Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rethinking Discipleship: The Science of “Wine”

Let’s get scientific, shall we? 

Many secularists accuse Christians, especially Evangelicals, of being at best unfriendly to science. Some of our long held beliefs tend toward raising doubts, at least for some, about the lack of scientific integrity of our Christian faith. Dogmatism can be especially opposed to scientific inquiry. 

Of course, much of this is rooted in misunderstanding and can be challenged at the worldview level. Certainly, just because we can’t prove something doesn’t dismiss the possibility of it being true. Such an attitude would itself be unscientific. Science must maintain an openness toward the new and in the process of discovery.

Science (from Latin scientia), meaning "knowledge," is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about all things related to life in our universe. Not that all things can be explained and that’s not the role of science to do so, but all things can be examined and explored, which is the proper role of science. 

The problem is that the Church for too long has held to an “unscientific” posture, lacking knowledge, of how to best make disciples. We get stuck in an old paradigm that simply is not working to produce reproducing and multiplying disciples. 

Jesus addresses this “stuckness,” when he says in Matthew 9:17: 

 “Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Jesus was explaining why the church leaders of his time got stuck and the need for a paradigm shift. 

According to Thomas Kuhn, in his influential book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962), a paradigm shift is a change in the basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science or knowledge. 

What Jesus was telling the church leaders of his time in Matthew 9:17 was that long held assumptions needed changing. The knowledge system, regarding God’s will and his ways as they were being expressed for God’s purposes by God’s people, was in need of change. What Jesus was starting– a new wineskin for new wine - would be different than what came before. 

Jesus himself is the new wine (Mark 14:23-25). He came to bring new knowledge (Luke 1:77). He also came to replace a religious system that was ineffective, broken and stuck for hundreds of years not accomplishing God’s purposes. The knowledge was outdated and not working. It was time to explore something new and workable. 

To the church leaders of his time Jesus said: 

 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52).

How unscientific of them! But let’s fast forward now to the 21st Century.  

Every indication is that the Church is failing at one key area that Jesus instructed his followers to do – “make disciples” – especially in the West. From only 1 in 10 U.S. Christians who have a Biblical worldview, to mega-studies of a mega-church that prove disciples are not being made, to studies that demonstrate just how “Unchristian” too many Christian are – our “science” should tell us that we are in need of a new paradigm – a new wineskin. 

In Steve Addison’s excellent book, “What Jesus Started –Joining the Movement Changing the World,” Steve shares a story about Julius Ebwongu, a Ugandan church planter, and about a paradigm shift that Ebwongu led. The case study Addison examines is of a disciple-making/church planting movement that is changing the Church of Uganda, at least for one denomination who embraced a new wine skin. The Ugandan Assembles of God grew from 240 churches in 2004 to over 5000 in just over five years. 

Why did this happen? God used Ebwongu to change the existing paradigm of church leadership. Ebwongu challenged the unspoken assumptions, the old wine skin, regarding the nature of the church and who was qualified to make disciples, plant and lead churches. They explored how Jesus made disciples. 

Perhaps we can learn a lot from Ebwongu’s example, as well as others God is using to change the paradigm and establish a new wine skin (see the most recent edition of Mission Frontiers). Is there any reason we should operate under old science when we have new knowledge of what is working?

The challenge of course, as Jesus points out in Luke 5:39 is that “no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” But shouldn’t we be scientific about it, use good scientific method to examine the available data, and make some new discoveries about this ‘new wine’? My friend J.D. Payne also makes this missiological point in this recent post.

Addison offers us two grace points to consider when he reminds us: “First, we should not be surprised when we don’t 'get it.' Our training, knowledge and experience do not guarantee clarity and accuracy…We can assume there are huge gaps in our understanding that by ourselves we cannot bridge….” Such is the nature of science. 

And, “there is a second reality…God is in charge of his mission. We can expect God to intervene, even shake us to the core, to reveal his purposes.” 

Science needs to ask good questions. Jesus asked lots of questions including, “Have you understood all these things?” (Matthew 13:51). Below is a comparative chart of the old wine skin and the new wine skin adapted from “What Jesus Started.” Let me know what you think.

The knowledge of what is working today should challenge all church leaders to rethink discipleship, as God reveals his purposes, for Living Sent Today.

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