Near the end of the book Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation, Kent Carlson summarizes some of his deepest concern about the challenges of the church in North America. While I’m not sure I agree with his final driving metaphor about “wineskins” bursting all over the place, I do fundamentally agree with his sense that the church in North America, particularly the evangelical church, is in a crisis of transition. Let me know your thoughts.
There is no doubt that the church in North America is in a time of great philosophical and institutional turmoil. When I started Oak Hills twenty-five years ago, the menu options were quite limited. The majority of evangelical churches in North America, apart from the obvious superficial differences, were essentially the same. But that has all changed. Today we have formational churches, missional churches, emergent churches, monastic community churches, house churches, unchurches, simple churches, deep churches, organic churches, ancient-future churches, not to mention the old standbys of traditional, charismatic, seeker-sensitive, seeker-targeted and seeker-driven churches.
It is increasingly obvious that we live in a transitional time in North American religious culture. The future is uncertain and many pastors and Christian leaders are struggling and groping and trying to find their way. I am fairly certain that the large, entrepreneurial, attractional model church is not the wave of the future. It is not sustainable as a model of authentic Christian community. But I truthfully am perplexed about what will replace it.
The story of Oak Hills church reflects the story of this groping, this trying to figure it out. We became convinced that something was wrong, and we set out to find another way. But we have not arrived there yet. We’re not actually sure we ever will. When we reflect on these things, we often think of Jesus’ parable of the wineskins. Jesus said that “people do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Luke 5:37-38).
Sometimes we wonder if the reason for all the turmoil of this past decade is that we have been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. This has been troubling to us at times, but we have come to peace with it. If God is doing something new in our day, perhaps there will be burst wineskins all over the place. There may even be some honor in it. When you think about it, that might be a wonderful name for a church in these day.s The Church of the Burst Wineskin. A church that falls apart trying to get it right might not be a failure at all. It just might be a part of the larger story of what God is doing in this world. If we have learned anything, it’s not about an individual church’s external success but the advancement of the kingdom of God.