Last year when I purchased an air conditioner to survive the sweltering summer months, I had to get a little inventive with the installation. My living room has old bay windows that can’t accommodate an AC unit, so I had to vent the hot air through the mail slot.
As jury-rigged solutions go, it’s fairly elegant—except for one problem. Once a day when the mail is delivered I have to pull the tubing out, retrieve the mail, then replace it, which is a hassle.
I know, I know. First world problems.
Truthfully, I have moments when I’d just as soon give up mail delivery altogether. But on holidays or birthdays, I’m glad to have the tangible reminder of connectedness that email can’t provide. I’ve come to the realization that both mail and air conditioning are important to me, so I’ve learned to adapt my lifestyle to accommodate both. For example, when the air from the AC doesn’t feel quite as cold, I’ve learned to interpret that as a sign—hey, the mail has arrived.
That’s the way our churches need to operate.
Lots of people say they want new life in the church. But the moment new people or ideas threaten existing structures, the work is impeded. Just as I can tell when the mail has arrived, sometimes you can tell when the new movement of the Holy Spirit is impeded by existing practices. It feels like the wind is dying down.
Faith, prayer, worship, reading, and proclaiming the word—those elements are essential to the life of any church. But the way we do things—our polity, our organizational structures, our culturally driven assumptions—some of that needs to change if we want our churches to be influential in today’s marketplace of ideas. This is especially true when it comes to welcoming, discipling, and integrating new people into life and leadership.
When the movement of the Holy Spirit is impeded, it feels like the wind is dying down.
In our culture we’re prone to think that newer is better, so when Jesus says you can’t put new wine into old wineskins, we might assume that means new wine is better. But in Luke 5:39 Jesus says, “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
So, which is more important, the old wine, or the new wine?
Neither. Jesus is saying that both are important.
Connoisseurs will tell you that older wines usually taste better. New wine needs the right kind of wineskin. In the fermentation process the liquid expands, and new wineskins can stretch to accommodate that. But if you put new wine into an old wineskin that has already expanded and can’t stretch any further, the skin will rupture.
Older believers often make better leaders because they’ve been seasoned and matured into a place of humility and wisdom. They didn’t start out that way. At some point in their journey, they needed structure and flexibility from the previous generation so they could eventually take on the leadership mantle.
Likewise, we can’t force new believers into an old framework. What worked for the last generation won’t necessarily work now. If we try that, either our young folks will leave, or our churches will fracture under the weight of discord. Then we might think, “I guess there’s something wrong with those millennials,” and treat them as if they are the problem.
Just as it’s silly to have to choose between air conditioning and mail delivery, it’s backward and wrongheaded to choose between the vigor of youth and the wisdom of elders. For the long-term success and health of the church, we need both. As the church wrestles with how to be both a relevant voice and a source of time-tested truth, I pray that God will give us the courage to toss away the old wineskins that no longer work.
And if you need help venting your air conditioner through your mail slot, I’m your guy.