November 16, 2007
“Uh-oh, that can’t be good,” I announced with alarm as we pulled into our driveway after a shopping trip. From underneath the garage door a substantial river of sudsy water was flowing down the driveway and into the gutter in front of our house. It was as though from somewhere upstream a dam had burst and a torrential flood was cascading down an ancient river valley which just happened to flow right through the middle of our garage. In reality the reservoir of water that was suddenly released came not from some army corps of engineers’ project in our community but rather from an outdated, inefficient washing machine that should have been repaired or replaced years ago.
“It looks like our washing machine is on the fritz again,” sighed my wife, Babs.
“Yeah, and we’ve got a humungous clean-up waiting for us,” I added. “I’m scared to death to look at the damage in the garage. I guess that’s what we get for procrastinating in taking care of the clutter that has collected out there. Now we have no choice but to take the rest of our weekend and attempt to bring some order to the chaos.”
“I vote we just throw it all away,” recommended Babs. “We could push it all out to the curb and call for an extra trash pick-up. That would make our clean-up task a lot easier.”
“Nonsense,” I replied a little repulsed at the thought. “There are good reasons as to why we’ve been saving all that stuff. I’m certain a lot of it can still be redeemed.”
However, my first glance at the damage made me wonder if Babs’ idea wasn’t the more practical way to go. The washing machine was sitting a good five feet from its normal perch. Only the intake water hoses and the electric cord had prevented it from crashing through the garage door and strolling on down the street. For years we had suffered with this finicky contraption knowing that if the load of laundry wasn’t carefully balanced the action of the agitator followed by the vibrations of the spin cycle would cause the machine to “walk” away from the wall pulling out the drain plug and releasing the contents onto the floor of the garage. That particular day we had started doing a load of laundry and then left to go to the store failing to stick around long enough to make sure the load was properly balanced. To make matters worse we had selected the “extra rinse” option which had doubled the usual amount of water being released out the drain pipe. The result was nothing short of catastrophic.
Once the water had found its way out of the drain pipe it celebrated its new-found freedom by spreading out across the floor and inundating most of the garage in a mad dash to the door, the gutter, and eventually to San Francisco Bay. In the process the newly formed and recently christened “Dirty Laundry Creek” managed to soak several boxes of books we had saved to one day give away, camping gear we had neglected to put away since our last outing, old furniture, old clothing, old music, painting supplies, and a plethora of just plain junk. I was amazed at how the water managed to find its way into every nook and cranny of our garage.
“It’s going to take a miracle to clean up this mess,” I proclaimed shaking my head. “But I’m not about to throw everything away without at least attempting to reclaim some of it.”
Incredibly, after only two days of wielding mop and push broom, rags and “elbow grease,” the impossible disaster had been vanquished. Those items which were salvageable were cleaned and put away and the rest was thrown into the dumpster. The garage was cleaner than it had been in years including the floor which was unintentionally “laundered” in the process. What we had at first thought to be a catastrophe of epic proportions turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The apparent misfortune had forced us to finally break down and accomplish what we had needed to do for years.
The flooding of “Dirty Laundry Creek” came to mind recently as I was meditating on the phrase “liquid church” which is cropping up frequently in the simple church movement. As we have chronicled many times, roughly one million believers are fleeing from the institutional church every year in this country alone. Rather than having lost faith in God, these spiritual refugees have lost faith in the institutional church’s ability to enable them to accomplish what they are convinced God is calling them to do. In addition, thousands of pastors are leaving the ministry every month for a wide variety of reasons. Many of them have become hopelessly disillusioned over an institution which seems to be highly ineffective at making a difference in the surrounding community. Others have been forced out by well-meaning yet demanding church leaders who possess unrealistic expectations about the “hired servant” they have commissioned to make their church another “Willow Creek Community” or “Saddleback Community.” Still others have experienced debilitating burn-out over attempting to fulfill a role which is neither Biblical nor practical.
At first glance the torrential exodus from the “legacy” churches in this country might appear to be catastrophic. A cataclysm of this magnitude is bound to create a great deal of havoc both within the church as well as within the surrounding community. One might even wonder how this mess will ever be cleaned and the damage to the body of Christ repaired. However, as a believer who has been caught up in the out flowing current and as a pastor who has been flooded out of the institutional church, I have a completely different take on this apparent disaster. I believe God is simply forcing us to accomplish what we should have been doing all along.
Please don’t get me wrong. In no way am I condemning the local churches in our communities. What I am about to share applies equally as much to house churches and cell churches as it does to mega churches. It is not so much the size of the institution that is at fault here, but rather the attitude. It is the mind-set that insists on attempting to advance the kingdom of heaven by attracting all the “dirty laundry” of the community into the “washing machine” of the church where it is cleansed and re-cleansed, week after week, year after year, getting agitated and spun by sermons and ceremonies until the clothing has been worn out, the garments have been frayed, and the excitement has long since faded. This strategy has proven in modern times to be overwhelmingly ineffective at producing any genuine, lasting, community transformation.
At the risk of appearing heretical allow me to suggest that the deluge of believers out of our churches is a “God thing” and is absolutely essential if we have any chance of fulfilling the Great Commission in the near future. As I have said before, Jesus did not tell us to “go and plant churches in every nation.” The command is to “…go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19. Earlier in His ministry he declared “…I will build my church…” – Matthew 16:18. Somehow in the last two thousand years we have migrated from a church focused on outreach to one bent on ingathering, from a missional to an attractional mind-set.
Even though the institutional churches in the world as a whole are declining in attendance and influence, the body of Christ is growing faster than it has since the days of the Book of Acts. How can this be? The Holy Spirit has been agitating believers within the church convincing them that their church experience is out of balance with the way their faith is being practiced beyond the stained glass. The Lord is shaking up the “washing machine” and spinning His followers out into the world to inundate their communities with practical ministries exhibiting the love of Christ in tangible ways. As a result many messed-up, hurting souls, individuals once destined for the dumpster of society, who might never have found their way to the “washing machine” are being cleaned up and salvaged. Families are being reclaimed from the world, criminals and gang members are being redeemed, and whole neighborhoods are being laundered. The church of Christ is reaching into hidden nooks and crannies, soaking into areas which have never before been touched by the Gospel. It is a phenomenon we call “liquid church.”
With great embarrassment I must confess, in the past I have kept careful attendance records of our house church. For years as an institutional church pastor I lived and died according to such statistics. Unfortunately I found it all too easy to carry the same obsession into simple church. But the Lord has helped me understand that what takes place during our weekly gatherings is only a small part of the church. I now try to chronicle all the face to face connections Babs and I make during the week, not as an exercise in boasting over how many lives our ministry is touching, but as a reminder that our primary focus is outside the walls of our home. I am learning to keep my eyes open for any opportunity to serve.
A few days ago I stopped in the midst of a music lesson and prayed with one of my piano students who was concerned about her cousin stationed in Iraq. Can you see the water flowing? Following another piano lesson Babs and I spent some time praying with the student’s father concerning his wife who was diagnosed with breast cancer. We counseled with him sharing our own experiences in traveling down the same road. Watch out, the water is getting deeper. Last Thursday we recruited two Spanish speaking friends of ours and paid a visit to a needy Hispanic family in a neighboring town. Babs was able to get their new computer (a donation from another believer) up and running after which we gathered around their dining room table and feasted on the pizza we had brought for the occasion. A passion-filled time of prayer capped off our visit. Run for your lives; this is turning into a flash flood. Last week some close friends of ours stopped by for a visit and stayed the night. The next morning, prompted by our cell phone alarms going off at 10:02 am, we entreated the Lord by lifting up the Luke 10:2b prayer together. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Luke 10:2. Don’t attempt to struggle against the swiftness of this current. Just go with the flow!
It seems as though we are always encountering waitresses who need prayer, couples who need counseling, young people who need encouragement, and the poor who need a handout. In addition, during the last several years Babs has facilitated a local breast cancer support group and I have volunteered as a police chaplain. Many doors of opportunity have opened through these pursuits. What is the common denominator amongst all these varied activities? None of them has occurred in a church building during a regularly scheduled gathering of believers. And yet, each encounter was just as legitimately “church” as is any Sunday morning worship service. Somehow I missed the Scripture that says you must have a song service, followed by some special music, followed by an offering, followed by a sermon, followed by announcements, followed by a prayer, in order to qualify as church. The difference is, what we are experiencing is “liquid church,” agitated and spun out of the institutional variety by the Holy Spirit, spreading into every nook and cranny of our society in order to penetrate the love of God deep into the chaos, clutter, and filth of the world.
So where and when does “liquid church” take place? Church is in session whenever we see an opportunity and hear the Lord calling us to serve. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15-16. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” – Colossians 4:5.
If the Spirit begins agitating your church and believers begin pouring out the drain pipe it may not be the terrible disaster you think it is. The Lord just might want the contents to escape in order to flood the local community with living water. Perhaps the better strategy would be for churches to train their members in “flash flood ministry,” pull the drain plug themselves, and release the flow giving their blessings to those caught up in the outward current. Far from being a catastrophe, a flood of “liquid church” is essential in order to see churches becoming unified, revivals catching fire, lives being transformed, and nations being discipled. Please, Lord, let the water flow!
Bill, a child of God caught up in the flow