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My brother and I used to swim at a remote country creek just off route 68 east of Xenia, Ohio. The creek had a deep spot over which hung a gnarly maple tree to which someone had tied a two-inch thick rope from its highest branch. We would swing out and drop into the black water. Some would climb the tree and dive into the water from a height of 20 to 25 feet. The tree offered several levels of branches. Only the bravest climbed to the very top to dive in. My brother and I would have the time of our lives in the muddy waters of that creek. Occasionally, to our mother’s disgust, we would come home with leeches stuck to our legs which she would have to remove, but that didn’t bother us because swimming in that creek was a true adventure. A creek is only one of the many forms that water can take and, while swimming there might be repulsive to some, for us it was heaven on earth. The Scriptures speak of the community of God as a river of living water.

A Vision of Flexibility and Influence

In that day Living waters will flow out of Jerusalem,
half of them toward the eastern sea
and the other half toward the western sea;
it will be in summer as well as in winter (Zechariah 3:18).

And in that day
the mountains will drip with sweet wine,
and the hills will flow with milk,
and all the brooks of Judah will flow with water;
and a spring will go out from the house of the Lord
to water the valley of acacias (Joel 3:18).

Unfortunately, too many churches are more like gated community swimming pools. The members there prefer the water to be clean of all contaminants. They don’t want adventure; instead they prefer the familiarity of repetition and routine. The water is kept clean by elaborate filters. The ten-foot by 25-foot rectangle filled with blue water is only accessible to members of the community. Occasionally, their immediate friends are invited to enjoy a refreshing swim. This may be fine for some people, but others prefer a swim in the river or at the beach where more contaminants can get into the water, but where there are also more surprises.

Effective churches adapt their structure to fit the terrain while maintaining the qualities that make them the church. The question should never be: “Which is the correct form?” but rather, “does the form serve the purpose of this particular congregation?” Is there a form that would more effectively accomplish the mission that Jesus Christ gave her?

A Yearning for New Forms

According to studies conducted by George Barna, a growing number of Christians feel that what is commonly referred to as “church” is not producing the fruit for the Kingdom of God that it purports to produce. It’s not that these people are dissatisfied with God or with Christianity. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. They desire more Christianity and they are not finding it in the pre-packaged routines of formal church. Churches are being hindered by rigid mental models of what the church is — models that are fused with the church’s definition of itself. These models lack the flexibility needed to effectively reach today’s world. The water becomes ice, solidified into a permanent and non-negotiable form. Such churches still contain the essential ingredients; the H2O, but they are not able to flex with the current terrain.

Through the centuries, the church has taken on different forms. With the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine, the church took on the form of the Imperial Government with its tightly guarded hierarchical structure of Popes, Bishops, Cardinals, et al. During the Reformation, the church took on several different forms including the state church of the Lutheran tradition and the separatist societies like those of the Anabaptists. When Christianity came to North America, it took on the characteristics of small independent democratically-run organizations, complete with Robert’s Rules of Order. In more recent years, some larger churches have taken on the forms of a well-run corporation with functional structures and a highly-trained paid staff to keep the corporation running smoothly.

Some churches have found that a contemporary and technology savvy Sunday morning service provides a powerful environment for helping people come to a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Another form has been the smaller single-pastor model that has served the spiritual needs of thousands for many years in America and throughout the world. In China, the church being unable to own property and build public places of worship, has had to depend on the willingness of brave souls to risk life and limb by allowing their brothers and sisters to meet in their homes in the so-called underground church.

Forms to Fit the Environment

I want to be clear here; I am not rejecting outright any of these forms. My only point thus far is to say that the church, like water taking on different forms as it flows over a variety of terrains, has historically taken on different forms that have corresponded to the terrain of its day. The issue is not which form is right but which form is most effective for the context (the terrain) in which the church is working today.

Water tends to flow until it finds a form that will hold it. That form may be a pond, a larger lake, or an ocean. In my backyard, it often takes the form of shallow holes in the lawn that my dogs have been busy excavating. These forms are different from one another, yet they all contain genuine water. There are factors external to the church that affect the outcomes she is trying to achieve. To ignore these factors and pretend they have no affect is to condemn ourselves to irrelevance. As the environment changes, like water molding itself to the new terrain, the church must be willing to change its form.

The Apostle Paul left the church with an example of adapting form to the environment. He descibed his ministry as one of becoming “all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). May I remind my brothers who insist that the church must never adapt itself to the world that the passage I just quoted is from the sacred Scriptures; to deny that the church should ever adapt to its environment is to deny Scripture!

New Forms but the Same Active Ingredients

But water does not only conform to the terrain, it also wields a powerful influence over the terrain, literally changing the surface of the earth. A flight over the Mississippi river valley will reveal how the geography of the Mid-South has been largely determined by the force of water. We find here a paradox; to change the terrain, water must mold itself to the terrain. How does this work? The key is in the H2O. Water consists of two hydrogen atoms covalently bonded to a single oxygen atom which form an incredibly poweful solvent. As long as it retains these ingredients, it is water. In the same way, there is a core to the church and that is what should remain unchanged, not its form (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Some forms have lost their ability to impact the terrain. For example, being a mere container of water, the swimming pool has lost its ability to alter the surrounding environment. It has ceased to flow and therefore can no longer impact the earth.

People often confuse essence with form. This confusion has caused Christians to defend their familiar forms and to reject all efforts to suggest alternatives. It has also caused the church to hold fast to forms that no longer fit the external terrain and can therefore no longer influence the external terrain. When the church consecrates the form, she inevitably fails to honor the core. We become like little children on Christmas morning, more fascinated with the boxes that our gifts came in than we are with the gifts themselves. Thomas Campbell, in his renowned document titled, “Declaration and Address,” defined the church as follows:

The church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one. Consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

Unfortunately, the word “church” today has become intimately embedded with real estate. All of us have heard the expression: “The church is not the building; it is the people.” Yet, our mental concept of the church continues to revolve around the buildings where worship services occur and around all the accoutrements associated with those buildings and what happens inside them: the pulpit, the sermon, the stage, the worship band (or choir) and so on. As long as we continue to think in these terms, we will never allow ourselves to conceive of other possible forms that the church may take.

What I’m really trying to say is this: if the church is to regain its vibrancy and life-changing character, it must think more deeply about the aspects of form that are no longer functioning. The leaders of the church must go through the process of re-thinking every aspect of form and question everything afresh. If it is not a part of the H2O, then it is in the realm of discussability. We must empower ourselves and our members to rethink church from the ground up. I thought about making a list at this point of things that might be questioned, but I decided against that. I’m afraid such a list may deflect your attention from the main point and give an impression that I’m attacking some specific aspect of form, which I am not. I’m merely suggesting that it is OK to ask the questions.


Photo by wallyir, Licensed under Morguefile.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.