When I was a child I remember learning Matthew 9 in Sunday School. I can still remember how confused I was when the teacher tried to explain verse 17. That verse read, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” As a child, it did not make sense to me that they could not recycle those skins and use them again. It was years later that I realized that those skins had not just been used once. They were OLD wine skins and had been used over and over and over again until they were worn out. The application Jesus was trying to make in Matthew 9, which I missed as a child, is that sometimes certain traditions, activities or rituals have been used so many times that they are worn out. They have outlived their purpose and it is time to experience something new with the Lord.
This verse came to mind recently when I was talking with some church leaders about how they might reach out to the next generation. They had been doing things a certain way in their church for so long, it was hard for them to think about church being done any other way. They were trying to use methods from 30 years ago to reach young people today. Of course, it was not working. It was not that their message was wrong, for Jesus is always the right answer in every generation and every culture. But the young people could not hear the message of Jesus because the methods through which the leaders were communicating no longer work.
After some lengthy discussion, they finally decided to add some “new” stuff on top of their “old” stuff. They decided to keep doing what they had always done and then add a few new twists to it as well. Though it sounded good as they sat around the table talking about, as I listened I knew it would not work. It would simply make their church service long and disjointed. It would stretch their small budget and volunteer pool to the breaking point. They were trying to put new wine in old wine skins.
If we really want to reach the next generation, we must look at our church’s programs, traditions and rituals and ask which ones are matters of theological conviction and which ones were just accommodations to the culture when those programs, traditions and rituals were started. Ones for which we have a theological conviction must be guarded at all cost. Ones which were simply cultural adaptations from a bygone era should be released so that there is space for a new wine skin which the Holy Spirit might fill.
Dr. Terry W. Dorsett starts new churches in Vermont and also helps churches discover ways to reach the next generation. His book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, can be ordered at CrossBooks.com or Amazon.com.