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The Church is Wine Not a Wineskin

“Your church, even if it’s one of the rare growing ones, is sitting on a ticking time bomb. The exodus of the Millennials do not look good for a church afraid to listen.”   – Thom Schulz   Why are people leaving? A key issue in the debate is the confusion between church as …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

“Your church, even if it’s one of the rare growing ones, is sitting on a ticking time bomb. The exodus of the Millennials do not look good for a church afraid to listen.”   – Thom Schulz


Why are people leaving? A key issue in the debate is the confusion between church as “wineskin” versus the wine that goes in it.

The Bible is full of illustrations and lessons that involve wine. It’s the blood of Jesus; it’s medicine for your stomach; it’s a key part of celebrations; it’s the focus of Jesus’ first miracle.

They didn’t use wine bottles in Jesus’ day. Instead they stored wine in urns and poured the wine from there into a goat leather pouch called a wineskin. You could use and re-use a wineskin so many times and then you had to get a new one.

Wineskins are important only insofar as they fulfill their function. They shouldn’t be confused with the wine they contain.

Buildings vs people

Church buildings are wineskins. Denominations are wineskins. Even church services are wineskins. The people inside the buildings are the wine. We mustn’t confuse the one with the other.

Just because a building contains the people who compose a church doesn’t make it the church. They could meet out in a field and they would still be the church. 

The Greek word for church, “ecclesia” was a political term before it took on religious connotations. It meant a gathering of people. The place they gathered had another name. Jesus talked about two or three “gathered in my name.” When we are gathered together, we are known as the “body of Christ.”

The problem is that we humans tend to confuse the wineskin with the wine. We tend to prefer the concrete to the abstract. When we think of First Baptist Church of Columbus, we don’t think of a group of people, we think of a building. 

It doesn’t help that we build elaborate buildings and that we put pictures of those buildings on our bulletins.

It doesn’t help that often congregations don’t interact in a coordinated way like a body does.

Why young people are leaving “church” 

The confusion has given the word “church” a bad name with many people. They may find Jesus himself winsome, but they are repelled by the idea of church.

If something represents itself as an all-inclusive community, but really is more like an exclusive club, people may be repelled.

And that’s why young people are leaving church by the millions. They intuitively understand this distinction between wine and wineskins better than many older Christians.

Seeing the importance of both wine and wineskins can set you free from the issue you may have with church. You can belong to the local body of Christ as well as a larger body wherever it gets together.

Recently I met a group of Christ-followers I know out on the Gainesville square. We talked and encouraged one another. We were the church gathered. 

Yet we need more than those kinds of random meetings. We need to gather regularly with a group where we are known and can interact in a more coordinated way.

Wine needs wineskins

And so we, who are wine, need wineskins. Without them, we operate solo and don’t get the connection we’re built for.

It’s easy to get jaded about wineskins, especially if they seem tired and old, or if they’ve gotten confused with wine. But we are social creatures built by God to gather, belong, and be known. We have to find a tribe and a place where that tribe gathers.

Wine needs wineskin. You may need to find a new one, but you’ve still got to find one. 

Are you tired of the church? Is it the wine that exhausts you, or is it the wineskin? Wouldn’t it be great to be part of a group who knew you and loved you for who you are?

More in this post on the subject. This blog is good too. 

Comments (12)

  • Love! This topic had Ben rolling around in my head for days now. This blog is excellent and I’m grateful for the words you used to gently display the passionate heart of God for His people.

  • Excellent Seth! This resonates deep within me, and for many others; We’re hosting the “cup” in our home now on Friday evenings.

    • I pray it feels like life and gives you all courage to move out from that safe place to the hard places where people need hope and rescue.

  • Seth this is an important piece you have written here. Thank you. Its interesting that many churches, colleges and universities all have a great deal vested in their way of doing “business” and the brick and mortar required to do so. The “church without walls” concept is gaining new momentum around the world for many reasons including some you articulate. And as pollster George Barna and I discussed at a retreat a few years ago the rise of mega churches and the attendant television exposure gives the false impression all is good and growing for the church in North America. It isn’t. If you look back over your shoulder at the parade it is falling apart at the back and making its way forward.

  • There are articles popping up lately reacting to “criticisms” regarding the church and calling people to defend and champion the church. It may take hundreds of messages, such as yours in this blog, before the difference is clearly seen between church, the people, and “church”, the structure with operational programs. We are called to love and strengthen one another, not defend an institution that hinders that call. Keep on clarifying. Sounds like we cannot overdo it right now.

    • Exactly – it’s a dialogue, not a polemic. We need the conversation. We need the reminder that though we may lean toward the concrete, that is but a shadow of what is real.

  • Some years ago I asked a group of young people to draw their concept of the church. Many drew elaborate buildings with crosses on top. A few drew groups of people clustered together. Little stickmen and stickwomen all in a tight group, a beautiful image of fellowship and hopefully not a ‘holy huddle’!I think they agreed with you seth. Keep up the good work.

  • Hi Seth. Thanks for the article. It is great to read about the church being the wine, not the wineskin. It is something that people have mistaken over the years. I do, however, think that people of all ages are leaving the church not only because we have confused the wine with the wineskin, but also because we have stopped asking God what he wants our wineskin to look like. We think of our wineskins as a Sunday meeting of believers, where the majority of people sit as a silence audience (apart from the singing time) while the leaders do all the speaking and teaching, but I dont believe that fits with what God wants us to be. God tells us to be a family and a body with everyone having a part to play, and he tells us to all bring something to share to teach and admonish each other. He wants us to share our lives and our food with each other. God also tells us that when the wineskin isnt right, the bag will tear and all the wine will be lost (the mass exodus out of the church that we are seeing, perhaps?). If we want to truly be the people God wants us to be, we have to get the definition of both the wine and the wineskin correct.

    A great book I discovered that looks at the what God has to say about both the wine and the wineskin is The Gathering by Ray Barnett (www.raybarnettbooks.com). If people are interested in looking more into the topic, I highly recommend it.

  • So much I could say. So much I won’t say. Mainly, because y’all don’t have time for it. 🙂

    But I will say this much: That wineskin saved my life when I was a child and for me, the wineskin matters.

    Yes, we can gather anywhere and everywhere and still be the church. But as you say, Seth, the wine ideally needs wineskins.

    When we gather in one central location on a weekly basis we have the opportunity to grow in community and commitment.

    I would liken it to the community that abides in my house. We could still connect if we just bumped into each other or even met for coffee but this house, my house, provides the structure for us to build community with each other that goes beyond that.

    I confess I am a loyalist when it comes to the wineskin. Whether that’s popular now or not. Whether it’s ever been popular or not.

    I admire and respect those who see it differently.

    That said, I can envision a future, perhaps not that distant, when the wineskin will burst, so to speak, and the wine spill out. A vague vision of that tells me it will be out of necessity as society as we know it disintegrates.

    Until then, I will be at my favorite wineskin each and every Sunday and grateful for it.

    Thank you, Seth, for provoking thought once again.

    • Good counterpoint, Judith. Wineskins matter. We find comfort and safety in wineskins and we need comfort and safety to get to intimacy and form community.

      So, there’s a balance to be had. Both/and, not either/or.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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