New Wine Skins But The Same Vineyard

As we look around as newly returned missionaries, we see a hyper rapidly changing culture in the US. We also see a church mired in an identity crisis hoping to keep up with the culture around them. We don’t want to be stuck in the 80s or even the 90s, but definitely we want to hold onto those timeless elements from two millennia ago imparted by Jesus. We want to be fresh while never losing our ancient roots.


Yet, I find us Americans always looking to the new. In church today, one of our favorite things to quote is new wine in new wine skins. I don’t know how much this is a issue of today, but I know it is exacerbated in a culture that seems to change as quickly as a hipster changes outfits.


Church leaders want to impress among themselves how hip they are. I shake my head as I watch the trendy guys from a few years ago get stuck in their faded (and even more faded) jeans as they hold onto a fad from several years ago. Trends come and go, and we always want to call the next best trend new wine skins, or even new wine. New wine and new wine skins can’t be the cover all for anything progressive can it?


Recently, I was in a conversation with my friend Tim Clark ( as we discussed change and heritage. As a young guy, well youngish, I get the heartbeat for creativity and newness. When I do things, I want them to be fresh. But I want a fresh word from the Lord to undergird what I do.


However, I must realize that whatever I do is not in a vacuum. I am part of a larger organism. Wherever I go must be built on the shoulders of those that went ahead of me. I can see further ahead due to the sacrifice they made along the way as I sit on their shoulders and scan the horizon. They paid the price to bring our church, small group; ministry, movement or whatever venture to the place that it is today as I lead. Yet the hot new word today is reimagine. We are always looking to not only imagine, but reimagine. We want to find something brand new. No, brand, brand new. We want the new wine, and the new wineskins, but we must remember that we still pull the wine from the same vineyard.  I almost get the feeling that we are looking so hard for the next best thing that we are even looking for a new vineyard. I wonder if sometimes church leaders are looking to other vineyards for their new wine. This is not to say they are looking neither outside of orthodox Christianity nor to other sources for their spiritual life. It is just that we often look outside rather than slowing down to listen to what God is saying to us within the movement, church or group that we lead.


We still have a heritage that we inherit, that is unless we plant a new church or begin a new ministry. But even within that context, we work within the framework of an ongoing tradition.


The question is how do we marry the heritage of what we are with the future God is bringing to what we lead? How do we match the story of yesterday with the story yet to be told?


Fearless Worship: Worship As Mission 3

When I lost my eyesight, I did a lot of things differently, including worship. That is until I learned a bit more how to live as a blind person.


One time, I was visiting a friend and his youth group when I really stood out in the worship service. Maybe you could say I left an impression. The story got told at our wedding when this friend (the youth pastor) performed the ceremony.


The day went down in infamy, because I had fearless worship. During this painful season in my life, I simply wanted to connect with God as passionately as I could. I had yet to learn mobility and orientation, so I often made mistakes as I aimed forward with all my heart.

In this case, I couldn’t orient myself by sound to the front of the room, so I kept slowly turning and turning until I began facing backwards. With my arms raised and singing (if you could call what I do singing) loud enough for heaven to hear, I gave praise to the Lord.


The image left a comic and indelible mark.  But that is okay. It reminds me that too many people are looking at what we are doing as we keep the corner of our eye peeled to see who is watching during worship. We like to have worship safely in the walls of the church building or worship center. Beyond that, we barely want to get out of step or even backwards from what everyone else is doing. Is that how worship was conducted Biblically?


This brings me to my next case study in worship as mission. In this story, I look at Abraham to draw out the understanding of worship and its missiological implications


In Genesis 12, as Abraham follows God’s call to set up a new people, he modeled something that Isaac, and Jacob followed in setting up altars in the places he settled and the places where God spoke to him. The altar became a marker for God’s people to indicate remembrance and thanksgiving from his people. As God’s people developed around the way of God, YHWH gave detailed instructions to the use of the altar by his people. Even still Joshua set up altars in the way Moses instructed. After Joshua led the people to a victory over the city of Ai on their second try, he set up an altar for worship and remembrance in the sight of all Israel and those foreigners sojourning with them (Josh 8:30-35). The altar as a place or center for worship stood erect at all times in plain view of anyone. The altar was hardly invisible much less private as God’s people presented their worship in authentic yet public forums.

Now let us unpack this precedent the father of the faith started through setting up altars to worship God. Abraham entered into a covenant relationship with God when he was called by God to move from his home in Ur to a land he did not know (Gen. 12:1-3). In his senior years (75), Abraham gathered his belongings and took some of his family with him and set out on a new journey with God. He entered a geographic region, the land God would promise to his descendants. On his southward journey, Abraham arrived in Heron moving towards the Negev when God stopped him to declare this land one day will belong to his offspring. I can only imagine the faith Abraham had at this time as he pondered the idea of his offspring. Nonetheless, Abraham pauses at this place when God says he will give the land to his descendants. At this place, Abraham erects an altar before God (Gen 12:7. But this is not the last time that this faithful wanderer still struggling with working out his call, stopped to establish a place of worship.


The altars continued. As he journeys toward the Negev, Abraham builds another altar between Bethel and Ai. Again he set up an altar before God. Without getting into every place and purpose that Abraham built an altar, I again observe the open air nature of these altars. I cannot help but wonder if people like Abimelech who marvel at Abraham’s life with its remarkable blessings flows out of him observing an ongoing worship relationship between Abraham and God (Gen 21:22-23). When we sanitize our worship to allow others a comfortable approach to God, maybe we miss out on allowing them to see the genuine article of a worshipper caught up in real worship with God. I wonder if there is something missing in our worship that someone from ancient times like Abraham can offer us. We don’t merely offer a message or a deed to people but we reflect our God to them in all aspects of our life, including worship.


I bet we’ll have a hard time getting to the fearless place of worship that Abraham exhibited if we can’t stop worrying about how the people around us worship, or how they view our own worship. We must get less inhibited while still not distracting others as we press into worship.


What can Abraham teach us about worship in the 21st Century?


Learning A Language Is More Than Words

Language learning is more than verbal. It is more than knowing how to say words and put them in the right order. Language ability allows one capacity to function inside of a culture. It is knowing the rhythms and cadences in which to speak. In language, it is the little things that make a big difference in showing that one is grasping the language. More than anything, the little things speak volumes to the local people. Some of those little things are the paraverbal such as sighs, grunts, moans and the like.At its heart, language learning is an act of love. When one says, I will learn your language in order to communicate to you, they are saying I love and serve you. And it is exciting when the local people see you getting the nuances of their language. For us, learning Thai helped us connect in a deeper way as we served the Thai people. One way that we knew we connected came when Thai people would say that we were Thai; conveying that we were authentic in the language and culture—not perfect but flowing in the rhythm naturally. Recently, we were at a Thai restaurant with my family in the Chicago area. For many in the group, it was their first time at a Thai restaurant, so we got excited to introduce them to Thai food. For us it was exciting to speak Thai and get a flavor of what was our home for the past six years. We began making acquaintances with the owner and her family in Thai. We found out she was from a neighborhood in Bangkok near where we lived. The owner then excitedly introduced us to her other friends at the shop saying that we lived in Thailand. At one point, I made one of those natural sounds of agreement. The sound is something between a sigh and a grunt, and it means we are on the same page. It is like the sound of the light bulb going off in your head saying that you get what they are saying or are in full agreement.  When I made that sound, the two Thai ladies mimicked it and said, he is truly Thai.  My heart beamed on the inside, and I quickly returned to my wife to pass on the story. I love the fact we could communicate with Thai people at a heart level. Now, this applies to people in our own country. When we can communicate in the vernacular of any subculture, we can communicate love more clearly. What are the little things in language learning that help you know you get it?

It’s Better If We Keep The Façade.

I like this church, but…

Recently I heard a story on why a visitor did not return to the new church in town.  This could be anyone in Anytown, America.  And I believe this describes a fundamental flaw in our Christianity.  When asked why they didn’t come to the church again, the woman responded that she did not agree with women being permitted to preach.  That’s because she came to visit when one of the women on staff gave the message.  I know, I know. It is kinda funny for a woman to not like women preachers. But I guess the prejudice goes across gender lines.  But when she was pressed a little more, she said she didn’t like how transparent the person speaking was. The lady didn’t like how raw and open the speaker was in sharing her personal story of God’s work in her life.  Now, as I transition back to life in the US, I am becoming acutely aware of the American culture, especially, the American, Christian culture.  And the happy plastic smiles that accompany people to church as they pretend everything is okay just don’t cut it for me anymore.  Where did we get the notion that having it altogether shows that we are better Christians? That a visitor didn’t like the message being so raw with personal trials shows a disconnect from what God is really trying to do in us. Aren’t we all works in progress?  I am not sure where it started, but somewhere in our “can do” culture, we have equated struggle with weakness. Yet scripture says that struggle is what leads us to maturity (James 1:2). We feel that if we are suffering that God has abandoned us.  We feel that if we are broken, that the enemy is winning.  We are conquerors.  No, we are more than conquerors.  So why should we have to deal with pain? These are all great questions, but pretending that pain and suffering don’t exist only perpetuates the hypocrisy deep in the American culture.  I don’t know.  Maybe I am plane weird, but I thought authenticity should be a hallmark of Christianity.  I like reading the stories of the Bible and seeing that the great heroes of our faith were flawed like me.  And more than that, I think one of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is that we can be broken.  Our faith is not about being perfect but being redeemed.  We worship a God that finds us in the mire and pulls us out.  He picks us up and sets our feet on the rock (Psalms 40).  He takes a heap of brokenness and turns us into something beautiful.  His grace shines through our humble brokenness.  When we act like we have it altogether, we are conveying a message that we can save ourselves through enough pure determination. But when we talk about our true struggle, we show how only God can transform us.

broken-manOn the same note, I was recently at a meeting where George Barna detailed his latest in depth research on transformation (The importance of Brokenness) . He pretty much has found few Christians make it along the journey to transformation. He has found that brokenness is a key step in the process to our lives becoming what God wants them to be.  If we neglect or avoid this process, we will only be superficial Christians. We will lack the power and ability to impact this world.  Barna said we need to die to sin, self and society.  I think the woman above typifies many who think that we don’t die, but we live victorious. We don’t need to let people see our flaws.  Maybe if we did, the church could see what God wanted, a redeemed and restored people.  Let’s work on becoming more open rather than less.  What do you think prevents us from being more transparent, especially as Christian leaders ?