N THE 16th and 17th centuries, the Jesuits launched two effective and powerful missionary outreaches in the Far East. Their innovative evangelism involved the kind of cultural adaptation and contextualization that would not be grasped by Protestant missiologists for another 200 years.
In China, the Jesuits correctly identified Confucianism as an essentially non-religious system of ethics, and Buddhism as a non-Christian religion. Therefore, they sought to demonstrate that Christianity was compatible with core Confucian ideals and so to supplant Buddhism. They allowed Chinese converts to continue to honor their ancestors, rather than stressing fasts and feast days associated with Western personalities. They also used adopted Chinese words for God and other religious concepts.
In Japan, the Jesuits realized that the Japanese people had an aversion to crucifixes. So, while still preaching the Cross, they refrained from using such symbols in their churches. They also adopted Japanese clothing and cultural practices.
This made the church in Japan and China to look very different from the church back in Europe, but it sparked rapid growth in both numbers and influence. In China, Jesuits became advisers to the emperor’s court and one missionary even achieved the highest possible rank of Guanglu Mandarin. Over 270,000 Chinese believers were baptized. The Chongzhen emperor was almost converted and voluntarily smashed all his idols. In Japan, the Christian community grew in less than 70 years to more than 300,000 out of a population of 20 million— a level of penetration of Japanese society that has never since been equaled.
But the “new wineskins” of Asian Christianity made the church back in Europe very nervous. Other orders, notably the Franciscans and the Dominicans, persuaded the Pope to reign in the innovative Jesuits. Instead, more westernized forms of missionary outreach were introduced. The result, both in China and Japan, was that the “western” religion of Christianity was violently suppressed, resulting in the torture and martyrdom of thousands of Asian believers. It would be many centuries until Christianity once again made serious inroads into Asian society.
It is tempting, as we look back at how China and Japan subsequently affected world history, to wonder how different things might have been if the ecclesiastical authorities had allowed the new wine to continue to flourish in its new wineskins.
Jesus told us that new wineskins are necessary if we are to store new wine. In fact, if we try to put new wine in old wineskins, two things will happen—the old wineskins will burst, and the new wine will be lost (Matt. 9:17). Think about that. Not only will we lose our new converts, but our old structures and ways of doing church will also be irretrievably broken. This lesson is so important that it is repeated for us in Mark and Luke’s Gospels.
So why does the church, whether it is headquartered in Rome, Canterbury, or Tennessee, keep having difficulty in putting new wine into new wineskins? Luke, in his version of this parable, adds some extra words of Jesus that explain why we tend to do what we do: “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:39 NIV).
Those of us that have been blessed and nourished under the church systems we inherited, automatically zero in on any perceived weaknesses in anything new that might come along. We like our old wine so much that the new wine—and this distaste extends to the new wineskins too—tastes plain wrong to us!
If the gospel was purely about our individual relationship with God, then this might not matter so much. Spiritual truth, faithfulness to Scripture, and fervent prayer would be enough to overcome every cultural barrier. But the gospel is not just about the vertical relationship between me and God; it is also about the horizontal relationship between me and my fellow believers. That’s why the New Testament has as much to say about how we relate to one another in the church as it does about how we relate to God. And as soon as we start involving other people, then culture becomes a hugely important factor.
Culture shapes the way we interact with others. It affects our values and our priorities. Even when we know what the Bible says, our culture causes us to selectively interpret how it should be applied when we gather together.
Today, most of us understand that missionaries have to be prepared to adapt culturally when they go to other countries to preach the gospel. But what we often fail to realize is that our own cultural surroundings are changing so rapidly that the same flexibility is required of all of us. We are living through the most dramatic period of social change ever in human history—greater even than that of the Industrial Revolution.
Every one of us that is involved in ministry needs to wrestle with the challenge of creating new wineskins—finding new ways of doing church. If we fail, according to the infallible words of the Son of God, our existing church structures will be destroyed and we will lose the next generation of believers.
At this point we often get sidetracked into a defensive debate about how the old ways are better. That is not the point! Of course, those of us who have tasted the old wine think it is better. The point is that the new wine is coming and, whether we like it or not, all of our survival depends on our ability to adapt.
Some of us have assumed that “new wineskins” simply means playing a different kind of music and having some flashing lights in our services. Often this only serves to alienate our existing members without broadening our appeal to others. It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap backwards when he speaks to teenagers. That doesn’t make us relevant—it just makes us look stupid!
The task that confronts us, and it is not an easy one, is to develop a culture in our churches that is biblically faithful and also attractive to the increasing numbers in our society who are distinctly unimpressed with our old wineskins.
This does not mean that we mimic the prevalent culture that surrounds us. We’re not going to overcome the world by being the same as the world! But neither does it mean clinging to the forms and structures that speak of a bygone era and of discredited priorities. Bono and U2 sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” and it might surprise us that many people are actually looking for things that are thoroughly biblical and that we as Christ’s church are mandated to provide.
For example, Starbucks has attracted phenomenal loyalty among customers by promoting the concept of its stores as a “third space”—a community that is distinct from people’s homes and from their workplace. CEO Howard Schultz argues that Starbucks does not just sell coffee; they are selling community.
The church, more than any other organization or organism on earth, should be able to meet this hunger for community (or koinonia, as the Bible calls it). We were doing it 2,000 years before Starbucks! In recent years I have been privileged to worship with Church of God congregations that are meeting this need for community based on biblical values . . . and the new wine is flowing in. The cultural expressions are different, as are the surrounding communities, but the life of the Kingdom is the same. In China, in Holland, in North Carolina, in Utah, and in southern Florida the Church is taking the bold steps necessary to create new wineskins for new wine.
I might prefer the old wine, but I am determined to be a part of this growing movement to create new wineskins. Are you?
Nick Park is overseer of the Church of God in Ireland and pastor of the Solid Rock Church in Dublin.
From January, 2013