21/11/2008

Liquid Church (by Pete Ward)

I'd never heard of Pete Ward. Apparently he's a lecturer at a London college, involved in theology and culture research. This book was in our house because it was one of the books on the reading list for my son when he did the first year of the Open Theology course last year. It sat on his shelf for a while, but I decided to expand my horizons a little, and thus picked it up.

'Liquid Church' suggests, in essence, that it's time to abandon the traditional idea that church mainly consists of Sunday morning gatherings. Or, if not to abandon it entirely, at least to expand what we mean by 'church', given the 21st century and the general lack of interest in what the traditional (or 'solid') church does by most of the general public.

He demonstrates that 'solid church' had its basis first in mediaeval culture, where communities were fairly close-knit. The church was a focal point for all to gather, and was all-encompassing. As society changed, so the church changed to suit modern, consumerist tastes. That means that in the 20th century we would see dozens of different denominations all vying for custom (so to speak). People move around, and decide what they do and don't like, so they gravitate to the style of worship they are most comfortable with, and the people they like best, and the teaching they trust.

This isn't a bad thing, Ward assures us, but it's not enough. Church, since about the 1950s, has tended to be either a beacon to our heritage, or a refuge for those who happen to like the style of Sunday services. Yes, it still attracts newcomers, but the majority are those who move from other areas, who were already Christian believers. Churches already provide many different outreach programs - youth ministries, 'seeker-sensitive' services, Alpha courses, evangelistic campaigns, and so on, in order to introduce people to Jesus. These have to happen because most people wouldn't go near a traditional - or even modern - church service. So why do we expect them to do so after they have made a commitment to Christ?

With mobile phones and the Internet, the author tells us, society is now far more fluid than it has ever been. Many people have the image of the church as a boat, floating on the stormy seas of society. But perhaps, he suggests, it would be more appropriate to see church as already in society - in the meetings and networks that so many of us already have. There may be a place for Sunday services, but church is so much more than that - any Christians gathering to glorify God are also part of the Body of Christ, and thus 'church'.

Trying to persuade people into 'solid' church often results in turning them away altogether. The teaching is often either very basic, or heavily theological - no sermon can fulfil the needs of both the long-term comfortable believer and the brand-new Christian. The songs are generally watered down, to meet the lowest common denominator of people's preferences. Probably the most important part of traditional church is the chat and networking that happens over coffee after the service has finished.

There's much more, of course. It's quite a heavy read - the author is, after all, a theologian - and I found one chapter a day quite enough. It helped that I already agreed with much of what he said; it does seem that God is doing new things, and that we need to allow our horizons to expand when we think of what 'church' means. This is not syncretism - it's seeing what God is doing already, and going along with him.

The chapters alternate theological and sociological concerns, and I found that a lot of things fell into place as I read. The final chapter outlines some of the author's dreams for the 'liquid' church of the future, some of which are beginning to happen in some places.

My one concern is that if the traditional churches die out, and we concentrate on the networks of believers, it would be all too easy to go astray. TV evangelists attract huge audiences and followings, and in a sense are another form of liquid church; yet many of them are not following the gospel of Christ who calles us to renounce everything to follow him. While it's true that some 'solid church' leaders are also manipulative, or produce false teaching, they do - usually - have some guidelines and overseers, and general accountability that should keep them at least roughly on the rails.

I'm not one for accountability in general, but the idea of liquid church as a total free-for-all seems a bit frightening. Yes, Pete Ward stresses the importance of preaching Jesus, and adhering to Scriptural principles, and glorifying God. But many new or immature Christians - and even some more mature ones - can easily be taken in by glitz and glamour, and the promises of an easy life that seem to come too easily from many TV shows or books.

My other slight problem with the author's vision was my own personal dislike of some of his suggestions - of centres where people could wander around and light candles, or look at pictures, and basically do their own thing. I really prefer to be invisible, and to go along with what other people are doing. However, that kind of thing evidently appeals to many so it's just a personal quibble.

Still, overall I thought the book was excellent, and very thought-provoking. I would certainly recommend it to anyone feeling dissatisfied with church, or indeed to those wondering why so many others are unhappy about church.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 21st November 2008

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