People who want to know Jesus and the Bible but have been turned off by a traditional church have a new option in the Little Kanawha District.
It’s a gathering called “New Wineskins.”
The name comes from Luke 5: 37-39, which says: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.”
Rev. Joe Webb, the pastor of the New Wineskins gathering who also is the Annual Conference’s New Ministries Coordinator, explained that the gathering “was never intended to become a new church. It was intended to bring people together. It’s based on the idea that God is pouring new wine into the world and we, the institutional church, are very often trying to capture it in old wineskins. Many of us were doing the same thing the same way and people were leaving.”
Webb started New Wineskins in 2014 when he felt a calling “to bring people together who were frustrated with the institutional church. We started this to see what would happen.”
The gathering took off and, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, consistently drew 18 to 25 people to twice-a-month “safe space, no judgement” meetings at the Marietta Brewing Co. The group is currently meeting every Monday evening online via Zoom through its Website, movwineskins.com and social media channels (@movwineskins).
Webb said last year he started getting the sense — “one of those things in your soul, that God is calling you to do something new.” He said that from the beginning of his discernment regarding his call to vocational ministry he took long walks to pray and kept discerning that he should be doing “something new, something different.” He said those words continued to echo in his prayer life with greater and greater urgency.
“By mid-summer last year, I decided this was a fire under me I could no longer ignore,” he said. “I had a need to form a new faith community, primarily for all of the ‘done’ people — the people who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to be a part of the institutional church, but still had an interest in Jesus and the Bible.
“New Wineskins was already up and running and was really filling that role as a faith community for folks who just can’t do the traditional church thing anymore. We just needed to add a little more structure and intentionality.”
Discussions with conference staff and Bishop Sandra Steiner-Ball led to an extension ministry appointment as New Ministries Coordinator and to lead New Wineskins as a new faith community in the Little Kanawha District.
“I have no interest in throwing the baby out with the bathwater — the old models are still working well for many people,” Webb said. “But we have to try some new things.”
To that end, Webb has also launched an online ministry called Accidental Tomatoes (accidentaltomatoes.com), which seeks to connect people who have experienced disassociation with the institutional church and/or spiritual deconstruction through a weekly blog and bi-weekly podcast.
He picked the name after observing a cherry tomato plant emerge from a neglected herb garden in his front yard.
“It had been two years since I had planted anything in that herb garden,” he said. “In fact, I had used herbicide to control the weeds that kept popping up. And then, lo and behold, this little tomato plant started to emerge. And it reminded me of how people can still grow and thrive outside the walls and fences of our institutions…sometimes despite our best efforts to keep them out.”
Webb is taking knowledge gained at New Wineskins and Accidental Tomatoes and seeing how it can be adapted to the conference’s other areas.
“What I’m trying to do is very much in line with Wesleyan teaching and my role as a deacon, which is to be a bridge between the world and the church,” he said.
Webb now sees himself as pastor of a church without walls — a vision that has become even stronger since the social distancing rules imposed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
An insight from a movement called “Fresh Expressions,” which began in England, is influencing Webb.
“We did a great job when the church was the center of neighborhoods,” Webb said. “But one thing I learned from Fresh Expressions is, we no longer exist in neighborhoods. Now we exist in networks, all sorts of affinity groups.”
Facebook, for example, has groups for every imaginable interest, from model train enthusiasts to collectors of Beanie Babies.
“These networks exist both physically and online,” Webb said. “The networks are the context. We’ve got these networks everywhere. The church has to retool in the network context.
“How do we identify what networks are around us and how do we reach the people in these groups? How do we identify the leaders? How do we connect and build discipleship pathways within those networks?
“We know the networks exist, but our strategy has always been to try to get them to come to us,” Webb said. “Perhaps the way to do this is to go to them first. Now I’m going to go to you, stay with you, help you. It’s incredibly Wesleyan!
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Webb added. “There are people out in the world who are doing this kind of work. It’s just new to us.
“We can’t just follow other models, though,” he said. “We have to contextualize. We can’t just look at what somebody’s doing in Houston or Orlando and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do that here.’ You look at the tools they use and think about how you can adapt.”
Webb has consolidated his ministry work under the Accidental Tomatoes Network banner and is seeking partnerships with others who want to seek out and serve in contextual communities all around the conference, especially in experimental and non-traditional ways.
“I’m already talking to some folks in other areas of the conference who are trying new things to see how we can support each other by networking and creating learning community types of cohorts,” he said. “We need a way to stay connected with each other, to resource each other, and even to cross-pollinate some of the content we’re creating and curating.”