For years while I was in leadership settings in Anglican churches, with some glorious times of course for which I am grateful, I kept coming up against a particular short parable of Jesus and feeling like, ‘He’s talking to me, he’s talking about me.’ It’s from Luke 5, that old stuff about new wineskins:
read it here
I would go to conferences, go up for prayer, or just in my daily Bible readings for me and Zoe this passage would leap off the page as it seemed to describe so much of what I was attempting to do, which was at times stymied by the structures which were not ready for change.
It’s been fascinating for me to read pretty much in one sitting, a book that was sitting around on my shelf probably for about the last six years, which has incredible insight into how the parable relates to church now and how it will look in the future. C. Peter Wagner’s ‘Changing Church’ has been at times really like somebody reading my mail! I’d read a similar book of his, Churchquake, and maybe I wasn’t ready for it then but it didn’t grab me quite the same as this one. I don’t agree with everything he says of course but there is so much plain sense here I could’t stop reading way past bedtime! In the book he talks about a new Reformation that is coming to the church, in fact it’s already happening. And it’s the change from old wineskin to new.
If we look through the history of the church, God has continually been creating new wineskin after new wineskin so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when he does it in our lifetimes.
A new wineskin, a new Reformation, will of course mean massive gains for the kingdom of God while at the same time huge amounts of disruption for the status quo. For that reason Wagner identifies for us and alerts us to the demonic ‘Corporate spirit of religion’ which is assigned to prevent change and maintain the status quo by using religious devices.
Its target is human minds, particularly people in positions of influence and religious structures who unconsciously allow themselves to be manipulated so that they will not hear what the Spirit is saying ( present tense) to the churches as in Rev 2:7 but instead to only focus on what has already been said in former times.
In conversation with many good friends during those times, when I sensed God was saying if I trusted him to really step out then he would open a new door – so that I would not have to remain in the structures which had become strictures – that objections that were raised kept me within the fold – sometimes because of a sense of loyalty, but if I’m honest, often also lots of fear.
Anyone with any experience of the way these things work would think it quite obvious that those in high positions of denominational leadership would worry about and oppose, directly or indirectly, whatever they might perceive to go against ‘unity at all costs’ or be a threat of the new doctrine of democratic ecclesiastical government and not allow the old wineskin to move into God’s new times and seasons.
But Wagner points out to us that the strongest opposition to new wine skins actually comes from representatives of the most recent old wineskin. Those with the newest incarnation of old wineskins are likely to be myopic in recognising that’s what they hold, so they stretch the old one but resist the necessary changes to gain the new, even though the old wineskins will not be able to hold the new wine, the wineskins will break and the wine will be lost.
Denominational leaders have often dutifully affirmed while at the same time skillfully domesticating charismatic renewal and its leaders, effectively turning down the gas on the fire of the Holy Spirit so that it’s safe, manageable and doesn’t burn their house down.
So I wrestled for many years with the uncomfortable thought of not staying within my denomination to be an agent of renewal but instead to step outside if necessary in order to open up a new wineskin that God might want in his grace to pour into.
Together with many of my friends however I was perhaps falling under the spell of that spirit of religion, because I wasn’t able to discern its influence or presence. If it was easy to spot, why would anyone fall for it?!
On page 51 Wagner lists the kind of things that were said to me by friends (and I said them to myself) which kept me where I should not have been for longer than I should have been as he lists the reasons why many leaders will not consider leaving the denomination to found what he calls ‘New Apostolic Networks.’
- This is the church of my family I would betray my family heritage
- My friends are all here
- The denomination holds my ordination credentials
- The denomination holds our church facilities, and we would lose them.
- All my clergy colleagues, including my support groups, are in the denomination
- This is my employment – how would I support my family?
- My retirement funds are here, I would forfeit that if I left
- My religious affiliation is part of my personal self-identity
- I must avoid the sin of rebellion and remain loyal.
And so it was (despite the pain involved in stepping outside of a denominational framework of leadership which had so much I love and have enjoyed) that I finally and personally came to the place of realistically giving up the notion that internal reform was possible in what too often seemed a hopelessly compromised old wineskin setting; which restricted growth, rewarded incompetence and rejected orthodoxy. I took one of the biggest risks of my life – to move into a new wineskin.
Now please keep on pouring it out Lord!
I am still an Anglican with the credentials of having been ordained as a priest in the system, and I am very grateful that the Bishop here has been gracious to grant me permission to officiate while I’m experimenting in whole new ways of doing church. Permission without restriction is the best of both worlds. But I had to be willing to lay it all down and I was. And God is faithful.
I don’t see myself as being disloyal to or rejecting my denominational roots, though I have become disillusioned and dissatisfied with its spiritual and theological directions. Many great people and leaders I know will choose to remain (I was told over and again, ‘you have to be in it to win it’).
If that’s what the Lord is telling YOU, fantastic – but while nothing in this post should be taken to say that denominations or any particular denomination is bad or beyond redemption, I simply invite you to consider the question I grappled with so long and its implications for you – if God is choosing to pour out new wine, but you choose to remain in the old wineskin, how might you miss out – and might that be more than you stand to gain by remaining?