No one patches up an old coat with a piece of new cloth, for the new patch will shrink and make an even bigger hole in the coat. Nor does anyone pour new wine into used wineskins, for the skins will burst, and wine will pour out, and the skins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins, and both will keep in good condition.
When the followers of Jesus ask John the Baptist why he and his followers don’t fast very much, he replies with this analogy. He is saying that fasting is one of those practices that doesn’t work for the new people he wants to teach and serve, so he has to do things in new ways.
Jesus is saying that if you are going to minister to people for whom the existing religious structures and practices aren’t helpful, you need to develop new structures and practices. Otherwise it just won’t work, like the cloth or wineskin examples. This is often preached in sermons because of its implications relative to the success of the church, and this is appropriate because it is indeed about religious practice.
The classic example a “new wineskins” church is Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. Here is a brief history of its origins (from Wikipedia):
In 1971, Bill Hybels, youth pastor at Park Ridge’s South Park Church, started a youth group with friend Dave Holmbo called Son City. Modern music, dramatic skits and multimedia were combined with Bible studies in relevant language helped the group grow from 25 to 1,200 in just three years.
After 300 youth waited in line to be led to Christ in a service in May 1974, Hybels and other leaders began dreaming of forming a new church. They surveyed the community to find out why people weren’t coming to church. Common answers included: “church is boring”, “they’re always asking for money”, or “I don’t like being preached down to.” These answers shaped the group’s approach to the new church.
On October 12, 1975 the group held their first service in Palatine’s Willow Creek Theater. One hundred and twenty-five people attended the service. The rent and other costs were paid for with 1,200 baskets of tomatoes, sold door-to-door by 100 teenagers. Hybels spoke on “New Beginnings.” Within two years the church had grown to 2,000.
Today Willow Creek is the prototypical non-denominational evangelical mega-church with 24,000 average weekend attendance. The church was established to reach an affluent suburban population that was un-churched, and so a new wineskin was needed. Here is a picture of their beautiful amphitheater that serves as a venue for their worship services.
This summer I heard Rosario Picardo, a United Methodist pastor, describe his “new wineskin” church that ministers to the poor in Lexington KY through three different kinds of services at two locations. Here are some excerpts from his church’s website:
Embrace Church—Embracing the Community from Multiple Locations
Two different locations, essentially three different constituencies, but just one church—why would anyone want to do that? Why not just have three different churches? Our best answer to that question is wrapped up in our mission and vision statements as well as our understanding of what God calls the church to be in the world today. Consider these words from our vision statement: we seek to embrace God and to embrace others who have been hurt, rejected, broken, and burned out on merely looking religious. Our deepest desire is to see the church renewed, renewed through making disciples and encouraging disciples to grow deeper in their faith and closer to God and neighbor.
What this means, though, for different persons is, well, quite different. For some, the environment created in a traditional church setting is comfortable and inviting. It reminds them of good things from their past, or maybe it just seems the “right” context for worshipping God.
On the other hand, some folks have had terrible experiences in local churches during earlier parts of their lives. For these, the least inviting place is a traditional church, even though they might be at a place in their lives where they long for a deeper, more meaningful spiritual dimension to their lives. We are intentional about making one of our worship centers about as non-threatening as one can imagine—a movie theater, a place where just about everyone has been at one time or another.
Finally, some of our sisters and brothers face particular physical needs. Their desire to worship, to be closer to God, is obstructed by those physical needs. For these, we offer the Gathering, a more informal worship service, in the traditional church setting, but coupled with a time for an evening meal and fellowship. Our goal is always to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, and our differing campuses and different worship services are based in our desire to be in mission to all of God’s people, wherever they may be and in whatever setting they might most feel at ease.
Embrace Church is a good example of a new wineskin for new wine. I love this picture of their marquis. At least they get top billing over the zombies.
To serve the spiritual needs of yet another group of people there is an “apostolic and prophetic” independent church in Huntley, IL where creativity abounds. Morning Star Church’s vision is “to help people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds discover a deep, intimate, and personal relationship with God.” They assemble at Chateau Bethel, a grand mansion set on 14 beautiful wooded acres with a 3-acre lake & beach. The leadership model is very egalitarian; many of the people who attend the church regularly become “assistant pastors.” The people are super friendly and very expressive. The worship is, well, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. For sure.
There are a lot of new wine people out there who want to grow in their faith and get closer to God, but the old wineskins just don’t work for them. I think the clue is the Book of Job: If I don’t get a chance to speak, I will burst like a wineskin full of new wine. (Job 32:19). New wine people want to fully participate in the life of the church, right from the beginning. They don’t want to wait 20 or 30 years before they are allowed to have a voice or introduce changes. They don’t want to be stifled by a pre-existing structure. The “new wine” churches I’ve just described are working because they followed their distinctive visions and didn’t hold back. They went all the way.
Meanwhile, old wine people are usually happy with their churches, but they become anxious when their attendance or income levels off or starts to decline. They think they can make a couple of superficial changes to their old church administrative structures and worship patterns and market themselves as new wine churches. They dote on the young people and ignore the needs of their aging core membership. Then they throw open the doors, do a little advertising, and sit back and wait for all the new people stream in. They are usually disappointed. They don’t understand that they have become “salt that has lost its saltiness” (Day 15) by abandoning their traditions. Pretty soon even the faithful supporters start drifting off.
If you want to be a vessel for new wine you’ve got to get creative and make some real, substantive changes. You’ve got to be all in. Otherwise just be happy with what you’ve got. Enjoy the delights of the old wine until it is gone and the faithful, venerable wineskin wears out. Celebrate the fact that it served its purpose and had its day. If you try to be both old and new at the same time you lose your authenticity and end up pleasing no one. Jesus says that when a ministry starts to trying to be everything to everyone it ends up with busted wineskins and a big old sticky mess on the floor. What a waste!
What does this scripture say to you?