Mark 2:13-22 (Lectionary reading for Friday, March 10, 2006)

A pastor I know wanted somehow to revitalize his church. They were downtown in a city of about 50,000, and their attendance was dwindling Sunday by Sunday. Their building was deteriorating, and the budget was suffering. All the while, a church of another mainline denomination, right across the street, had expanded to a city block and counted 3000 members. So location wasn’t the problem. The pastor thought worship maybe was a bit dull. So he tinkered with the order a bit, added some choruses, and a noisy greeting time. He updated the language of the prayers and added a confession of sin sequence. And it was a mess. The updated language sounded silly. A member of the “old guard” thought that the addition of a confession of sin was a conspiracy born at the denominational headquarters, foisted on the church by liberals. The sappy chorus sung each Sunday got old. Everything felt haphazard. And still the church did not prosper.

Tweaking the service didn’t help because the service wasn’t the problem. The pastor was trying to give an antihistamine for a coronary condition. The congregation needed a culture change, a different approach to its life together, the fermentation of new wine in fresh bags. A new perspective, a new structure, new people. The new wine in the old, rigid skins just made more to clean up.

How often do churches want the new without realizing what that means? When the Spirit of God is determined to do a new thing, what can stand in the way? And what power will be released that cannot be contained? Without a suitable structure, an approach to life together, a worship form that invites the outpouring of grace and fervor, there’s likely to be little happening but conflict, fear, suspicion, ripping of the wineskins. There has to be room for the new ideas that will come forth, a flexibility of structure whose purpose is to encourage things to happen. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done but to begin afresh.

But how do you know whether it’s right to patch the old garment or get some new wineskins? How can you tell if a little updating and rethinking will do the trick to revitalize the old? What’s the signal that it’s time to do something radically new?

Some will speak of the need to survive or the press of desperate times. And that may be true. Your course of action in such a situation might go either way. You could fall back on what you have always known or you could be in such a state that you will try anything, no matter how far-fetched it seems at the time. Others will make the criterion the need to respond to some new opportunity in the culture. Put more crassly, they will talk about how we market. What does a focus group reveal? What sort of things do people want in a church? And that has merit, too. It’s silly to answer questions folks aren’t asking or provide programs and services which no one needs.

But Jesus speaks of what I believe is a more faithful standard on which to base our decisions about corporate and personal ministry. After he called Levi from his tax booth, Jesus attended a banquet at the new disciple’s home. Levi’s friends were there, mostly men and women like Levi who lived on the margins of Jewish life, not very faithful in practicing the Torah, not too concerned about kosher rules. Those whose duty it was to interpret the Jewish religious code and ensure compliance were not happy with Jesus that evening. It was not proper for a rabbi to eat with outsiders like Levi and his companions.

Our Lord’s response was a defining one for his ministry. He quoted a proverb and then identified his mission not as maintenance of the righteous, the well, but healing of the sick, the sinners. In other words, he put the need of people to be related to God and find reconciliation with him at the top of his agenda. And he would do what it took to call people into that relationship.

Here then is the standard for deciding about patches and wineskins: does what we are doing call people to a relationship of wholeness with God in Jesus Christ? Whether it’s something old or something new, that is the question to ask about it. Whether it’s administrative structure or the songs we sing in worship, that’s the query to make. Whether it’s Sunday school or a service project, that’s what we wonder about.

But still, how do we know what’s right to do? I believe we need to pray for the the gift of discernment. We need to ask God to show us if it’s time to fast or party with the bridegroom, whether we rend or sew, speak or remain silent, fight or flee, break down or build up, root up or plant, whether we shrink the cloth or get a new skin for the wine. The wisdom teacher I have just quoted might have said that knowing the right time, the right place, the right words is as much intuition as anything else. Those whose religion consists in adherence to rules and regulations aren’t going to get it. They’ll keep on wanting to see ritual and tradition and practice as ends in themselves. But for those whose hearts are open, who can live with a little or a lot of ambiguity, who trust that God will show the way, there is so much amazing to be learned, so much exciting to be done, so many ways to show the love of God in Jesus Christ.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.