Why I love New Wine

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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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28 thoughts on “Why I love New Wine”

    • Thanks Sam…an interesting read.

      There’s a discussion on this happening on my Facebook page—but my experience is that many people feel as you did, and that a change here would actually reduce New Wine turnover. More people would stick with it.

  1. I think this is an excellent critique of the New Wine movement. It seems to me that the points you raise about worship and Bible teaching should be taken seriously and are inextricably linked. Alister McGrath, I think, pointed out that most people learn their theology from what they sing. The dumbing down of content has, I suggest, a lot to do with the lack of informed discipleship among a certain brand of church – I have contact through my work with many churches in the north west, and see the results of some of their teaching. It often strikes me that while the preacher rails against individualism, the worship band are content to sing “Christ in me”, which is a mistranslation of Paul’s “Christ in you, the church, the body of Christ”.

    An important function of more traditional hymn singing was to bring the people of God together, and so the tunes were largely either written or chosen to facilitate communal singing. I would say that this is certainly not a factor in the most recent type of worship song, which seems to focus on worship band performance with the congregation joining in when they can.

    I recently commented to somebody that nowadays when I go to church I feel as though something is being done to me, rather than I am being part of a body. With little or no liturgy I have nothing to say, and with many modern worship songs I an unable to sing.

    Where Bible teaching and preaching are concerned, there is some dissonance between a firm belief that God can speak directly to people, and the apparent need for the preacher to guide or even manipulate that encounter. Because of an apparent desire to directly challenge, rather than leave the outcome to God, preaching seems to have become less exegetical. I think it was Tom Long who said that we are not suffering a crisis of confidence in Scripture but a crisis of competence in preaching.

    It’s four years since I went to New Wine so I cannot speak from recent personal experience of the festival, but I am conscious of its impact.

    Having said all of that, I am very impressed with the partnerships made by New Wine with other organisations seeking justice and the kingdom of God in our world, and am very conscious of and grateful for the prayerfulness and faithfulness of New Wine leaders.

    • Thanks Liz. Interesting that you link the two issues. In my experience, many churches who are into ‘renewal’ drastically reduce their corporate Bible reading, which I think is worrying.

      I agree with you too that much ‘worship’ music renders the congregation passive, and we miss out on the sense of communal participation. Gareth Malone shows how important that can be.

  2. Ian

    I think everyone has felt frustrated at rubbish preaching and sermons along the lines of “what I reckon” from time to time, but I’m not sure there are many traditions that don’t take the bible seriously? Can you explain what you mean?

    • Thanks Pete. There are many traditions which don’t see the Bible as central to what they do. Generally, the liberal tradition sees experience as most important, and the Catholic tradition see the church, its teaching and its liturgy as most important.

      These are not slights—in my experience these traditions would be happy to describe themselves in this way.

  3. I think I can maybe she’d more light on the theological thinness of many contemporary worship songs.

    Songs that we have retained from say two hundred years ago focused on teaching “the humble poor” theology, not least because they had little ability to learn it any other way. Many used popular music as their melody.

    Modern worship songs of the style you are talking about have been deliberately written to be theologically light so that they concentrate on worshipping God and, as you said, so that they are accessible to people who dont have much church knowledge. The repetitive /minimal words also help achieve both motivations.

    There are some modern hymn writers who have more theological depth in their songs, but they tend to be less popular. Perhaps because churches that prefer this would just have older hymns anyway?

    For most people going to a big Christian festival is one of few chances in a year to be part of contemporary worship. It is maybe not for everyone – maybe festivals could offer a mix or a choice – but sometimes it can be good for the soul to experience an alien tradition

  4. Interesting lowdown, Ian.

    I agree about the pitfalls of bad leadership, but disagree about worship songs; well, kinda. Not my favorite style, but the cultural accessibility you highlight is key to evangelicalism’s success. (And although the genre’s not my fave, corporate worship in the charismatic mold can be an emotional and spiritual powerhouse.)

    Also agree about the importance of combining faith and social action in a way that does justice to both. The best deeds arise from a spiritual foundation that’s strong for its own sake.

  5. Ian

    Thanks for opening up the debate on New Wine. I agree with the thrust of your article in particular I endorse value of the movement’s intention to ‘seek the presence’ of God and the expectation that after worship / preaching a response is to be expected. I sympathise with your ambivalence about the Arena worship and the ‘Bible Teaching’.

    I think it is easy to see the worship as about ‘thin theology’ in the words. I am not sure that is as much as the case as it was (although it is an ever-present danger). Rather my struggle is with the the ‘rock concert’ aspect that you touch on; in which the congregation become ‘an audience singing along’. The ‘worship’ (same length, almost as loud and mostly the same songs) in the Acoustic venue to me was more worshipful. I think that this was partly due to Steve Melluish’s active engagement with the band; he did not simply handover to a musician for 45 minutes.

    You also touch upon the Bible teaching – I would agree with your comments. I would add that I think the New Wine / Wimber model in which the primary response to any message is ‘come forward for prayer ministry’ muffles a proper practical application of the message. I heard various speakers who used their time to include long emotive illustrations and then draw back (or run out of time) from encouraging listeners to pursue consequences other than ‘come forward.’ ‘Coming forward’ is actually a great model. However it can actually tip the leader into an anxiety about how many people are coming forward, that leads to a descending spiral of more and more appeals.

    What you say about leadership is also intriguing. I also sense that there is a new spirit blowing through New Wine. I pray that the new team can lead the ‘movement’ deeper into the Lord’s ways.

    (I enjoyed your seminar greatly BTW!)

  6. First time at New Wine this year – in general it was a great time, came back feeling refreshed (not because of the weather). The arguments about contemporary worship will continue. Don’t confuse simple with short and profound – as some are.

    The trouble is that the contemporary ‘hymns’ are sometimes over wordy, dry and unsingable, then we are back to the ‘sing this it does you good, even if you don’t like it mentality’. I can tell you that we have grown as a church since as part of various changes we began to play and sing contemporary worship songs (clerical collar and Fender for me). Sometimes its the only bit which first attracts and then they listen to the bits in-between!

    Thanks for the seminars, Ian, they were helpful.

    • Yes, I would agree with that…but there must surely be a middle way. I guess my bigger concern would be about the (non)-use of biblical language and metaphors. I know these often need translation, but sticking to biblical language can be a check on our theology.

  7. As ever,a a thoughtful critique from Ian.

    But Pete J says: “Modern worship songs of the style you are talking about have been deliberately written to be theologically light so that they concentrate on worshipping God”

    Hmm… We might need to think about the implications of that a little… I thought we had to worship God in spirit *and in truth*. which implies having some theology in worship, not avoiding it.

  8. Hi Ian

    Was good to see you. Interesting stuff – praying. Would be good to chat more sometime 🙂


  9. I have been listening to the live stream this week from new Wine which has been a real innovation. Not the same as being there, but not a bad substitute. I think the discussion you have started Ian on worship and preaching is a really important one. Years ago someone said to John Wimber that the Vineyard never sang about the cross. Wimber checked it out and amidst all the intimate worship songs discovered that the comment was a correct one. He then instructed his worship leaders to write some more songs about the cross, which they did!

    As I was listening to the ‘sonic’ sounds being created by the worship leaders at New Wine this week, the atmosphere and energy was very apparent. But I was worried, because that seemed to be the predominant element of what was going on, the bands all created a musical landscape with these newer songs ( which by the way probably 90% of our local churches could never create in their churches) that at times was quite mystical. It felt to me that at times it did’nt seem to matter what everyone was singing about because it was all about the experience. We really do need to be aware that our worship songs need substance, and a melody, and a key that we can all sing!

  10. Helpful comments as always, Ian. I particularly appreciated the comment on poetry and hymnody. Evangelical songs had better (and wider) lyrical content in the 1980s when Graham Kendrick was riding high. There are some contemporary good ones but others border on the banal.

    I think also the failure to use the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed as well as Cranmerian-style prayers has contributed to the thinness of much evangelical worship – I am often struck by how feeble and devoid of imagination are the ex tempore prayers of confession and praise among many evangelicals, as if they had lost the art of rich and thoughtful language.

  11. Great article Ian – thank you.

    I was particularly encouraged this year by what seemed to me a shift to acknowledging that while we can and should expect miraculous healing, we may not always see healing this side of heaven. Pete Hughes reminded us of the ‘restoration’ part of the story following creation-fall-redemption, and Christy Wimber apologised to those with mental health problems who may have not been heard and understood in the past. It was deeply moving and gave permission to be honest when healing (physical/ emotional/spiritual) doesn’t happen immediately. Or even until heaven!

    I struggled with light theology in the worship too but thought I’d been ruined by going to theology college! And though it was light, the fruit of spending lots of time in worship – ongoing awareness of God, and deepening relationship, seems clear to me – so maybe I can’t knock it too much…

  12. I haven’t attended New Wine for about 15 years. I first attended in 1990 and was absolutely blown away with the worship. I had come to faith in an Anglican Church 5 years previously and had not considered hymns as worship – it was liturgy and prayer for me and still is,together with the word of God. But in the early years the songs were God focussed and I was reminded of David bringing all the musicians into the temple and the cloud of God descending – it really did feel like that. Flamme (a group) came over from France and sang straight out of Scripture and I fell to my knees. I stopped going because by around 2002 the worship songs were driving me mad as they were focussed on me loving God and not Him loving me.

    I suppose I’m getting old – must try Keswick next year!

    • That’s really interesting Tricia—particularly that you detected a change. I wonder if there is an explanation for why the focus has shifted from celebrating God’s commitment to me to focussing on my commitment to God..?

      • Maybe it is a reflection of society. Self fulfilment, self aggrandisement, self absorption, selfies. The Christian message is that we must die to self to rise to life in Christ – that’s pretty frightening to the constructed identity. I have often asked God why He only makes himself known when we have acknowledged Him as Lord and not before. Maybe the answer is – because you were too absorbed with yourself.

        • Sure, but I am not clear that is reflected in this shift. Being committed to God and celebrating that is surely an antidote to our self-society? Or are you suggesting that it is a reflection of our own experience being the measure of all things?

          • I think there is an element of being formed in society and there has been a huge societal shift. My parents were the last generation to know war and deprivation and thankfulness. Recently I went to Croatia on holiday and found there was a societal out working of putting their country on track after the war under a very high taxation system. There was also a stong family and catholic tradition. We have a consumerist society of acquisition. Young people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. There is something terribly wrong with a society which focuses on child abuse dating back 40 years and has a Government which hands out contraception to 12 year olds now. Young people are encouraged to do what makes them happy, not what is right. In fact all things are relative and there is no right and wrong.

  13. Sometimes I think that the only thing that will move society back to God en masse is some event(s) that cause widespread deprivation, economic dislocation, war and famine – not necessarily in that order.

    I hope I am wrong.


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