By CJ Young
One of the difficulties we all face in being a leader in a local church is how to encourage movement from professed theological belief into day-to-day practice in the lives of disciples. Even if we are able to grasp the teachings in the Scriptures, as we seek to apply them to the cultural issues of our day, it becomes difficult and complicated. Topics such as immigration, gender issues, sexuality, racial reconciliation, healthcare, and disabilities can be extremely complex topics that impact every person sitting in our worship facilities. The church was never supposed to be an entity that distanced itself from cultural issues; it is the only place where these issues can be authentically engaged in light of real truth. Social media tells us that the answer to these issues is binary in nature- that the answers are this or that, Conservative or Liberal, Democrat or Republican. The reality is that the issues are complex, and our engagement with them will need to be complex as well, and deeply rooted in the mercy, righteousness, and justice we find in God Himself.
As I got increasingly involved in working with New Wine, New Wineskins, I could not avoid trying to bring the conversations that I had at the retreats and conferences home. When I began to think about how to create space for these conversations, I realized that there were many barriers that I would face. The church where we were beginning these conversations was not at a point where there was no more avoiding these topics – in fact, avoiding them had gone pretty well for the church at large. If we have these conversations, there was some fear and reluctance when we realized that we might have to change how we do things. One of the biggest challenges that we faced is the apprehension the church leadership had because they did not feel equipped to have these conversations. Even with all of these challenges, we were essentially given enough rope to hang ourselves, and we set about trying to create contexts or opportunities to begin these cultural engagement conversations.
We started with casual conversations with individuals we thought might be interested in the topics and a leadership “book club” where people were invited to come and have discussions about New Wine topics. We invited speakers from New Wine to come and speak at Saturday Seminars where cultural topics were addressed. In our small groups, we made suggestions for books that engaged cultural topics with theology, and finally we would advertise NWNW retreats and conferences and get a team of people to accompany us when we went down to Oregon.
Our first year, we found a lot of success with all of our efforts but going into our second year, due to budget constraints, we had to cease doing Saturday Seminars and our Open Table Discussions. We kept up our other efforts, and we have seen certain LifeGroups lean into New Wine thinking and begin to engage more authentically with cultural issues and their own theology. One of the more exciting things I see happening is that there is becoming less of a “toe the line” mentality when it comes to cultural or theological topics. People are feeling freer to share their concerns, their questions, even their divergent beliefs about topics and the culture at large seems far less fearful about engaging them. I have seen humility come to the table in these conversations and a willingness to be convinced of a different theological/cultural response to an issue than previously held. Not that our historic theology was always changed, often it was confirmed and the conversation about how to apply it in our modern world was where the change and growth was had. While not voiced aloud, it seems as if the old “House of Cards” mentality of our shelved theology has been slowly fading away and as a community of disciples we are beginning to engage with our theology humbly, seeking to know and to live into the upside-down Kingdom Jesus illuminated.
It feels strange to be sharing our story at this time because I do not feel like we are far enough along to see all of the fruit I hope these efforts will bear. If I am honest, I feel like the movement for cultural engagement is still very grassroots in nature and has not influenced church leadership or the culture at large as much as I had hoped. We are very much still in process of adopting New Wine values in our local church congregation, but I think that is someplace we will always be. Looking at cultural issues through theological lenses is not a destination we arrive at, it is a practice we continually cultivate. As a church leader, as a pastor in a local church, I am excited to come to the table with my brothers and sisters in Christ and humbly seek to lean on Christ, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit as we seek to grasp the heart of His Kingdom and how we are to, practically, live it out in our modern world. New Wine, New Wineskins has been not only a resource to help us be able to lead this charge but also a place of respite for our leaders as we attend retreats and conferences, read blog posts and journals that encourage us, remind us that we are not crazy as we continue down this path and neither are we alone. If you are a church leader or a local church pastor, I encourage you to attend a New Wine, New Wineskins event and join in the conversation. I am certain it will be for you an encouragement, a comfort and a blessing as you seek to encourage those in your local context to take their theology off the shelf and, through it, engage with the world around them.
What are ways that you think we could support local churches in living out New Wine, New Wineskins’ values and more deeply engaging with cultural issues through Trinitarian lenses?