In the spring of 2009 I was speaking at METRO. METRO was a community planted among the urban poor of downtown Kelowna, so was pretty informal. But it was also rooted in the ethos of the mother church, which was highly program oriented. So when I arrived I was handed the schedule for the morning; freshly prepared by the efficient team at the mother-ship. I glanced at the page and then smiled..

And then laughed..

And then wondered if maybe I should cry.

It went something like this..

9:30 opening prayer
9:32 worship
9:50 closing prayer
9:51 open mike

And on for the next hour with every detail noted and timed.

And I thought.. this is technology gone mad. This is technology determining ethos – this is the the rule of the machine and the end of humanity and all those science fiction movies about the future actually coming true. It’s Orwell’s 1984; it’s everything Jacques Ellul warned us about the spirit of technos. We become what we worship, and it was obvious to me that we were worshipping the system itself.

My next thought was how in our broader community we use the language of Spirit and community and family, but then fail to live it out in our gatherings. Of course, METRO is quite different and I folded the paper and stuck it in my pocket and didn’t give it another thought. Neither did anyone else that morning.

I wondered what it would be like to impose the same ethos on my family. Every morning I could hand my wife a slip of paper..

8:00 opening prayer
8:01 breakfast
8:08 present summary of day’s activities
8:10 clean up
8:15 morning prayer

When form overtakes Spirit, structures no longer serve us, but we serve them. But what we serve is our God, and when we serve structure we are bowing to things that are elemental spirits and do not deserve our worship – the stoichea (Paul’s word in Galatians and Colossians). When we see order determining ethos we see the triumph of rationalism over Spirit, people bowing to the god of efficiency. Every detail is measured and weighed.. except the really important things, none of which can actually be measured at all. As Peterson puts it,

“The secularized mind is terrorized by mysteries. Thus it makes lists, labels people, assigns roles, and solves problems. But a solved life is a reduced life. These tightly buttoned-up people never take great faith risks or make convincing love talk. They deny or ignore the mysteries and diminish human existence to what can be managed, controlled, and fixed. We live in a cult of experts who explain and solve. The vast technological apparatus around us gives the impression that there is a tool for everything if we can only afford it. Pastors cast in the role of spiritual technologists are hard put to keep that role from absorbing everything else, since there are so many things that need to be and can, in fact, be fixed.

“But “there are things,” wrote Marianne Moore, “that are important beyond all this fiddle.” The old time guide of souls asserts the priority of the “beyond” over “this fiddle.” Who is available for this kind of work other than pastors? A few poets, maybe; and children, always. But children are not good guides, and most of the poets have lost interest in God. That leaves pastors as guides through the mysteries.” The Contemplative Pastor, 65

Jesus gives us some analogies to help us find wisdom in this. How do we relate Spirit and structure?

“No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment,
for the patch pulls away form the garment, and a worse tear results.

“Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins;
otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out,
and the wineskins are ruined;
but they put new wine into fresh wineskins,
and both are preserved.”
Matthew 9:16,17

When Jesus taught about the garment and the patch, and the wineskin and the wine, he made it clear that it is foolish to patch an old garment, and useless to release new life into an old structure.

It is foolish to patch an old garment. To me this speaks of paradigms: paradigms do not build on each other, they replace each other.

We don’t try to adapt old structures when the paradigm itself is new. I haven’t seen anyone placing sticky notes on their I-Phones. It would be madness. We let go of the old thing because it has become inadequate. We embrace the new because it offers possibilities that the old could not offer.

But wine and wineskin speaks to me of something different than paradigms. Wine and wineskin speaks to me of the relationship between Spirit and flesh, life and structure.

It is always life which is primary. Organisms organize because they require structure to preserve their life and to do work in the world.The body has many members and diverse gifts in order to carry the life of the Spirit into the world.

Over time, however, structures grow calcified. We see this most clearly in the growth of bureaucracy. (See “The Revolution will not be funded“). Structures are forms and ways that allow us to connect in significant and life-giving ways in a particular context. But they become familiar to us, and actually shape us in return. We gradually accommodate ourselves to them, and in some ways they become transparent. When this occurs, they become set in concrete and we no longer question their effectiveness. So we lose the ability to flex and adapt.When the context changes and the forms and means no longer enable us to work effectively and make the connections that channel life, we may not even see it. The structure has become primary over Spirit.

Mike Breen raises the body metaphor to compare these two groups and describe why they need each other. The pragmatic are like the skeleton, the emergent are like the muscle.

You can get a skeleton to stand up, but you can’t get it to move.
You can get muscle to move, but it wont’ stand up.

So this not an either/or question. We need both flesh, and Spirit. But the structure is never primary; it must always be a response to the activity of the Spirit. The wineskin is formed by the life of the wine. When it grows old and hard, it must be replaced, this preserving the life in a new wineskin that serves that life.

Related: Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins and Hummel, Fire in the Fireplace . (Wineskins was updated by Snyder in the mid nineties and you can view a summary of the new edition HERE)

See also this post on missional orders..