Here is a direct quote from an actual Church Information Form (the form Presbyterian churches use when they are searching for a new minister):
“We are seeking [to be] a new church, but one patterned by tradition. By blending the emotional comforts of the past with the benefits of modern conveniences, we envision _PC as a ‘New Old Church.’ Traditions will be honored as they illuminate our path to change and transformation…. We are looking for change, but want it tempered by custom which is honored and valued as it illuminates our path to growth in an ever-evolving world.”
My first thought was that this is complete nonsense. Is what this church wants even possible? How exactly do traditions “illuminate a path” to growth, change, and transition? What does that look like? “Blending the emotional comforts of the past with the benefits of modern conveniences”? Find me a place where the Lord Jesus advocates comforts and conveniences. This appears to be a fitting example of committee-speak, in which we devise sentences that are completely contradictory and don’t make any sense, but satisfy the needs of disparate interests of individuals in the committee that wrote them.
But let me give this committee credit for talking about change and transformation at all. This in itself is far more than most documents like this are interested in.
The relationship between new and old has always been an issue in Christianity. Jesus is a change-agent. He preaches a radically transformative message. He has primarily to do with the breaking in of the “new.” Hence, he makes famous statements about new wine and old wineskins, and a new, unshrunk piece of cloth, sewn onto an old, already shrunk, garment.
Yet at the same time Jesus expresses a strong continuity with his own Jewish tradition. “Do not think that I have some to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). He references the Hebrew Scriptures all the time, and he clearly sees himself and his ministry as the fulfillment of earlier prophecy.
So his is a new message, firmly rooted in the old. Is this tradition “illuminating the path” forward? Or is it the path forward, in terms of himself, illuminating and reframing the tradition?
Jesus talks in several places about the relationship between new and old. Clearly it was a hot topic then as well.
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). This image reminds me of Phyllis Tickle’s remark about how the church (and culture) declare a rummage sale every 500 years. A rummage sale involves cleaning out the attic and the basement, giving a reassessment to “what is new and what is old.” Some new things are let go. Some old things are rediscovered and kept.
Jesus also says: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:36-39). People like the old, comfortable, seasoned, ways.
But Jesus contends that new teaching cannot be easily received by people whose minds have already been shaped by old teaching. (See http://www.bethimmanuel.org/articles/new-wine-and-old-wineskins-parable-luke-536-39-re-examined for a wonderful rabbinic analysis of this passage.) That’s why he chooses for his disciples not Torah scholars, trained rabbis, and experienced priests, but common people who do ordinary work. They are able to receive the “new wine” and the “new garment” of his teaching, where people who are already invested in the old paradigm are generally not.
What this means for the church is very challenging. What I hear him basically saying is that people raised in the old paradigm of church life, what we call “Christendom,” in which the church was the spiritual arm of American/Western culture, are simply not able to hear his new message. The “fresh wineskins” are new people, people not now in the church, who have not been tainted by old theologies and doctrines, who approach the message of Jesus with openness and freshness. They are not burdened with the “the old is better” bias.
Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes, the sinners, who follow him are advancing into the kingdom of God more readily than the pious, upright, holy people of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. In our day it is the drunks and drug addicts, meeting in 12-step groups in church basements, that are advancing into the healing that characterizes the kingdom of God before the well-dressed, respectable, responsible church-people.
So, on the one hand the new and the old do not mix. But, on the other, Jesus says the Kingdom of God exhibits new and old being drawn from the same treasure. So, for Jesus, it is the new that has priority. Not just any new thing, not novelty for its own sake… but his new. The central fact of his mission is the reconciled relationships with God and others he proclaims, calling it the Kingdom of God. This reconciliation is really very old and original, going back to creation itself. But it feels new to people whose minds are just now being opened to perceive and realize it. What Jesus announces as “new,” was also announced by the prophets, and is the good news at the very heart of the Torah: God’s liberating presence in the world.
When Jesus says, at the beginning of his ministry, that “the time (kairos) is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15), he means that this kind of time that is always new is where we are called to live. The old way of thinking is one that did not understand or accept this, but stayed boxed into traditions and habits that had been superimposed by people, powers, and culture.
Venerability is not a value in itself; neither is novelty for its own sake. The point is to get into the flow of God’s kairos, God’s living present.
This has meaning for the church today because so much of what passes for “change” is just trivial window-dressing. It is getting on the latest trend in “church growth strategies.” The real questions we need to face about change have to do with whether and how what we are doing actually serves Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God now.
So the balance between new and old that this church apparently wants to strike is beside the point. The new that Jesus calls upon us to follow is his vision of justice, peace, healing, reconciliation, and love. These are the criteria that determine the character of our discipleship. I favor a Christ-based approach that subjects everything a church does to the test of faithfulness to Jesus. Some very traditional practices will certainly pass muster; some very new and contemporary practices will not. It is not about how long something has been around but how well it reflects and expresses Jesus’ teaching and actions.