When I think about how God has been re-shaping my perspectives on the church in general, one analogy I like to use is based on science–particularly, the properties of water, and/or the properties of solids and liquids.
We most often think of water as a liquid, because that’s where we identify with it, mostly. A liquid, a fluid, easily takes the shape of anything that contains it, and can be poured from container to container. It gives way when you dip your finger in it. It is movable, flexible, easily changed. And yet, liquid water molecules tend to stick together. Droplets of water on glass tend to find each other and merge together. It is a loose structure, but there is a natural cohesion of the molecules.
When water freezes, it becomes a solid. Its molecules form set patterned connections with one another, and it becomes very hard–hard enough to injure someone who falls on it. Whatever shape it held when it froze–that’s the shape it’s going to have. No flexibility.
The early church that the Scripture describes acted most like liquid water. It was a fluid, loose-knit connection of believers who felt a cohesive bond but as an entity could easily take whatever shape worked best for it. The early church met in homes, in caves, even in the Temple courts. And it’s apparent that different gatherings of believers in different communities and cultures also operated a bit differently from each other. But their love for Jesus (and for one another) were the bonds that kept them together, kept them drawing close to one another.
As time moved forward to the days of Constantine, and “Christendom” emerged, the church changed and began to function more like a solid. We set up established structures, protocols, hierarchies in leadership, and methods; we institutionalized. We became a separate, stand-alone entity that was inflexible and immovable. And instead of sticking together because we were drawn to each other, we were stuck together because we were, well, stuck. Every molecule in its place according to the established order, and any challenge to that structure dealt with swiftly (and often severely). And this is pretty much how we have existed going into the present day.
Now, I can already hear the jokes–“frozen chozen” and “First Church of the Frigidaire”–but I’m not really talking about the spiritual temperature or “icy conditions” right now, although that was an issue; I’m talking about the way the church is shaped and structured. 🙂
Anyhow, these days I’m witnessing (and seem to be part of) a major shift and change. Apparently the ice block that has been the church is melting. Most of the Body of Christ is still sitting in solid form; but more and more believers are sort of “melting” off the ice block, and the church is becoming fluid again. We are returning to the flexibility we once had, and re-learning the natural bonds that cause us to want to cling together even if we are loosely structured. And we are learning that we are not defined by the structures that have contained us, but we are defined by something simpler, something more basic. We are defined by our connection to Christ, because He has redeemed us.
It’s important to understand that whether solid or liquid, water is still water. It retains its most basic properties, whatever its form. We believers have always been the church, and for most of us, our faith in Christ has not changed. Our defining properties aren’t changing; only our form and structure.
One word of caution is in order with this analogy. There is one more form water can take, and that is gas, or vapor. Water vapor is still water, but the molecules have no connection with their counterparts; they simply float around loose in the atmosphere. I recognize that there are some in this process that for one reason or another may feel like they are floating around like a vapor right now. They are still believers, but they feel no sense of cohesion with others in the Body of Christ, even though they might desire it. (Water molecules, after all, do want to stick together, even if they aren’t currently doing so.)
I would submit to you that using this analogy of the three forms of water–the form the Scriptures seem to support most for the church is the form of liquid. Little is said in Scripture about having strong, immovable structures for the church; at the same time, a significant amount is said about our need to stick together. Whether solid, liquid, or gas, water is still water; likewise, the church is still the church, regardless of her form. But we seem to function best and healthiest when we function as a liquid. When we are solid, we are limited; when we are vapor, we are intangible and ineffective. But when we are fluid, we are adaptable, flexible, visible, useful, and, I believe, most effective. (We have far more uses for liquid water than we do for ice or vapor, don’t we?)
There are those who are fearful and concerned about this melting trend. Personally, I think it’s the best thing to happen to the church in centuries.
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