Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Old versus new

“Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skin will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17)

Jesus came to bring new life from God but he soon realised that the ‘old’ and traditional religion of Judaism would not be able to accommodate it. He is not talking here about the biblical truths that Judaism was built on but the interpretation and practice of those truths. Jesus wanted to bring new life and liberation but the Pharisees and Scribes (with some notable exceptions) refused to accommodate him and in the end plotted his downfall and death. Early on in his ministry Jesus could see that the two approaches would not go together and spoke the above words both as a statement of fact but also, I believe, as an enduring truth.

We can see this working out in the church today. Traditional churches – with their traditional ways of doing and being church - are not growing but dying as those who are closed to what God is trying to do refuse to accept change and close the doors on the Spirit. In the words of Jesus recorded in Luke’s account of the above passage “..no-one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.” (Luke 5:39) That is why increasingly church leaders have to face the challenge of trying to introduce change – new wine – whilst accommodating and pacifying those who are of a more traditional bent – old wine skins.

In some cases they have given up and gone along with the status quo. The outcome of this is for all to see as chapels (and now churches) empty and either become redundant or re-open as restaurants or office space. One Methodist church in my home town of Clydach is one I specially remember from my younger days. The Minister at the time tried to introduce change encouraging young people to attend only for the usual congregation to resist. The young people left, the Minister moved on, and the church is now a private house. In other cases the Minister has forced change, pushing ‘new wine’ into resistant wineskins only to see the whole thing burst, splitting the church and making news headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Still others have tried to keep two wineskins going – one containing the old and the other the new. As long as he (or she) has the resources this seems to be, probably, the best way to proceed, but it does need a lot of effort and still requires the co-operation and understanding of the whole church/parish to make it work.

Here in my current parish we are in a third category. I have for years given it my best shot to try and massage flexibility into the old wineskin but I am afraid it has not worked. Too many have complained or told me (sadly mostly indirectly) what they don’t like about some of the changes I have tried to introduce or have not been patient with the mistakes that have been made (of which there have been, I’m afraid, many). This is as clear an indication as any that it is an uphill and almost impossible task and consitently there is a great deal of tension between the old and the new.

So how are we to proceed? Are we to only put new wine into new wineskins or try and find other less divisive solutions? What can we learn from what Jesus is saying here?


First we have to remember who it is who is speaking and look at his experience. Jesus managed to work within the system for several years as he built up his band of followers. But the two couldn't, in the end, live side by side demonstrating that Jesus' words in Matthew 9 are not just teaching but prophecy. If Jesus and his disciples struggled then we will struggle too and there are no easy answers or quick fixes. If there were we would have probably heard them by now.

Second, like Jesus, leaders have to go where God call us. Jesus once said that he was "sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" (Matthew 15:24). Like Jesus we go where we are sent because wherever we go there are always lost sheep. That doesn't mean we cannot see or witness change but it does demonstrate that God means everyone to hear the message of the Gospel not just those who can and do hear/respond to it.

Third, 'wineskin' does not necessarily refer to a container like a church or a denomination but to an attitude which is closed or inflexible. So for an example if you have a church congregation of 100 and 70-80 are 'old' in the sense of backward-looking, rigid in their views and set against change of any sort - often without any rational or good reason - then that is an old wineskin. Note that 'old' here is not necessarily a reference to old people. What can be done in these circumstances? As far as I can see there are four options:

The first is to grow a congregation alongside the current one. I know of a church where this happened. A new incumbent was appointed to a church and started a Bible study group in his house. Soon the numbers grew sufficiently that they were able to take over the church and lead it in a new more flexible direction.

The second is to wait for the church to die back until the numbers are so small and the situation is so dire that the only way is up. This is what happened to David Watson as reported in his book "You are my God". Obviously this was a soverign work of God accompanied by much prayer and personal sacrifice, but St. Cuthbert's was set for closure and so there was little resistance to what the new Vicar wanted to do.

The third is to start a new church plant with those from the old congregation who were open to God and open to change. This does require resources to sustain the two congregations, but it's an option if there is support from the churches or the Diocese.

The fourth is to wait things out and hope and pray that each new Christian will stay and over time be willing to serve on the PCC or be part of any movement towards change in the church. This is a risky strategy because maybe new Christians will stay for a time but either get fed up and leave or decide that if you can't beat 'em, join em.' Also few leaders stay for that length of time in any church or parish and so when they leave their replacement may not be of the same outlook or churchmanship and undo all the hard work of his predecessor.

I suppose you could add a fifth approach and try and force changes, splitting the congregation into thsoe for or against. This however rarely works and you can end up with a situation that makes life there untenable.

Like a lot of Jesus' teaching he is not really talking strategy here - 'A few tips on how to grow a healthy church' type of thing. Instead he is just "saying it as it is". Just as the parable of the sower is not about how to grow seed, so the parable of the wine skin is not about how to create a new church. Jesus is just speaking from his own experience and understanding of the human heart and warning us about the sort of things that will happen when God pours out the new wine of the Spirit.

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