United in the pandemic – a view from the passenger seat

“Move over and let me drive”. That is such a wonderful sentence to hear if the journey has been long and difficult and we have just hit the point of exhaustion. But it wasn’t an offer from a friend or my husband (although he has had to do that with some particularly tricky parallel parking moments!) This was a gentle and yet firm instruction from God that He whispered deep into my spirit in spring 2021.

That whisper came during personal prayer one morning. Well, it started as prayer, yet soon turned to a long pent-up expression of the combination of my anger and despair. It finally culminated in weeping – deep sobs of confession that I could not see the way ahead for New Wine and I could not keep going in my role in it. The journey since March 2020 had been long and difficult and I had been running on fumes for a while. This was precisely the moment that the Lord knew I needed to get to before I could move into the passenger seat and admit that He needed to drive. Actually, I needed to admit that He’d been driving all along – I had just been getting in the way, trying to view the journey from the wrong seat and yank the steering wheel out of His hands.

The view from the driver’s seat – that I had kept trying to sit in when it really wasn’t my place – looked sobering, bordering on scary, when looking at the reality of where we were and what lay ahead. As Covid hit in March 2020 we had to take the unprecedented decision to cancel United that year. Delegates with tickets were disappointed. New Wine leaders, staff and team were devastated.

New Wine is a relational network/movement of local churches and leaders. It is not just a summer event. That said, the United summer gathering is a vital part of our history and the highlight of our year. Whether it is the end or start of our year isn’t completely clear. For many it is the end – a chance to come together and celebrate all that God has done across our network during the year before a summer break. For some it is the start – a place for renewal, Holy Spirit ministry and refreshment, healing and re-envisioning for the year ahead. Maybe it will always be a mix of both for the 20,000 that gather over those 2 weeks.

Although we did not have time to understand the full impact of cancelling United, we took the early decision to refund tickets – of course we had to, how could we keep fee income for an event we couldn’t hold? We were already committed to significant costs – because an event of the size of United has a long lead in time and involves numerous contracts – but we couldn’t let the delegates shoulder that challenge.

The practical reality of that decision was sobering from the seat I sat in. United ticket income covers the costs of the event. No more. It takes about £2million to build and run United normally, and we don’t make a profit from ticket fees. That’s intentional to keep prices as low as possible so that we can gather together. I’m not sure that New Wine has been terribly good at communicating this next part though – most of the income our charity needs to run comes from things associated with that United event – sponsorship, merchandise, commissions, offerings etc. In one unprecedented decision we lost the income we need to run New Wine, at a time when local churches and leaders needed more support than ever. Less than 10% of our charity and ministry costs are met through regular individual or church giving – that was the financial model we have been built on for years. I was never more aware of that reality until the moment United was cancelled.

From my seat – in the Executive Director’s chair – I rapidly looked at how to reduce our overheads with the team and the Board. Staff were furloughed. We applied for grants, but none of the events industry grants applied to a Christian festival like ours. We waited for government help for the events industry but nothing relevant materialised. Insurance cover for covid cancellation in the industry had not been possible in time for us. Some charities are financially underpinned by high-net-worth patrons, but New Wine hasn’t been built on that type of financial foundation.

The financial balance sheets looked unnerving; leading the 30 strong staff team became more challenging with the dynamics of remote working and their understandable concern over furlough as well as their disappointment over United. There were suggestions of ‘mothballing New Wine’ and picking things up after covid had passed, but I knew that would mean 80% of the staff team losing their jobs and, as a result, losing the capacity to run United for several years to come.

Then God gave us a strong prophetic lead that conceived United Breaks Out. We had a vision to take the core elements of United to a digital expression, to equip the church in this time – at no charge. As soon as we said yes to that vision, and national and regional leadership teams, staff and Board set to work planning and implementing, we saw God open the floodgates of provision. In less than 10 weeks from conception to delivery, a vast array of team stepped up to make United Breaks Out happen. At the same time thousands of our faithful New Wine family asked us to turn their United ticket fees to donations.

On the other side of United Breaks Out I looked back and saw this in the rearview mirror:
God had provided ~£800,000 of income as he prompted people to give their ticket refunds and other donations to us. It was a heavenly provision made possible by faithful people in the network partnering with God to release those funds to us. The New Wine charity remained secure and so we began to plan for United 2021.

Even more inspiring and humbling was the feedback we received of how God had been at work through United Breaks Out. We had three times the normal numbers we would have on site, and the stories of people being restored and ministered to by Holy Spirit were simply beautiful. Children and youth encountering Jesus and giving their lives to Him, all ages receiving healings, callings being released, leaders on the brink of burnout being ministered to powerfully. We were praising God for all that He had done. He had been in the driving seat all along and I was beyond thankful.

And yet the journey of United in the pandemic was not over yet.

Wave 2 of Covid and restrictions hit once again. No certainty on mass gatherings was forthcoming. Another raft of leadership and Board meetings had to weigh the risks of pressing ahead with United 2021 and once again we had to take the very difficult decision to cancel the event. Feeling both deflated, and yet also more confident after United Breaks Out, we set to planning the hybrid ‘United Elements’ event with vastly reduced numbers on site and a simultaneous digital stream. For months, the team worked on two types of United – the hybrid Elements event and a completely digital version (United Breaks Out). The New Wine team began to struggle with workload.

For weeks, we had also been working on information and options papers, which lead to the now inevitable meetings that ultimately agreed to cancel the hybrid United Elements event. The restriction roadmap and events research scheme hadn’t given us enough certainty to proceed before we had to spend >£1million on the summer in person event, and the necessary medical provision for the event wasn’t possible due to Covid. Ticket holders were given the option of a full refund, or a ticket carry over into United ’22. Faced with a second year of no event, from my view in the driver’s seat the financial challenges loomed even larger than last time.

Into a second year of remote working for the staff team, disappointment at another United cancellation, Covid illness and loss for some, and our practitioner New Wine leaders facing massive challenges in their own churches, the journey of United in the pandemic took a difficult turn.

Feeling as though we’d taken a wrong turn, double backed on ourselves and had arrived at a place on the journey we’d been before, there was no way that the balance sheet would support costs to keep the charity running and enough staff employed to deliver a digital alternative and start plans for United ’22. Prioritising posts for redundancy order filled my days, whilst keeping the team motivated and encouraging creative ideas to flow for United Breaks Out.

For days I had been modelling ticket prices for the digital United Breaks Out event. With only 10% of our charity costs for ’21 covered, I was working out what we needed from ticket income for United Breaks Out and how to cut costs yet still retain capacity for the future. It did not add up. No pricing model brought us to the place we needed to be, and no options sat well with the team. Hence, my place of prayer/despair/sobbing surrender. And I heard God whisper “Move over and let me drive” at that pivotal place on the journey.

In my spirit, as I properly and fully surrendered the driving seat to God and moved to the passenger seat, the view changed completely. Knowing that God oversees the journey it became possible to rest and relax into the ride. I re-noticed the scenery – the blessings of what it is to be part of New Wine – the values, the people and relationships, the encouragement, the life changing moments of Holy Spirit encounter and renewal. I remembered where the journey started. I wasn’t there in the early ‘80’s but I value and cherish the history and the pioneers of our movement. And as my mind was wandering over that, God reminded me of something I’ve heard New Wine leaders say – a John Wimber quote “if you want more give it away”. And at that moment I knew we had to surrender any ticket income for United Breaks Out and give it away at no charge.

God is overseeing the remainder of the journey of United in the pandemic. At the same time God was prompting me, He was also saying the same thing to others in the National Leadership Team. In the days and meetings that followed, external prophetic words confirmed it, unity in the decision of ‘no charge’ came and an overwhelming peace settled over it all.

No, the balance sheets still don’t add up. We haven’t had any successful grant applications. We don’t have any patrons to underwrite us. We have a significant financial gap because we have said yes to God when he asked us to give United Breaks Out for no charge. And we are at peace in this – because God is in the driving seat. This is a faith and obedience thing between New Wine and God. He knows what we need, and we know that He is faithful and good. If God has plans and purposes for New Wine to continue, He’ll ask people to partner with Him to release His provision for our ministry. We’re trusting that He’ll release provision as He did in 2020 – we’ve seen it once and know that He can do it again if He wishes. New Wine are being obedient at this point in the journey and trusting Him with overseeing the onward road from here.

And that’s where we’re at now. As I write this blog it is less than 2 weeks until our 6-day United Breaks Out digital event. We have an awesome kids programme ready, the Luminosity programme looks amazing too; morning and evening speakers and worship for the Arena and Impact channels are all recorded and ready, and we can see the Spirit has been at work as speakers and worship teams have put their offerings together. Uniters are working hard to gather their churches locally to watch the event together and enjoy live hosting, worship and ministry on the live stream. The After-Hours programme will support the multitude of church BBQs and parties as we come out of restrictions on 19 July. We’ll be singing and praising loudly in the sunshine (and probably the rain….it is United after all 😉) The view from the passenger seat today is an inspiring and humbling one. We’ll be dispersed across the nation but we’re excited in anticipation for all that we know God wants to do for the sake of His church and His nation through United Breaks Out this summer.

We’re giving away what we have because we want more. More of your Spirit to fall on your church, more renewal Lord, more of your church equipped, revived, renewed and on fire with your presence and power. More of this nation under your Kingship Jesus. We want more of that, so please use what we’re giving away this summer – for the sake of your name and for your glory.

More Lord, come Holy Spirit.

Jules Morgan is the Executive Director of New Wine.