There are a myriad of particular reasons why a church is not growing. Not all of them are bad reasons. For instance, as commenters on this blog and on Facebook links to this blog have reminded me, sometimes God is preparing a church for a season of growth to come. Consequently, just because there seems to be little or no apparent growth in a church does not automatically mean that something is wrong.
However, it is possible that the lack of growth is symptomatic of a unhealthy problem among the church. The problem is manifest in a number of particular issues but I believe it ultimately is a problem of discipleship.
Consider the following words of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. Mark 2:21-22 reads:
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
When we understand this familiar teaching of Jesus within its context, the connection to discipleship becomes all the more real.
Jesus is obviously interested in the formation of disciples, as he calls us to not only repent and believe the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God but also then calls us to follow him (Mk 1:14-15, 17). But what Jesus quickly does is push the envelope, so to speak, and shows us how much we must change to follow him as disciples. Mark 2:1-3:6 is a section of five different controversial stories in which Jesus provocatively asserts his authority, insisting that this good news of God’s inbreaking kingdom will not be bound to our old ways. To try and live out the good news in our old ways rather than following Jesus in his new ways is to sew a new patch on an old garment…to pour new wine into old wineskins. This just will not work and ultimately it is a failure to follow Jesus in his new ways.
Well, what are these old ways? They are, after all, the number of particular issues that the problem, which I alluded to earlier, manifests itself in. So what are these old ways? Here are three I have in mind:
- Denominationalism: This is the church who must conform to the expectations of those in the “brotherhood” because of fear of timidity, misplaced loyalty, etc…
- Traditionalism: This is the church who prefers to maintain the way things are because of preference, comfort, etc…
- Worldliness: This is the church who cannot repent of an ethos that is more like a sub-culture of the world than the kingdom of God.
What are some other ways in which churches try to sew a new patch on an old garment…pour new wine into old wineskins?
In tomorrow’s post I want to think out loud about embracing a new garment and new wineskin.