Saturday, 24 April 2010

Paradigm Lost

The church (and in particular, The Salvation Army?) is at a crucial juncture in its existence.

Perhaps the problem is that the church (and in particular, The Salvation Army?) is operating in an old paradigm. It carries on - or tries to - as though the world has not changed in the past century. Trouble is, it has. The world is changing, and if it hasn't fully arrived in a new paradigm ('postmodernity'), it is certainly approaching it, on the cusp of it even. Thus far, the church has steeled itself against the onset of any such paradigm shift; it has denied it, preached against it, and finally battened down the hatches...

However, the emerging generation of leaders within The Salvation Army (and most probably elsewhere) have grown up immersed in this emerging paradigm. They are fluent in contemporary culture. They breathe change like air, and find themselves like fish out of water in a structure which tries to preserve and perpetuate a lost paradigm.

I dare to suggest that the Bible has an answer. Jesus once spoke (in Matthew 9:16-17) of repairing an old cloak with an unshrunk piece of cloth. His illustration makes the point that "the patch pulls away from the cloak and a worse tear is made." He goes on: "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, 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."

The results of putting an unshrunk - new - patch on an old garment is a worse tear - and perhaps a lost patch. The patch won't fit. But before we can accuse the patch of 'just being awkward', Jesus follows up that illustration with the one about the wine.

It's almost as though Jesus acknowledges, even respectfully doffs his hat, to the old wineskins. They have clearly been well used and have done their bit - with distinction, perhaps - in the past. But Jesus is clear that to pour the new wine into old skins is not only pointless; it is destructive. But destructive of what? First of all, the skins burst; second, the wine is spilled; third, the skins are destroyed. So the wine is lost, ruined, useless; and so are the wineskins. The solution is to put the new wine into fresh wineskins, "so both are preserved." If our emerging leaders are being poured into an old paradigm, old structures, old wineskins - won't all be at risk of loss, of destruction?

Of course, in the original context, Jesus was most probably referring to Himself and to the 'new' availability of the Kingdom of God, and the 'old wineskins' of the Judaism and domination systems of his day, or the existing understandings of God and His way of doing things. This latter had to be reimagined, reshaped - reborn - to 'fit' Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

But today, new leaders are emerging who are passionate about Jesus and His Kingdom, who are committed to a radical life of discipleship and its expression in mission - in short, people soaked in the new wine of Jesus, people through whom the new wine of Jesus can flow into a world dying to taste Him - to taste the authentic, refreshing, invigorating, challenging, life-changing, society-transforming wine of Jesus. But if these people are put into old wineskins... oh dear.

So, does everything need to change? Yes and no. The Salvation Army, and the church, need to be reborn, or resurrected. This is not about getting rid of everything. It is a journey of transformation, a transfiguration - like the caterpillar, into the chrysalis, into the butterfly. All are made of the same 'stuff', but are quite distinct. It is the same creature, but radically different. The Salvation Army must change its form, its appearance, its shape, its self-concept - but keep its original DNA. It must recapture its original purpose, and reimagine its expression for today.