Last year, quite a bit of the discussion in my own church, and what I saw in many other church discussions online, was about how the Lord was using COVID to shake up His Church, and bring it to new places, new thinking, new awareness, new methods and modes. Early in COVID, despite much frustration and fear, there was also quite a bit of excitement over the changes and the possibilities. Many prophetic words were spoken about this process being very much directed by the Lord.
But what I see happening this year feels like a concerted effort to get right back to the old ways of doing things… the comfortable, the familiar, the safe, the uncontroversial.
While having lunch with a close friend, and discussing what we saw happening in the church this year, I was suddenly reminded of Jesus’ parable:
16No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins 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 9:16-17 NIV)
I started to wonder out loud if maybe God was dumping out the new wine and allowing the church to refill with old wine, out of mercy to the church.
I was about halfway through vocalizing this question, and starting to mourn in my heart that lost opportunity, when it struck me….
Maybe the wineskin DID burst.
In case that analogy is unfamiliar to you, a wineskin was a leather bag – often an entire animal hide – used to store wine or other liquids.
New wine ferments for some time after its creation, as the yeast releases additional carbon dioxide gas, thus pressurizing the wineskin. A newly-made wineskin is supple and flexible, and can handle that pressure and stretch to accommodate the offgassing. A used, already-stretched, and more brittle wineskin would burst at this fermentation of new wine. It’s only suitable for storing fully stable “old” wine that is no longer fermenting.
When a wineskin made of leather is over-pressurized, it doesn’t necessarily fail by exploding. It might “burst” in that a tiny tear or leak can develop, just enough to release the pressure. But it doesn’t take a huge tear in a wineskin to let a lot of wine spill out.
And in some cases it might not be readily apparent that a hole exists, until its owner tries to refill the sack – but it simply won’t hold more liquid. It will hold some liquid below the level of the hole, but any additional wine just ends up leaking out as soon as it is poured in.
I’ve been in contact this year with a large number of people who have deliberately left their church homes, very intentionally, and often vocally protesting what they believe is raw hypocrisy, or unscriptural behavior, or unwillingness to address clearly-obvious shortcomings that were revealed by 2020’s election and pandemic and racial unrest.
Phrases like “exvangelical” and “leave loud” and “deconstruction” are littering the discussion these days.
So maybe that’s what is going on. The old institutions rejected those new wineskins the Lord offered us in 2020, and are now scrambling back to places of comfort and familiarity and what worked before. The new wine that God is actively pouring out into the church can’t be sustained by the old wineskins. Thus the logical outcome is manifesting: the wineskins are bursting, and spilling out much of the new wine.
Here’s the thing: what spills out is the very thing that God intended to be poured into His church, for the benefit of the world as the church properly contains and matures it. That “new wine,” vigorous and bubbling with energy and tasty fruit of the vine, is meant to be refreshing to all who consume it, but wine is even better after it matures for a while.
Those people who are leaving are the very same ones that the church was meant to contain, to host, to disciple, and to be revitalized by. Instead, they’re “leaking” out into society, and the church is the poorer for it.
But their vigor will NOT be lost. It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t say that the wine will be spilled or wasted. No, He said “the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” I have to believe that wasn’t an accidental omission.
So looking at the state of American churches, it seems to me that the new wine has in fact run out of many churches that couldn’t transition to new wineskins. It’s not lost – it is still invigorating and nourishing and refreshing things – but outside the old wineskins.
But the old-wineskin churches seem to be wholly unaware of the tear in their wineskins. They’re blaming the exodus on those who are leaving, instead of correctly identifying that the fault is with the wineskin. And they’re not valuing those who are leaving – they’re not trying to win them back. I hear a lot of “so long, good riddance” in the discussion. It’s as if the churches are saying “Well, you don’t believe like we do now, so fare thee well, and we hope you find somewhere to land. Just not here.”
What can we do?
If this is really what’s going on, then the correct response by the struggling churches might be asking the Lord to give us a second chance, repenting of old-wineskin thinking and structures, and repenting of disrespecting the new wine that the Lord tried to give us. We can “pray to the Lord of the Harvest” (Matthew 9:38) that He would first send new wineskins to contain the new wine, and then to fill those new wineskins again with fresh bubbling new wine with all its energy and vitality. And we can pray that He will open our eyes and hearts and minds to different things than we’re currently comfortable with.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that new wine won’t be mature at first. We shouldn’t expect vital, driven, passionate young people to be mature in their thinking and actions. New wine needs time to develop the subtle flavors and textures of a fine aged wine. It will even stretch that new wineskin in the process. None of these things will be fast or easy, or even necessarily pleasant. Winemaking is a rather messy affair – just like discipling can often be messy. But the result will be refreshing and lifegiving, and it will leave the church expanded in its awareness and its capacity to hold the harvest.
And then the world will be refreshed by that new wine – as in Jesus’ first miracle: 9Then he called the bridegroom aside 10and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” (John 2:1-11 NIV)
(1) Image from https://ferrelljenkins.blog/2015/04/21/new-wine-is-for-fresh-wineskins/