I have already given a summary of my New Wine experiences here, but after a couple of weeks in Scotland, I thought I might try to get some more thoughts ordered. It's quite difficult to know where to start, so what I commit to the blog is not necessarily in priority or rational order (but I guess that's the point of a blog!) Also, apologies to any readers who are not from a Christian background, or at least not familiar with this particular form of Christianity. My good friend Steve Tilley has also blogged on his experiences here and here, should you require a parallel account from the 'southern' venue. You can also read his seminar notes here.
Let's be clear at the start. I grew up in what would probably now be called 'open evangelical' church (although my vicar had been a UCCF travelling sec.!) where the Bible was the key source of authority, but you were allowed to engage your brain before accepting everything you heard. Later, I also came into contact with more charismatic folks, have had very positive experiences in those contexts, and I even attended (and survived) a big event at Wembley Arena where John Wimber spoke at the peak of the "signs and wonders" movement in the 1980s. So I didn't automatically assume that New Wine would pose me any real problems when I first went with our church a few years ago.
There are some easy hits you could make (mainly white, mainly middle class) but they also apply to most of the Church of England. You could say it's an artificial context, but isn't every conference? However, my first couple of New Wines left me feeling something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on what. In the end I accepted the gift of time that such a gathering gives you, and spent it with people from our church, rather than going to lots of sessions. This year I was actually on the team, doing radio shows. Of course, you then risk being fully identified with the content and ethos of the conference programme.
The conference programme would be my first issue to reflect on. I have noticed that a lot of speakers names come up again and again. after four years, it seems tired. I also think there ought to be some streaming of the programme to indicate some sessions are more appropriate for new Christians or established ones. (Beginner, intermediate and expert aren't the right terminology here, but you know what I mean) Where do you go if you're not a Christian, but interested? Where do you go if you want to discuss the hermeneutical approach of the morning Bible talks? (we did this in our church camping area, but we're a big group with the capacity to do that)
The programme also has a lot of seminars that seem to be more about self-actualisation than costly discipleship. The pervading culture of the conference risks pandering to consumers rather than community, with "how to make your life better" titles, sessions which tended to be lecture format with a passive audience, and the only response on offer was to receive prayer from the ministry team*. In the main sessions, giving everyone a religious experience seemed to be the main purpose (something I would distinguish from a transformative encounter with God.) Again I have no problem with helping people with problems, giving talks or having experiences per se, it's the balance that concerns me.
* ministry team (in this context): a group of people who have been prepared and designated the task of praying for people. At the end of sessions they move to an area of the room (usually the front) and anyone wishing to respond by receiving prayer of this kind simply goes over to one of them. Prayer with laying-on hands and inviting the Holy Spirit are main features.