March 2021
Formation for the Missionary Church

New Wine in an Old Wineskin

Editor’s Note: This resource is a video. Please click here or on the screen below to view. The full transcription is also available below.

The Rev. Anna Sutterisch is Canon for Christian Formation in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. She loves to cook, grow and eat plants, and run. She lives in Cleveland Ohio with her spouse, the Rev. Noah, and two cats, Phoebe and Thecla. Anna serves on the board of directors at Bexley Seabury Seminary, where she was in the first class of the low-residency model which emphasizes context and practical missiology. Anna has been a member of Gathering of Leaders since 2020. She is also involved in the local Reparations movement in Cleveland.

TRANSCRIPT: Hey! I’m Anna, and I think a lot about how the church – ‘big C’ institutional church and ‘little c’ faith community church – can best teach and shape Christians amidst the brokenness of the world. How can we form communities of courage and hope, when it’s easier to just disappear into apathy and Instagram, putting trust in no one because everyone is a disappointment?

As a reminder, just because God doesn’t have limits doesn’t mean we are also limitless. We aren’tin control, we can’t “save the church,” but we can follow the Holy Spirit as she moves and changes us and hopefully makes us see some opportunities to make our faith communities a little more relevant, woke and hip. (#MakeChurchHipAgain #NotYourGrandmasChurch)

It’s all about context. I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am not proposing we burn it all down, although #realtalk some days I do. Instead, I propose the question of how we can avoid the trap of putting new wine in an old wineskin. (Matthew 9:16, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:36) Instead of letting the grape rot on the vine, maybe we could try to make some new, natural, sulfate-free rosé!

The truth is, following the Holy Spirit will lead us to new wineskin. The pandemic, the “big reveal” of a nation based on racism, the inequalities of capitalism and political insurrection means that the wine needs to change. And that old vessel is getting more and more obsolete. So let’s raise a glass.

First, some brainstorming

When thinking about any aspect of your faith community, play the “Why” game. Get to the Why before the What or How – and it’s different for each community. For example:

“We need more young families in church.”
“So our Sunday school is bigger.”
“So we can keep the church alive for generations.”
“So my legacy will continue!”

If we start with the why, before jumping in to the what and how and who, we can make sure the real nugget of God’s grace and hope and love is at the basis of everything we do.

Revamp your media diet: Are you looking in the mirror at church resources? Or are you gleaning new ideas, new ways of thinking about church? Some of the things giving me life right now are Seculocity (Zahl), Learning from London (Fout), Mockingcast (Mockingbird Ministries, Faith and Capital, Earth and Altar, @BlackLiturgies, @PrayersFrom Terrie, #ProgressiveClergy TikTok. People are trying crazy things. Just steal their ideas, y’all!

Next, more examples for you to steal and contextualize

Use technology as a tool for evangelism, not a vehicle for what was
Check out the Noon Service out of Cincinnati and Imagine Church out of Atlanta. Play around –use YouTube clips, music videos, breakout rooms (being mindful of licenses, requesting and paying for access and permissions, and giving credit to creators of course.) There are some super fun things we can do in virtual church that we will never be able to do in real life pews. I just wonder if, in the face of the unexpected and the pain of the world’s brokenness, people really need a YouTube video of a vested clergyperson in an empty church talking to a camera?

Consider worship
The essential elements of bread, wine, fire, water can be transformed into… Candle-light yoga? Bonfires? Beach day? People are doing this and it works. Again, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Take your ancient chant and Rite I to the lake at sunset. Have rogation day in the public park, complete with a thurible and all the vestments. Make sure to record and post it. Pass out tambourines and bongo drums and make a chaotic joyful noise along with the organ playing old-school hymns. Make a line dance to them. Do the Church Clap! I’m not advocating for building from scratch. I’m advocating for using what we have and love in new ways. Warning: You may have to butcher some sacred cows.

Look around
What do you have available to you? I’ve had a successful Stations of the Cross for runners in downtown Cleveland, the tomb represented by a parking garage. A hike through the snowy woods at Advent with stops to read the freedom poetry of Maya Angelou. Liturgies for chicken processing and maple syrup tapping. Cook-a-longs with chefs talking about cooking as a spiritual practice. Soul-tending activities using found objects at home. Theological reflections on images from the news. TikTok evangelism. Start with what you have, not what you’re missing (#AssetBasedCommunityDevelopment.)

Small groups
A culture of small groups is perhaps one of the hardest cultures to build, and for sure one of the best ways for folks to deepen relationships with God, self and others. Start with what you have: form small groups for “church people” around EfM or Sacred Ground or Men’s Bible Study/Donuts or Knitting/Sewing circles or whatever. For other people, form small groups around tabletop games, beer brewing, Fortnite, yogalates, whatever the interests are. Build into the small groups actual formation, reflection, discussion, vulnerability, real talk. (Michael Moynagh’s literature on “Third Space” church is helpful here.) Let’s take a cue from the ancients and the evangelicals and make the network of house churches and small groups be the foundation for the larger faith community that gathers corporately.

Finally, some reminders

Yes, you’ll have to rethink your budget. Are your church building expenses precluding a line item in your budget for reparations? Is your revenue diversified, including space rental and for-profit fundraisers? (Yes, we’re allowed to charge money, hopefully on a sliding scale, for goods and services.)

Have you paid a millennial, or any other trusted non-churchgoer, to show up at your services, virtual or in person, and give feedback? (p.s. you fail this test if no one talks to them and if they get asked to become a Sunday School teacher on their first visit.) Have them try to find you on a Google search and hear their reactions.

Is your outreach ministry actually a front for charity? What does outreach – reaching out – look like in your community? What does your community need from you? Is it spiritual care or access to internet? Rent assistance or organ recitals? Can charity be evangelism? Could they (gasp!) be intertwined? Here’s where we may think of prayer at food pickups, Bible study at soup kitchens, film discussions at the pantry. May your community ministries be so engaging and relevant that people get curious about Sunday morning (or, you know, Wednesday night with dinner and childcare… or zoom discussions… or outdoor worship).

To be a real beacon of grace in a world that is bleeding out right now means to be real. And maybe, just maybe, what was real and true and relevant and helpful back in the day is ready for a reset. For the church to form communities with fortitude, steadfastness and resilience, we need to be nimble. We need to listen – to the spirit, to our neighbors, to people outside the church. And we definitely, definitely, need some new wine.


This article is part of the March 2021 Vestry Papers issue on Formation for the Missionary Church