Water To Wine: the salvation of a megachurch pastor

Water To Wine: the salvation of a megachurch pastor February 5, 2016

Brian Zahnd

For the past several years, Brian Zahnd has been like an abbott to me. Every week, I listen to his sermon podcasts as part of my spiritual rhythm of life. Brian’s book Beauty Will Save the World completely changed my life. Brian has been on a journey from what he calls the “easy cheesy cotton-candy Christianity” he originally used to build his evangelical megachurch to a much richer, contemplative, sacramental Christian faith. Brian’s new book Water To Wine is a story of salvation from toxic Christianity and a discovery of the deep mysterious beauty of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

His title is taken from Jesus’ first miracle transforming water into wine at a wedding. It’s an excellent metaphor for the conversion that Brian has experienced over the past 12 years. Brian says that in 2004, after twenty years at the helm of what was at one point “one of the twenty fastest growing churches in America,” he found himself restless and dissatisfied with the “shallow, ‘success-in-life’ chaismatic evangelicalism that had been [his] world” (3). He was thirsty for a deeper gospel, “something living, that came from the oak barrels of a vintner, not something concoted from the aluminum vats of an industrialist” (4).

“Water” represents the practical, rationalistic, utilitarian gospel that American evangelicalism has adopted. It is a gospel that turns the Bible into an encyclopedia of black and white answers, that sees worldly partisan political power as the means of transforming society, that reduces Christian discipleship to chaste nuclear family living. The “wine” that Brian discovered is a kingdom full of mystery and beauty, where the Bible isn’t so much an encyclopedia of answers so much as a song to be lived inside of, where the church’s role is to call people to prayer rather than political triumphalism.

One of Brian’s most important reflections is on the way that the church bell symbolizes the way Christians ought to be present and bear witness in the world:

The ringing of a church bell is a public act, but it’s not a political act. The church bell is a public call to prayer. The question is, can the American church once again be known as a praying community? I hope so. I long for our public presence to be more like the beauty of tolling church bells and less like the shrillness of haranguing political ads. [72]

Much of Brian’s journey has been a discovery of the true purpose of prayer. As he studied the ancient church fathers, he realized that the extemporaneous “Jeezuswejuss” prayer of modern evangelicalism fails at the most important goal of prayer, which is spiritual formation. A life of prayer is supposed to lead us to a way of living that is contemplative rather than reactive, with inner peace as our foundation. But Brian cautions us against the shallow understanding of contemplation that is sometimes propagated when people talk about “meditation” and “mindfulness.” He says:

People who try contemplation without first being properly formed in prayer just end up thinking their same old thoughts and calling them Jesus! Prayer that reinforces our egocentric tendencies is entirely counterproductive. The formation of liturgical prayer is necessary to arrive at the place of true contemplation. [99]

This last sentence really slapped me in the face and confirmed my own disappointing experiences at times with what’s called “centering prayer.” We absolutely need to create space each day to be emptied of our neverending rationalistic monologue. But we can’t expect to gain connection with God just by closing our eyes for fifteen minutes once a day. We need to be swimming in the psalms and other scriptures for our silent, empty time to be fruitful. It’s like the way that an organ interlude can create a meditative ambiance in a church service while the stark absence of sound just makes people fidget.

The ultimate goal of our liturgical formation and contemplation is the eucharistic life, a life in which we experience all things around us as the occasion for joy. When we are properly shaped, the communion meal becomes the means by which all life is made sacred to us:

It’s not a rare diamond or a magical elixir that communicates the life of Christ to us, but something as common, earthy, and ordinary as bread and wine. Every time we receive Communion we are reminded that we live in a sacramental world. The wheat fields of Kansas and the vineyards of California are as holy as chapels and cathedrals. [138]

We live in a “spiritual not religious” age. It’s easy to say that divinity is everywhere, but for that statement to have meaning, we must have our eyes opened to the kingdom of God through prayer. What Brian has taught me is that any spirituality worth having requires a religious core. Not religion in the sense of institutional bureaucracy and rationalistic dogma, but religion in the sense of liturgical discipline. Doctrine is important but it only has meaning in the context of liturgy. Of course, I’m talking way more abstract and theologically nerdy about this than Brian would. His writing is accessible and poetic.

If Brian Zahnd is where American evangelicalism is going, then I want to be a part of that movement. I want to learn how to pray and thus discover the sacramental beauty of the universe. Brian’s book is neither a biography nor a theological treatise. He writes and lives like an abbott patiently modeling prayer for his novices. He doesn’t offer us abstract rationalistic concepts, but a model of poetic, liturgical, contemplative living so that we can learn how to listen to God like the monks we are called to be.

If you’re disillusioned with where American Christianity is today, you need to buy a copy of this book and use Brian’s journey to help you embark on your own pilgrimage into the sacramental kingdom.

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