robbins: Why do you think the congregation began to meet together and continued to meet together?

PW: I don ’t accept that the social organisation that we call congregation now, is the same as it was in the medieval church, or even the same as the reformation church or the orthodox church of the East. I don ’t accept that this is one model that we have followed all the way through and that it ’s exactly the same. Congregation now is the product of modernity, primarily. What we have at present is a social construct of our contemporary era.

AR: Then we need to ask, why the church has always met together? The church has been a gathering place of some kind from its inception. Why did the church gather together, what was the point?

PW: I ’m not saying gathering together is a bad thing, what I ’m saying is that community connections might be of more value than the monolith of one meeting, as the core attendance structure. What we have done is replace the passion with janitorship. We need to create “packages ”that people can buy into such as, “this is how you improve prayer life ”or “if you ’ve had a spiritual experience how do you get more?” There are people out there who God is touching and we need to move them towards Christ? We need to find the things that connect with where people are at. Look at the Alpha Course. There are loads of people coming to hear about Jesus, but as far I understand it people want more Alpha Courses but not church. The problem is by church we mean congregation. What is Alpha? It ’s a form of liquid connectivity. Why do we say that we must move it on to this congregational thing?

AR: I ’m concerned about the kinds of questions you are asking. I ’m sympathetic to your motivation to understand culture. But I ’m always concerned when we react against something as it is without asking what is it meant to be. What is the great commission? What is the Church? What is the foundation of the Church? Why was the Church founded? For what does it exist? When we start by answering those questions then we ’re automatically looking from the point of Christ ’s work and looking outward. But whenever we start by asking questions like “what can we restructure to make it look more inviting?” “what can we restructure to draw people in?”, then we are turned completely round the other way, looking at ourselves,and naval gazing.

PW: On one level I agree with you, but I would say that the nature of creativity is such that things come at you at different points in the thinking process. Lots of people have asked “what is the church for, where does it come from?” but when they get to the stuff on the ground it doesn ’t actually produce anything different, they have just justified what is already going on. New thoughts occur to you when they occur to you. We have this sense that it needs to be theologically rooted and grow out of theology, but I think that theological creativity doesn ’t always happen that way. Sometimes you get the bright idea and then you add the other bit.

AR: But there has to be a means of testing whether it ’s a bright idea or whether it ’s a daft idea. Ideas have to be tested from the theological end, the scriptural end and also the cultural end.

SH: At least we are in a situation now where we can acknowledge that every form of church is culturally influenced. For good or ill, we are entering a new cultural epoch – what is the church going to be like in 50 years time if it survives? We are in a privileged position, because we can use the tools of cultural analysis and be self aware in a way previous generations haven’t. We are blessed in that the Bible doesn ’t tell us how to do Church although there are some underlying principles. I don ’t have a problem with saying this is where culture is going and we need, under God, to respond to that.

AR: There are certain ‘given’s ’that have been accepted from the New Testament period onwards as being elements, or marks, of the Church. Those include the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, the public proclamation of the word, and baptism. You can’t suddenly stop and say,“this doesn’t make sense to the culture”.

PW: But you see the medieval church had all of those things but didn ’t have the contemporary congregation. There are long, historic traditions where you have had the word and sacrament, which I would see as the marks of the Church, but gathered community was not necessarily present.

SH: Where I struggle is that despite being a part of a single generation congregation, I believe there is something prophetic about breaking down generational barriers. It may not be in that context of meeting on a Sunday, but I ’m currently trying to apply the liquid church concept to my friends.

We’ve got three or four couples we know who are all interested in God but there’s no way we would take them to Church. But we might say, lets all get together, talk about it and see what happens. And that ’s the picture of liquid church I ’ve got in my head. It ’s very much based on real living relationships. But for me there is inherent weakness in that there is nothing that is going to help us look outside of our own little clique or to cross generations.

PW: We need a deregulation of church so that people can create in its name. What I ’m trying to advocate is something where people could gather round the interests and enthusiasms they are really excited about rather than around fulfilling certain beaurocratical functions.

AR: But how is that any different from any church of congregational government?

PW: It ’s more like the Internet. There might be some people, like Internet servers, who set the rules. But basically everybody can get up there and design their own web site and try and sell their own thing. At present we have committees and gatekeepers who stop you getting on with things and doing things. There are people in their 20s who are used to getting on with things and being involved in all sorts of projects, and they have to go through these controlling procedures in order to do what they are wanting to.

SH: There is a big difference between church and the rest of the world in this area. In a world where you can make and lose a million by the age of 25, you might be lucky to get to be a house-group leader when you are 40, provided you are married with kids! There is no other way of gaining approval for your relationship with God than in this institutional form. There are two different models of leadership illustrated in the setting of a primitive village.

There is the village head – the oldest man – who represents the village in many respects. When it comes to hunting however, whichever man is most able to do the hunting becomes the leader in that context. We have a church situation, which comes from that kind of village mentality. But we are now in more of a hunting environment, and young people tend to gravitate to whoever can do things the best. But the church still has this age hierarchy, which young people just don ’t identify with. It ’s a real problem.

AR: Is there any room for discipline in this model? Because if you take the example you gave of the Internet there is no regulation that has been effective and I wonder if the same difficulty would occur with no structure for accountability and decision making. Is there any place for discipline?

PW: I think there has got to be, but I don ’t quite know how to do it.

SH: Some people need rules, discipline, structures and rigidity because they can ’t get out of their problems on their own. The great commission calls us to make disciples and to teach them to obey what Jesus has commanded us. That is going to feel quite “heavy” and not particularly “liquid ” to me.. Where I am in Leeds there are beginning to be more organic, liquid relationships. Its not a rebellion against church structure, it ’s just a sense of “this is who we are and this is what we do, please accept us and we ’ll accept you. Don ’t make us fit into what you do.” Those issues are very hard for the church to come to terms with because it ’s a huge break from the sense of continuity of the congregation and that ’s where it ’s all handed down father to son.

PW: If young people don’t come to church anymore, then the basic assumption in a consumerist environment would be that church is doing something wrong, but we resist that at all cost. Instead the church says, “Well, there’s a problem with the young people”. They ignore that basic principle, “the customer is always right ”. There are Anglican churches all over the place that nobody attends and there is relatively little discussion along the lines of, “Perhaps what we are doing isn ’t a good idea ”. People have stopped buying in Marks &Spencer and the response of M&S is to jump through huge hoops to turn this around. But the church isn ’t thinking that way. When people say they don’t need God, we need to connect with them in ways that would show there is something about God that might touch their lives.

SA: The whole concept of “liquid” in this context could be seen as meaning people have no commitment to the liquid church, no commitment to engage, give my money or take responsibility.

PW: And that is exactly why people will join up. That needs to be a serious element in what we are doing. Our starting point needs to be people who want to get involved occasionally. The problem at present is that the cost of it all is too high. How we connect with people who have seen something on TV and had a bit of an experience of God is really crucial, and at present our models of church don’t seem adequate. People already want God; they are already looking for God in certain ways. Where are the places they are looking? They are looking in home decoration, gardening and so on.

AR: So we don ’t really need a liquid church. What we need are disciples who are willing to be evangelists to make other disciples for the mission.

PW: No.We need a liquid church because if, for example a church wants to connect with people at B&Q it takes people down to sing choruses and give out leaflets about church services. The church goes in its bubble, takes the bubble with it and never gets out of it. When we go to B&Q we are not connecting with the spirituality in decorating. In missiological terms our starting point should be in contemporary culture where people are already moving towards the spiritual. We must start from where people already desire God.