“but what do we do with the old wineskins ?” was a question I was asked yast week at the end of an act of worship. To put it into context this took place at a small country Chapel where the youngest in attendance was in his sixties and then the next was 78+ (by his own admission).
Talking before the service began a lady shared with me the concern of what would happen in the future as their catchment area, their age profile and their weariness seemed to mitigate against drawing younger folk in; yet this Chapel has stood faithfully for many years at the edge of its village and with a good relationship with the local Parish Church.
I shared with her that despite my involvement in Fresh Expressions of worship/Church I constantly come back to the Biblical injunction of Jesus about wineskins…… “no one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins and the wine is out, and so are the skins” Mark 2:21-22 (but also Matthew 9:14-17 and Luke 5:33-39) and this is when she said, not in a nasty or blocking way, “but what do we do with the old wineskins ?”
(Apparently when wineskins get older they become less pliable and settle into a more definite shape; consequently fresh wine stretches the old skin until bursting point when all may be lost.)
It felt like a genuine willingness to change and move forward but also a realisation that something has to affirm all the faithfulness of the generation which has kept faith in evidence but for whom its hard to let go.
This has dominated my thinking for a while now but increasingly so in this last week.
Change is a difficult thing to pursue and it always feels as though someone somewhere is going to het hurt, but need it actually be that way ? On a recommendation Ive been reading a fascinating book called “Our iceberg is melting” by John Kotter and I have found it both challenging and encouraging. Basically its about how to bring about change. The story is about a penguin colony living happily on its iceberg when one relatively unimportant penguin, Fred (!), realises that their iceberg is. beginning to melt. Whats to be done ? It involves a variety of characters such as Louis the head penguin, Alice the impulsive penguin who wants to get on with it, Fred, Buddy and No-No.
Without giving away the ending to the story I will share that it shows how to navigate change, slowly (yet with an appropriate degree of urgency), thoughtfully, respectfully towards others without giving in to the No-No’s of the colony, listening and acting collectively. Something, in our passion to see Jesus lift4d high, we can forget applies to Church life also. Thats not to say we simply drift along while the iceberg we call Cjurcj slowly melts and disintegrates beneath our feet, but it is to say that we must treat all people with dignity and respect. Where it genuinely isn’t possible to change then we have to either let go or allow Churches to die with dignity believing in the resurrection which Jesus promises will follow.
The Methodist President of Conference, Rev Loraine Mellor, spoke in her Presidential address of the need for some causes (churches, meetings, activities) to die before resurrection can take place. How that resurrection may look Im not sure as it may involve a new shape to the Church, new activities, and above all else new people, but it will be different, just as the Bible promises us our bodies will be changed in Heavenly glory.
BUT, what about the old wineskins ?
In many ways in the book it is Penguin No-No who represents the old wineskins. Comfortable and unable to see the need for change, possibly through weariness or cynicism, but he puts up a spirited fight to keep things as they are. Sadly for the penguin colony that isn’t really a viable option and its the same today for our Churches. And yet we have changed over the centuries; nowadays we have pipe organs whereas one time they were frowned upon (try switching to a guitar now !!); one time the ordinary folk would have to stand throughout and only the gentry had pews (try getting rid of pews now !!); one time the Bible was read in latin (and we still frown on any other translation but the King James !!). Indeed a friend of mine thought it was remarkably novel that he’d found a modern translation (The Message Bible first published in 1993, with an earlier version of Galatians in 1988 !) at least 24 years ago but still thought of as modern.
It is the desire of No-No which has to be met and yet met without a spirit of crushing but with a spirit of love, without a spirit of dominance but with a spirit of inviting him onto the journey; however ultimately if the journey is to continue it cannot be held back or the iceberg (church) will melt beneath our feet.
The old wineskins/no-no’s, with their legitimate fears and concerns are to be encouraged on the journey, thanked for their faithfulness and invited in a Kindly, sensitive way to move forward and to allow room for new wineskins and new wine. Within Methodism that also, I believe, involves the need to look afresh at what it expects of its Presbyters, Deacons and leaders. No longer can we simply visit in the way it was 50 years ago and at the same time meet, greet and encourage new life; no longer can we maintain the current preaching plan in the way its always been and at the same time find space for that which will attract new folk to the cause of Christ and no longer can we expect the Presbyter/Deacon simply to serve the existing flock and at the same time seek out a new flock simply to repopulate the current one.
I don’t know the answer as I don’t want to discard those faithful few but I passionately want the time to introduce new folk to my friend Jesus. It is this issue that has kept me awake at night most of this last week and for the foreseeable future.