Wineskins, Patches and Paradigm Shifts

I think Christianity has been one of the most enduring faiths because of its ability to reinvent itself within the parameters of its core tenets and beliefs. It is a revolutionary faith.

One of the things I love doing is to look at paradigm shifts in the church, particularly in the context of worship. Certainly, the church’s understanding of worship has come a long way, and its expression of worship has taken quantum leaps, even in the last 20 years or so.

Jesus’ parable about new wine and new wineskins is interesting. I have heard many teachings about how we need to change the church’s methodologies (new wineskin) to contain the new wine that God is pouring out.

I have often taught from this passage when I talk about changes in the worship landscape, but I never really understood the first part of the passage about shrinking a cloth before using it as a patch. So I happily ignored that part and hoped no one ever asked me questions about it. (Actually one of the great things about teaching at church is people tend not to want to ask you pointy questions!)

But I think I’m getting a clearer revelation of this passage now and want to offer you some of my thoughts. But first, here is the passage from Luke 5:36-39:

[Jesus] told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.”

The problem I had in the past with interpreting this passage stemmed from an erroneous approach: I always thought the two images (wineskins and cloth) are reinforcing images, i.e. they are two ways of saying the same thing. Actually, I now understand that the key to this passage is in the fact that the two concepts are complementary. The wine imagery tells us about the need for renewal, and the second imagery of the cloth tells us about the method to implement that renewal.

If you are a wine drinker, you will know that really good wine needs to mature over time. New wine can often be harsh with undeveloped flavours. That’s why Jesus says that no one who drinks old wine actually wants new wine, because they say “the old is better”.

Recently a friend of mine opened a bottle of wine which was apparently bottled on his actual birthday 30 years ago. He thought it tasted okay, but whilst I politely agreed, inside me I actually had some doubts. It tasted a bit funky in my opinion. In any event, I think most people know the general principle that when wine gets really old, it turns to vinegar.

So even though most people like old wine, we can’t hold on to old wine forever. It will go off.

Even though the pentecostal tradition eschews liturgy, in fact, we often have a strange reliance on “unstructure” to the point where it can become its own structure and liturgy. In fact, step into most contemporary churches and the service is entirely predictable: singing, followed by announcements and then the sermon. Depending on how “spirit-led” you are, you may get some ministry time at the end too.

No matter how much we like the old, we can’t hang on to the methods, models and strategies of the past. They will become stale and ineffective.

The fabric analogy however, tells us about the way we bring about change and renewal. The patch of cloth from the new garment can’t be used to patch up a hole in an old garment unless the new patch is preshrunk. Otherwise, it will tear away from the old garment. Often, we want to transplant a new idea or a new method onto existing structures without holding back a little. The new idea becomes too radical and a shock to the system for those used to the old, and the radical idea gets rejected entirely.

Twenty years ago, the idea of a woman worship leader was unheard of. (There are still some remnants in the body of Christ who don’t believe that women should lead worship). But then Darlene Zschech came onto the scene. She started out as a strong backing vocalist and she began to write songs which captured the heart of the church. Before long, having her lead worship was a natural choice. Darlene paved the way for women worship leaders to start taking up that mantle all over the world.

Once, a church I knew began to flow into prophetic worship in the vein of Rick Pino. However, the worship leader began the service by singing free worship and then sang one song over and over again for 25 minutes. A good deal of the congregation failed to engage and was lost in the process. Whilst moving the church into prophetic worship is desirable, doing it too quickly when people aren’t ready or educated can result in a church rejecting the new move of God.

This is what Matt Redman refers to when he says that as worship leaders, we must balance the prophetic with the pastoral. Worship leaders must keep prophetically forging ahead, breaking new ground with new styles of music, new songs, new prophetic flows and new artistic expressions. But we must also be pastoral: we need to bring people with us; we can’t go too far ahead that they can’t follow; we need to hold back a bit and let the new cloth shrink slightly, so it doesn’t tear from the old cloth.

True renewal is necessary. Psalm 102:25-27 says this:

In the beginning, you laid the foundations of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

Like clothing you will change them

and they will be discarded.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.

God is the same, but He is always on the move and bringing change.

As revolutionaries, we must love the church, even those who seem to be slightly lagging behind. We need new wineskins to contain God’s new wine. But we must also be careful to preshrink the new patch from the new garment before applying it onto the old garment, lest we tear away from the old garment and destroy it so that even the cutting off from the new garment would have been in vain.