None of us likes it. But change comes nonetheless, even though we often resist it.
Institutions are especially resistant to change. Churches, for instance, can often be quite resistant to change. Particularly when much around us is changing so rapidly, we often want to cling to the familiar, to the comfortable, to that which is reassuring.
I get it. And at some level, shouldn’t a church represent that which is unchanging, thereby pointing to the eternal? God and the good news of Jesus doesn’t change, so why should the church?
But the problem is that as the culture around us changes and upcoming generations have very different attitudes and expectations (including when it comes to church), our usual (traditional?) means of embodying our faith and of living as the church will connect less and less to those whose vernacular is not the same as ours. Though we share the English language, a chasm of suspicion and misunderstanding has long been widening between church communities that (not only value but) cling to the past and younger generations these same churches long to reach.
Thinking through these things means being able to make an important distinction between what we believe about the nature of the church and how we put those beliefs into practice in our particular setting. For instance, I believe that worship music ought to be a combination of joyful and reverent. Worship lyrics ought to have meaningful spiritual and theological content and allow for the personal and emotional. But this doesn’t necessarily dictate the style of music or the sort of instruments that should accompany the singing. There is a difference between the principals of good worship music and the preferences people have for worship music.
Isn’t this in part what Jesus meant when he said, no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins. No, new wine is put into fresh wineskins?
The new wine is the good news of Jesus’ kingdom and the wineskins are what we use to carry this new wine to others who need it. We carry this wine in all the ways we do church.
A time always comes when we find ourselves in need of new wineskins so we can continue to carry the new wine of the gospel to new people.
And of course this means change.
Or maybe we can think of it in terms of translation. Imagine being in a foreign country where you can’t speak the language. You can’t communicate effectively with the people around you. Signs don’t make sense. You don’t understand social cues. You would feel disoriented. You would feel lost and uncomfortable.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if someone today who had very little to no experience of church would feel this way walking into a traditional church setting: lost, uncomfortable, unable to understand much less speak the language.
So let’s ask ourselves: who in this scenario bears the burden of translating, of moving towards the other, of changing in order to understand and be understood?
Here’s a hint: it’s not the person who doesn’t understand church culture.
Being willing to do the work of translating, of moving outward towards the other, of changing for the sake of sharing the good news of Jesus is what it means to love our neighbor.
We don’t change the good news of Jesus. But we do need to find ways of communicating it to our neighbors in ways they will understand. We’re trying to remove obstacles, not add to them.
This also means that loving our neighbors and living out the good news of Jesus so that they can experience new life in him has to take priority over preserving our institutions and traditions as we have known them.
In other words, what interests us more, having new people come to church so our church can keep going as it is or having new people come to genuine faith in the Lord Jesus? While related, these are not the same. Are we willing to give up the former if it means being able to do the latter?
We need to be able to tell the difference between the new wine of the gospel and the wineskins we carry it in.
Of course, sometimes our problem is not that people are unfamiliar with traditional church culture but that they are too familiar. They know the history of this or that church. They know the stories. And maybe they never saw the distinction between the wine and the wineskins. Perhaps the way church has been done has obscured the gospel for them. Or maybe they see the distinction and have found that a given church is more interested in holding onto the old wineskins than with making sure people get a taste of the new wine.
Now, let’s also be honest. It’s easy–probably too easy–to be hard on churches. Churches are messy places. There are things we get wrong, do wrong, and think wrong. That’s why forgiveness, confession, and reconciliation are so important. And much damage has been done in the name of change. Sometimes churches are clumsy in their attempts at change. And if we have any self-awareness at all, we might ask that if it’s hard for me to change personally, how much harder will it be for an entire congregation to change for the better?
Here’s the truth, however. Churches will change one way or another. There is intentional change and then there is the gradual change that occurs when a church resists seeing the need for intentional change. What happens to those old wineskins when we try and put new wine into them?
We may not like change, but our churches will change nonetheless. My prayer is that we will become more and more willing to opt for the difficulty of intentional change over the inevitability of gradual change. My prayer is that our desire to share the new wine of the gospel will far outrun any desire to hold onto the old wineskins.