From the Gospel according to Mark:
Jesus said, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 2:21-22 (NRSV) – January 18, 2013.)
For the past few years, I’ve been reading some of the folks who are writing about “emerging Christianity,” primarily Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle, but others as well. So last weekend I went to an event called an “Emergence Christianity conversation,” which was really a kick off for Ms. Tickle’s latest book. I was one of 400 or so participants, many of whom had been to earlier “emergence” events or are members of “emerging church” communities or both. Since I have not and am not, I was at most a johnny-come-lately to the conversation and at least an outsider. Nonetheless, I took part as I hoped to learn more about this (as Ms. Tickle put it) new tributary in the river that is Christianity.
My reason for doing so was, frankly, practical. What, I wanted to know, is happening on the ground in those places where “emerging Christianity” has taken the form of viable communities and working ministries? What might we in the historic, institutional church (what the emergent community calls “the inherited church”) learn from them?
I got fewer answers to those questions than I had hoped. The major presentations of this conversation were more about “framing the discussion” of the emerging church than about the practical ministries of emerging congregations. However, in smaller gatherings and in private conversations, I did pick up some ideas.
The practical question is how one can incorporate these new ways of being Christian into the life of an established, institutional congregation with a nearly 200-year history: how to, in the words of Jesus’ metaphors today, sew new cloth onto an old garment, how to pour new wine into an old wineskin. The emerging church conversation yields no answers to these questions because most of these experiments in doing new things (or old things a new way) are “start ups” outside of traditional church structures. Those few that are within older institutions are from less structured denominations with fewer restrictions (real or perceived) than our Anglican/Episcopal tradition, and even they show the signs of strain Jesus’ parable suggests.
Of course, we’re not dealing with old cloth or old leather . . . we’re dealing with people and, unlike cloth or leather, people can make the conscious decision to change, to be more flexible, to give up old ways and old notions. Henry Ford has been quoted (probably inaccurately) as saying, “I’m looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what cannot be done.” That’s the kind of people who aren’t old cloth or old leather. People who won’t say, “Oh, it can’t be done,” or “We’ve never done it that way,” but who will say, “Hey, anything’s possible. If the Lord is with us, let’s give it a shot.” The cloth wouldn’t tear and the wineskin wouldn’t burst if they were able to think like that.
Although I’m also thinking that maybe bursting the old wineskin of the church wouldn’t be a bad thing . . . .
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.