I have just returned from our 19th visit to New Wine in Shepton Mallet—though a good number of our visits have been to New Wine [Gateway to the] North in Newark. We first attended when our eldest was 1, and continued attending each year, even when number 2 was one month old and number 3 was two weeks old (all of them having summer birthdays). And I have been offering seminars each year for the last 11 years. So I guess you could call us ‘hard core’ New Wine attenders. A few years ago, when teaching in theological college, I presented the New Wine vision statement to colleagues, but with details of where it came from removed. Everyone heartily endorsed what was set out—and why wouldn’t you? Who could disagree with a vision of renewal through the local church being a place of encounter with God, where people are nurtured in discipleship and equipped to have a transforming impact on their local communities?
So why have we been so committed? I think there are five main reasons.
1. God. One of the features of New Wine has been a commitment to the importance of personal encounter with God. God gives many gifts to his people, but his greatest gift is himself—the gift of his presence. If we love the things that God (and faith) do for us, but forget the supreme gift of God’s presence in our lives, then we are like children who play more with the box than with the present that came in it. This is a vital counterbalance to two tendencies.
The tendency amongst evangelicals is to be activist rather than contemplative. I can still remember the painful confession in David Watson’s last book of his struggle, even in the face of his own death, to put aside love of the things of God for the sake of the love of God. It is a particular danger for those in full-time ministry, but not confined to them. And the tendency amongst Anglicans is to be institutionalised rather than personal—to become pre-occupied with the forms of expression of the love of God instead of the love itself. I suppose that if you are both evangelical and Anglican, you face a double danger.
As a result of this focus on God himself, which runs all the way from leaders’ breakfast meetings, through main events and into the seminars, I find each year that I return more committed to my own personal renewal in God, more willing to pray, and somehow more fruitful in prayer for others.
2. Mercy ministries. When Jim Wallis from Sojourners in New York came as the MainStage speaker to Shepton Mallet a number of years ago, it very much looked like a bolt on—a commitment to social action sitting rather awkwardly within a theology that was really looking in another direction. (I gather that the process of deciding to invite him wasn’t entirely straightforward either.) I was doubtful that this partnership would really work—but I was wrong. Involvement with organisations committed to practical action has not only become a regular part of New Wine—it has become a natural part of it, not least through partnership with a range of existing organisations. One of the most compelling evening addresses last week came from Gary Haugen, an American advocate who has used his legal experience to pursue governments and press them into recognising the rights of children forced into slavery and prostitution—with some remarkable effects.
I am not sure if many commentators have noticed how significant this is. From a sketchy knowledge of renewal movements, it seems to me that the key to continued momentum is to look outwards. Those that content themselves with an inward focus soon collapse on themselves or splinter into numerous smaller groups as differences arise.
3. Conversion. Another part of looking outward is the continued commitment to see people come to Christ. There are regular reports of how many people have made a commitment each day. This might seem odd for an event which is primarily for those already involved in a church, and it is possible to be sceptical about what ‘a commitment’ really means for a five-year-old. But it is an important reminder that this is what church is for—to call people to discipleship and then build them up so that they in turn become disciple-making disciples. In an age of church decline, it might not be the only thing we do—but it is certainly something we cannot afford not to do.
4. Friendships. One of the things I love about New Wine is the chance to renew friendship with leaders and fellow disciples who encourage me and from whom I learn. Two phrases are much derided at the moment: ‘networking’ and ‘like-minded.’ But in fact everyone does it—everyone loves spending time with people who share our passion and our vision, and who sharpen our thinking and our living. It is easy to feel isolated, either as a Christian in a less than friendly social or work context, or as a church leader. Isolation is a dangerous thing, and the renewal of friendships is a powerful antidote.
5. Renewal of vision for churches. This year we did not have a church group, so we were camping with a group of other ‘Billy No Mates’ (as our host helpfully put it!) who had also come on their own. It was clear that each of them found New Wine refreshing personally, and a place that they hoped others from their church would also find helpful, in deepening faith, broadening vision, and equipping for Christian living.
Those are the most significant things for me, and they are enough to offset the hassle and discomfort of camping—which is not my natural way of life.
But no organisation is perfect, and there are three things that I would love to see more of:
1. Change in the paradigm of sung worship. It might just be that I am now a Grumpy Old Man, but the pop idiom for extended sung worship does nothing for me. I don’t feel the need to go to a nightclub to worship God. On the way back this year, I was driving with Becca, our youngest, who is now 15. She spent three and a half hours singing loudly to her favourite pop songs (I joined in when I could…!). But it was striking that, for many of them, the ethos did not feel much different to the main Arena at New Wine.
Now, this is clearly a benefit in some regards, since for young people not used to church it lowers the cultural barriers between church and everyday life. But I think it has some serious consequences for our worship. In the nineteenth century, a dominant idiom for expressing thought was the structured poem, and many of our classic hymns have words that were constructed in their own right, and tunes were often added later, most often by someone else. In the pop idiom, words and music come together, and at times the words are chosen simply to fit the tune.
This means that, for many of our contemporary choruses, the words are thin, and the theology superficial. Even more significantly, words and music have different effects on us: by and large, words engage our brain, our thought, whilst music engages our emotions. Good words set to a good tune engage both heart and mind together—both thought and emotion. But many contemporary songs have emotive words, so they then engage with…emotion and emotion. We need both together, rather than an overdose of emoting. We need less therapy and more good theology.
2. Bible teaching. In the past, the main morning meetings have been given over to Bible teaching. That was changed a couple of years ago, and there was something of a backlash, so this year we returned to a single speaker expounding a theme across the whole week. In Week 1 (which I attended) we heard Simon Ponsonby from St Aldate’s, Oxford, give a masterclass in entertaining, engaging preaching. But it wasn’t really Bible exposition. I suspect they would have something rather different at Keswick Convention!
I would love to see a demonstration of greater confidence that, whilst we are interested in our formation, and not simply in information—in growing mature, not just growing fat on Bible knowledge—God can speak to us through well-informed biblical exposition. The different traditions in the church—and the different groups in evangelicalism—live too much in their own silos, and it would be great to have more cross-over with those who take the Bible seriously.
3. Undefended leadership. I know most of the leaders in New Wine reasonably well, and we have warm and open relationships. They are responsive to feedback and listen to concerns—more than I think is realised. But for many who are further away, there is sometimes a sense that decisions have been made behind closed doors, and the reasons are either unclear or unconvincing. This is important for New Wine itself—but it is even more important for the impact on local churches. I have known several New Wine churches which have been seriously damaged by arbitrary and authoritarian leadership—where people (usually men!) have mistaken strong leadership for unquestionable leadership. It would be great to see a more explicit modelling of undefended leadership and how that might be taken into the local church.
Whatever direction New Wine develops in, my hope and prayer is that it will continue to be used by God to bring renewal and life to his church.
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