This is what Jesus said to his disciples and the people around him:
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22, NRSV) “He went on,
“No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don’t put your wine in cracked bottles.” (Mark 2:21-22, The Message)
Over the past several months, I’ve read through several books that have challenged me and the way I think about church form greatly. Not particularly function, but form: there is a difference. In a sense, it is a challenge to the traditional ecclesiology (a theological word that has to do with church form) that so many have become accustomed to and take for granted. These thoughts aren’t by any means intended to be a dissertation on ecclesiology, so don’t read this expecting all your questions to be exhaustively answered. However, these are some thoughts on wineskins, as Jesus discussed above.
(The books are: “Church 3.0” by Neil Cole, “MegaShift” by James Rutz, “House Church” edited by Steve Atkerson, and currently “The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church” by Alan Hirsch. I don’t agree with everything the authors say, but each raises excellent points.)
Here’s what one academic, Dr. Kent Brower, writes in regards to this passage in Mark: “This is a new day that cannot be contained by the old system” (Mark: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, p. 92).
I think Jesus’ analogy works regarding church form as well. I’m not the only one either and these aren’t particularly novel ideas. Jesus has given new wine – his new covenant – and it doesn’t work in the “old system.” The whole system had to change for us to drink and enjoy the new wine of his new life!
But regarding wineskins and church form – with a current society that is increasingly post-Christian, we’ve continuously been attempting, perhaps vainly, to use the wineskins, systems, and church forms that have been adapted for Christendom.
For the past 1700 years, church form has been operating with the same wineskins. It has been, more or less, the same liturgy or pattern in regards to ecclesiology: a church building, a pastor or leader up front, the professional clergy and laypeople distinction, the “service” or “mass,” etc. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
In terms of what Jesus said, we’ve taken his new wine and his new wineskin, and poured it into another wineskin after about 300 years – a wineskin that looks similar to the old wineskin of the old system Jesus was referring to – and we’ve been attempting to patch that same wineskin for a really, really long time. We’ve been continuously taking the same cloak or jacket that we’ve washed a thousand times before, putting a new piece of unshrunk cloth on it to repair a tear, and wondering why the cloak or jacket continues to look ragged after we wash it again. The new cloth tears away once it shrinks in the wash! And then we repeat with just a different brand of new cloth to see if that’ll work.
But it doesn’t really work to just patch a jacket like that, does it? And it definitely doesn’t work with a wineskin, though I’m afraid that’s what we continue to try – the church really loves the wineskins of Christendom. But to try to patch a wineskin really does demonstrate major denial of a situation because we know the wineskin could just burst completely even as we try to fix it! Nor does it really work to repair the crack on a bottle, as “The Message” translates, and then try to pass it off as a new bottle or a still functioning bottle. It might function for a little while before the glass has to be repaired again, but eventually the glass wine bottle will just break completely.
To be clear, there is no issue with the wine; the wine is better than it’s ever been! But I think it’s time to pour the wine into a new wineskin that might look more like the early church, before Constantine. In terms of Neil Cole’s book, “Church 3.0”, it’s time to stop trying to update version 2.0 to version 2.1, 2.2, or 188.8.131.52.2, or whatever version of 2.0 we’re on now, but go to 3.0 completely. I understand that’s a dangerous idea, because it means saying goodbye to church buildings and the traditional service and everything Christendom has become accustomed to and been familiar with over the last 1700 years. And it’s definitely a threat to people in church life who are accustomed to authority, wealth, and power afforded to them due to Christendom.
But are you willing to pour the wine into a new wineskin? In a world that looks like the pre-Christian, pre-Constantinian world in terms of ideology, now is the time to pour into new wineskins. And I’ve got a feeling that they look like wineskins the church has seen a long time ago – about two millennia ago.
The Spirit is blowing life in a new direction and will be shaping the form and the body and the wineskins. Are you willing to surrender everything – even sacred, patched, cracked, and bursting wineskins and bottles that we’ve come to know and love – and follow God’s wind to wherever it leads?
I understand that we, especially in North America, are in the midst of a transitional period and a reformational period. On one hand, we see some traditional churches of the type of the past 1700-year era having great success. On the other hand, we see other churches of the same type dying, with new life being breathed into ministries that look nothing like the traditional church. But 100 years from now, the landscape will look completely different than what we’re accustomed to.
Ultimately, where God’s wind is blowing is where God’s life is and it is where he will be breathing into a resurrected and brand new wineskin of the Church. And with that knowledge alone, we can be encouraged to be willing, have faith, and not fight against the Spirit’s direction.