Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Of Wine and Skins

I hardly know a church these days not caught up in conflict (latent or actual) over what has euphemistically been described as “worship wars.” Indeed, some churches have taken to posting their allegiance(s) on their signs (“Contemporary Worship” or “Traditional Worship”) so as to lessen the likelihood of an unsuspecting worshiper getting caught “behind enemy lines.” Some churches attempt a negotiated settlement – the so-called “two service solution.” In my experience, two services (one traditional and one contemporary) only succeed in creating two churches both of which harbor the suspicion that the other is either second-rate or out-and-out heretical. Usually, the basis for the bellicosity is music. That’s right, music, as though Jesus came to be Maestro rather than Messiah.

I don’t much think that the real issue here is music style or preference, that is, if by music style we mean only rhythm and melody, not lyric…medium not message. That’s a ruse and it obfuscates the issue. Two points. (1) Some people don’t like pipe organs, others don’t like drums and guitars. Deal with it. Same thing happened in the 18th century when the piano replaced the harpsichord. The “pluckers” (harpsichord) almost came to blows with the “strikers” (piano) over the appropriateness of the new instrument in certain settings such as the opera. (2) All church music was “contemporary Christian music” at some time.

No, the issue here is the nature of the church and the character of worship. Let’s be clear about that. If church is merely a “Christian club” or a “spiritual supermarket” whose job it is to “make me happy” or “meet my needs,” then do surveys and find out what the “customers” want and give it to them. That’s what Wal-Mart does, and it works! Ask nothing; demand nothing; require nothing. It’s all about customer service. “Low prices…Everyday.”

But if church is what Jesus was calling and creating in His life and ministry, then church will have a different identity and mission. To wit: According to Jesus in the Gospels, the church is a Story-formed (read “Gospel”) community of persons who’ve been grasped by a vision of another world Jesus called the Kingdom of God. This means, chiefly, that though the church is in the world, it is not of the world (see John 17:11-16). The implications for the church’s mission, therefore, are three: (1) In everything the church does (worship, missions, education, caring, evangelism, etc.) the goal is to show persons Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God and to invite them to enter it, to learn its peculiar ways and values, and to grow and mature in Kingdom living (both individually and corporately) until that day when Jesus returns to establish God’s Kingdom finally and fully. (2) This means that “salvation” is not “joining a club,” but rather being enrolled in a Story called Gospel and enculturated in a community called church, and that’s a transformation not a transaction. (3) In fulfilling its mission and agenda, the church must maintain the balance between being “in the world” but not “of it.” To that end, while the church can be, must be, should be flexible when it comes to medium, it can never compromise its message; or to use Jesus’ metaphor, it’s okay to change the “skins” but never the “wine” (Mark 2:22).

Three of the four gospels preserve Jesus as having said something like this: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:22). The context of those words was the controversy Jesus generated over the fact that his new movement within first century Judaism (what would later be called “Christianity”) was deemed by Jewish traditionalists to be a threat to the system, structures, and style of Judaism as it had been known and practiced since the Exile. In responding to the criticism, Jesus makes a helpful distinction between carrier and content, medium and message, or if you prefer contemporary marketing language, delivery system and product. Note, he says that you don’t put new wine into old skins because (and here a knowledge of Bedouin custom and culture is assumed) the wine, when it ferments, gives off gases that cause the skins to expand, and if the skins are old and brittle, they will not be able to withstand the pressure and will crack and break, spilling and spoiling both the wine and the skins. Hence, you put new wine in new skins so that when the wine expands, the new, supple skins will stretch without breaking and will be able to support and sustain the new wine inside.

Of course, any analogy, if pushed farther than the author intends, degenerates into nonsense. But if I understand Jesus correctly he refers here, by means of this analogy, to the “new wine” of his movement (the church) generated by his new vision of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. He implies that the “old wineskins” of contemporary Judaism (temple and synagogue), being old, brittle, inflexible, will not be able to contain without breaking the “new wine” of the church. Note the inference: it is the wine, not the skins, that is important and must be preserved. The skins are the carrier, not the content.

The implications for the contemporary church should not be lost on us. What the church (big “C”) is struggling with right now I would suggest is “wine and skins,” that is, how to protect and preserve the “new wine” of the Gospel in a church system and structure that seems to some to be dry and brittle and antiquated; how to change the carrier without changing the content; how to update the vessel without sacrificing the vision; how to modernize the medium without mitigating the message; how to contemporize the container without gutting the Gospel.

In this contemporary “wine and skins” debate, I have observed three basic perspectives:

(1) Keep the wine; keep the skins. Change nothing; keep everything just the same. The “medium is the message,” these folk say. Change the form and you’ve changed the content; change the “skins” and you’ve changed the “wine.” The problem with this perspective is that it confuses “wine” with “skins,” the vehicle for carrying the truth of the Gospel with the Gospel itself. Further, the history of the church is the history of the adaptation of the Gospel to new contextual realities. Once, Handel’s Messiah was “contemporary Christian music.” Sooner or later, all innovation becomes tradition. What must not be compromised is the message, not the medium.

(2) Change the skins; Change the wine. This is the “customer is always right” perspective. Change the message to fit the medium and the world will beat a path to your door. It is simple marketing, really. Give the customer what he wants, and he will return again and again. Of course, the problem with this perspective is that the customer, rather than Christ, determines the content of the Gospel. What the delivery system delivers may not be “Gospel” at all, but merely a slick, stripped-down “knock off” of the Gospel more palatable to the customer’s taste. Kool-Aid, rather than wine.

(3) Keep the wine; Change the skins. Marry the best of the new, contemporary “delivery systems” with a biblically-derived, theologically-sound, historically-reliable, winsomely-presented Gospel of Jesus Christ. Remember, it’s wine we’re concerned about, not skins.

Obviously, my preference is the latter. In today’s church landscape, I observe that the options seem to be either a trendy, techno-savvy, winsome and attractive church program that is too often shallow, narcissistic, biblically illiterate and never moves its members beyond surface expressions of discipleship (what I call “Happy Church”), or a church committed to biblical/theological integrity and to mature expressions of discipleship but with no imagination, which is boring, dying, and irrelevant. Are these our only choices? I refuse to believe that.

It’s the wine I’m interested in, not the skins. I am willing and eager to learn from anyone and to take the best from everyone if it helps me to communicate better the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But I am equally concerned that it is the Gospel that I communicate, not some parody or perversion of the Gospel.

Which brings me back to where this started. If we’re going to be engaged in “worship wars,” then let’s at least fight over things that matter – message, not medium; content, not form; wine, not skins.

Then again, what do I know? I’m a Baptist; we’re teetotalers.


Anonymous said...

Wayne, I really enjoyed your insight and analogy. One of my concerns in church and worship (and perhaps it would warrant you another stab at the issue?) is purpose. Specifically, what is the purpose of the music in worship? Music can be manipulative (in a negative fashion) or it can be motivational (inspirational).

What is it that those in music leadership roles are trying to do? I have been in some "Contemporary" worship services where they sang what is commonly called "7-11" music; sing the same seven words over and over--eleven times.

When I worshiped in that environment, I felt that the worship leader (actually, the worship band/team) was trying to coax or manipulate the congregates into some kind of Christian "ecstasy." The focus was not upon the words (after all, what can you really say in 7 words?)but on achieving an emotional state of being. It reminded me of the practice of eastern religion and the recitation of the mantra.

I know some congregations are dealing with generation issues; we need contemporary Christian music so the kids will stay in church. SO, blended services may attempt to solve this dilemma (but it also raises another, namely, now we are in the position of "giving the customer what he wants.")

In one mega-church that I attended many years ago, the worship service (primarily the Sunday morning am service) was more a musical production. (Only a small number of professionally qualified people were permitted to sing solo's and/or specials.)The purpose was not so much to manipulate the congregation, but to insure the same "high quality" worship experience to all who attended.

I believe music is very beneficial in worship. Ira Sankey who led the music for D.L. Moody was extremely sensitive in this area. In one meeting, Moody arose to speak but Sankey told him to sit down; the people were not ready (prepared) to hear God's word.

I, like you have served on both sides of the pulpit, as song leader and preacher. (Currently I am pastor.) One of my predecessors (pastor) was fond of saying, "When God kicked the devil out of heaven, he fell right in the middle of the choir!"

I'm not certain that you (or I) can fix this problem. I think that perhaps sheriff Broady's words from the movie "Jaws" is appropriate, "We're gonna need a bigger boat!"

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

The "Worship War" phrase is a tragic paradox, the two words can not coexist. It usually is connected with music styles. How it must grieve the heart of God, that reached into the very depths of our hearts, and seized us with His infinate love, to see His children minimize praise by debating over categories of music.
Help us to grasp the Truth, not the melody.

Anonymous said...

I have often thought that church is for 1) being instructed in God's Word; 2) offering our thanks and praises to God through word and song; 3) a place where we go to practice the culture and etiquette of the Kingdom of God (we greet each other warmly, offer a seat, help the infirm, treat all children as if they were our own, etc); 4) recharge our spirits via the Holy Spirit; 5) respond to the call of our God to serve our fellow beings, both in and out of the church.

Church worship should not be a talent show, a social club or an indoctrination into someone's quirky way of interpreting the scriptures.