Over the last 25 years, there have been many who have promoted different structural options for how we can organize the church differently. Some include: cell church, meta-church, church of small groups, the post-denominational church, organic churches, movement churches, and post-congregational churches. All of these options have at one point or another claimed that the old way of doing church is dying and this new structure is "the" way of the church's future.
Along the way, the school of hard knocks has taught me a few things about church structures. They are important, but not as important as I once thought. One of the first clues that redirected my thinking about church structures came when I was pastoring in Vancouver, Canada after I made a presentation regarding my plans for how to restructure our church. At that point, I was a cell church idealist. I thought I knew how the ideal church should be structured and I laid it out in as clear of terms as possible. I called it the "pure" cell church. An elder responded with incredible candor and gentleness, "I have no desire for our church to be a “pure” anything. I stood in conflicted silence trying to reconcile his comments. He embodied in his life and his group the kind of life and leadership that correlated with the structure that I was proposing. He was not a church traditionalist who was trying to hold on to the past. Nor was he a pragmatist looking for the best way to make the church work better. He and his wife are two of the most relational, hospitable and God loving people I've ever met.
I could not understand why he didn’t want to talk about the structure. He was much more interested in the how we were living out community. He wanted to see the “way of Jesus” in community and in our neighborhood. While he did not put it in those exact terms, that's where our conversations led.
While we both wanted to see the same thing, however, my allegiance to structural labels got in the way. He understood that the way we might structure the church means very little if we are not leading and living in a way that supports the life of the structure. My ideals for the way the church should theoretically be structured got in the way of seeing what actually brings life to those structures. To put it another way: the wineskin doesn’t make the wine. The only reason we would ever need a new wineskin is because we are a people who embody the new wine of Jesus. Let's consider what Jesus said about this.
Jesus said, "Neither 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.”
Many through the years have called for the church to develop new church wineskins, new forms of life, instead of holding on to the church structures of the past. This is a valid argument. When we hold onto the structures and institutional forms of the past, we can miss the fact that patterns and practices of our old structures blind us to new opportunities.
It is quite easy to evaluate church structures and toss verbal grenades at those who hold on to them. The solution, we presume, is to offer people a new wineskin. But that is not the solution that Jesus offers.
Jesus' short parable about the wineskin—one that is partnered with the parable of the patched garment—is told in response to a specific question from John the Baptist's disciples: “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matt 9:14). This is not necessarily a question about religious forms or the structures of Jewish life. There is nothing here about how the Temple is organized or how the synagogues work. It is a question about how Jesus' disciples practice their faith. To this Jesus responds: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast" (vs. 15). This section of Scripture—which is included in a very similar way in all three of the Synoptic Gospels—is really not about religious structures at all. While John's disciples wanted to ask about the way that Jesus' disciples practiced their faith, i.e. how they were being discipled, Jesus turns the tables.
His answer is about his presence. The presence of the bridegroom—this is an image of the expectant Messiah—calls for a different response. While the Pharisees and John's disciples were looking forward to the Messiah, here, Jesus is saying that the Messiah has already come.
In this context, we read about the wine and the wineskin. Jesus is saying that the disciples are practicing their faith differently because Jesus was present with them. The presence of God's saving Messiah changes the way that the followers of God are to respond. To put it clearly:
Jesus' Messianic Presence = New Faith Practices
New faith practices ≠ Jesus' Messianic Presence
Any new form of church life will not magically produce some kind of new life in God. For instance, getting together in a small group, or in a missional community, or in a triad for discipleship—while all good things to do—won't produce new wine. They are just wineskins for the wine.
The wine gives cause for the new wineskin. The question is What is the new wine? In my book Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus I write,
“If my group reaches lost people and grows but there is no love, we are only a growing shell of emptiness. If my group raises up new leaders and multiplies but there is no love, we are only multiplying a form of spiritual cancer. If my group gets serious about discipleship and dives deep into the Word but there is no love, we are puffed up hoarders of information. If my group serves and goes forth on mission but there is no love, we are like a chicken with its head cut off. If my group gets lots of people in my church connected but there is no love, we are no better than a salesperson who sells products for a living.”
Without the wine of the love of Christ, the kind of self-sacrificial love expressed by Jesus on the cross, then any new church structure will fall far short of what we hope and long to see. The elder in my church understood this. The structures are important when we put them in the proper place. After all, no one wants to "drink" your wineskin; it does not matter how creative it might be.
Photo Credit: Eduardo Siquier Cortez via Flickr