By Jeff Iorg
Jesus used two illustrations to teach about the necessity of major change. These examples were based on common experiences of his hearers (which need some explaining to make sense to a modern audience).
These stories teach timeless principles about change and provide baseline insights into leading major change successfully.
Jesus taught the first principle about the necessity of major change with a sewing illustration. He said, “No one patches an old garment with unshrunk cloth, because the patch pulls away from the garment and makes the tear worse” (Matthew 9:16).
In the first century, when a child needed a new shirt, the first step was shearing a sheep. The shorn wool was then spun into thread, woven into cloth, cut into pieces, and sewn into a suitable form.
After the child wore the garment a few times, it would be soiled. The shirt would then be removed, washed in a river, pounded clean on a rock, and hung up to dry. Each time this was done, the garment would shrink and change shapes.
Eventually, it would tear and need to be repaired.
Jesus stated the obvious—at least to everyone who heard him that day. An old garment cannot be restored by sewing on a patch of new cloth. If you do that, when the cleansing cycle is repeated, the new patch will shrink differently from the old garment, making the tear even worse.
The illustration teaches this principle related to major change: patches do not work. A patch is insufficient to solve an entrenched problem. Gradual change is often desirable for lesser concerns. Minor problems can be solved with course corrections. Good management resolves many issues.
Big problems, however, require major changes. In those cases, a patch is not sufficient.
Some changes cannot be made incrementally. For example, suppose your state decided to switch the side of road where cars are driven—from the right to the left. Would you want that phased in gradually, county by county? No way!
Changes like this are all-or-nothing, paradigm-shifting, no-going back breakthroughs. Everyone has to make the change at once—no exceptions, no outliers, and no recalcitrant naysayers who insist on the old ways.
When God directs his people to make a major change, he means make a major change. No patches!
Jesus taught a second principle about the necessity of major change with another illustration from daily life in the first century—the use of wineskins.
He said, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17).
In Jesus’ time, wine was often fermented in wineskins. A wineskin was a pouch formed from a fresh animal hide, stitched together to form a pliable container. Grape juice was poured into the wineskin, it was capped, and hung up to age.
As fermentation happened, the wineskins expanded to contain the wine being produced. New wine (fresh juice) required new wineskins so the container could expand as the juice fermented.
In contrast, new wine could not be put into old wineskins. No person would retrieve a battered, brittle wineskin and reuse it after it had lost its elasticity. Putting fresh juice in that container would prove catastrophic.
As fermentation occurred, the wineskin would crack—even rupture—and the wine would be lost. Jesus then restated the obvious: new wine goes in new wineskins.
The illustration teaches a second principle related to major change: new structures are necessary to sustain change. Making major change requires new structures (new budgets, new organizational charts, new buildings, new policy manuals, etc.) to hold and support the change.
This is often the hardest part of making a major change. Leaders often announce the change, but fail to create the organizational structures to reinforce it. Followers may claim to embrace a major change, but then sabotage it by resisting the necessary steps to fulfill its implementation.
Whether leaders fail to create a new wineskin or followers refuse to embrace it, the results are the same. No new wineskins means no sustainable changes.
Making major changes in churches and ministry organizations can be painful and chaotic. Still, wise leaders know they must hear God’s direction and lead their followers to obey him. When we are at our best, we do it as simply and definitively as Matthew.
JEFF IORG (@Jeff_Iorg) is the president of Gateway Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Leading Major Change in Your Ministry, from which this article was excerpted and adapted with permission from B&H Publishing Group.