By Dick Barrett
“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” — Matthew 9:16-17 (ESV)
We are now more than a year and a half into the COVID pandemic with a lot of uncertainty. How long is it going to last? What are the long-term effects going to be? Is there going to be a stronger and more deadly variant after the Delta variant? Those are just a few of the uncertainties. One thing that is certain is that after this time all of our churches look different than they did before. Just about every single one of them is less — less in total numbers, less in those attending in person, less in energy and vitality, less in active ministries. One of the big questions I have been asking myself is, “Is that necessarily a bad thing?” I have been increasingly drawn as of late to John the Baptist’s words found in John 3:30, “Jesus must become greater, I must become less.” Do those words just apply to individual Christians, or might they also apply to individual churches?
Perhaps God has been at work in his churches during this time, and it is each church’s responsibility to discern how God has been at work. The Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, speaks of God’s winnowing and pruning. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines pruning as “to cut off or cut back parts of for better shape or more fruitful growth.”
Just maybe God has been using this time to prune his churches for more fruitful growth to come. Are we preparing for it? Over and over again the Bible talks about new: new creation, new mercies every morning, new birth, good news, as well as new wine and new wineskins. The wine — the gospel of God’s love, grace and mercy through his Son, Jesus Christ, is new every day. But we can’t just keep putting the new wine into the old wineskins of the way the church was (whether it be 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even one and a half years ago) and expect it to be fruitful.
Ultimately, we are not the ones who provide the fruitful growth. The fruitful growth comes only after we focus on the things that we have been called to focus on: Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, loving God and loving others, and making disciples of Jesus. Recently I read a very good and challenging book titled Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church by John Nugent. The author’s primary claim is that the church, especially in America, has taken on a responsibility that we have not been given, that of saving the world. Just as ultimately it is God who produces fruitful growth, ultimately it is God who is going to save the world at the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Here are some questions for each of our churches to ponder at the beginning of this new time before the time of Jesus’ second coming and the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth:
What are some old things that we were doing before the pandemic that don’t fit with our primary responsibilities of loving God, loving others and making disciples of Jesus that we need to let go of?
What are some new things that we have discovered during the pandemic that fit with God’s primary callings on our lives that we want to continue and/or expand?
Who might God be sending us to in our community to share the Good News of Jesus with in words and deeds, to serve and build relationships with, while we leave the new growth to Him?