Tag Archives: Community

We’re In The Cloud!?!?


Working with youth and young adults for over a decade, I’ve heard a lot of excuses for poor choices. One excuse is repeated far more than any other: you can’t just tell me what I should do, I have to learn it for myself.

It’s a stupid excuse.

It’s also one that I have used myself. A lot of us say something like this, thinking that we hear so many conflicting ideas and different opinions of what we should do that we just can’t trust any of them, even when they come from people we trust. We learn best through experience, so we have to learn what is best through our own personal experiences. In other words, instead of learning from the experiences and stories from others who have made mistakes so that we don’t have to, we are choosing an insane path by repeating those mistakes to see if the same actions will have different consequences. Or, I think more commonly, we are choosing to be lazy. It takes effort and engagement to learn from the past, and generally speaking we have become extraordinarily good at being lazy and avoiding responsibilities.

The writer of the book of Hebrews covers this. He spends an entire chapter (Heb 11), talking about faith and how figures from Old Testament history displayed faith in God’s plan. Each of these individuals proved that trust in God would never be misplaced. The writer then says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1, ESV). We have such a great group of witness, of examples, to learn from and follow that to ignore and not learn from them can only be described as idiotic. Their stories show great and brave decisions that they made and how God took care of them even in the face of adversity, as well as extremely poor decisions that they made repeatedly and the horrible consequences that those decisions brought.

That “cloud of witnesses” does not end with the close of the Old Testament or with the addition of the New Testament. Church history continues these examples of flawed people attempting to follow God and, through good and bad choices, we see stories we can learn from if we choose to throw off the laziness that we so often embrace and live with purpose for God. Augustine, a great thinker and teacher, struggled with sexual temptation and was haunted by decisions he made as a teen. Jerome was a grumpy, argumentative man who was passionate about the Bible. John Wycliffe lacked a sense of humor and had to walk a line of pushing for reform in churches that had become more focused with power and control than with following God, and Wycliffe himself becoming entangled in regional politics. John Wesley was run out of America because of women troubles but used his new circumstances to build a group of passionate Christ followers in England that would become a worldwide movement. The list can go on and on.

And it doesn’t stop with historical figures. We are called to be a part of a church for a reason. Churches are filled with flawed, hypocritical, arrogant human beings just like me who are trying their darndest to be followers of Jesus despite our own sin and the temptations around us. By coming together we can encourage and support each other, which sometimes means giving someone a hug when they’re having a tough time and sometimes mean smacking someone in the back of the head (in love, of course) and telling them they know better. And, if we are brave enough to accept that we can follow Christ alongside people that we don’t completely and totally agree with, we can benefit from an even greater community by coming alongside others in our community beyond the walls of our home church.

This is hard. It means that we have to get over the “I have to learn it myself” mentality and humbly accept that others have something to teach us – and we have to actively look for opportunities to learn from them! We have to get over the laziness that we have all grown accustomed to and learn. If we learn and grow, if we then choose to live life with a purpose beyond our own agenda, God has proven that He will faithfully respond and do amazing things through flawed-but-faithful people. Gideon was short, Moses stuttered, David was an adulterer, Luther was melancholic, and Billy Graham struggled believing the Bible was true. God used groups of young adults to launch the Reformation and The Great Awakening. I pray that we would be humble, willing to learn, and eager to study God’s Word as we seek to be followers of Christ.

This article was first published in the Fairmont Sentinel on February 28th. Check out the Sentinel online.


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My Respone To Critics: Unity and getting over yourself

Lets hug it out 2Unity seems like a good idea, right? Most people I’ve talked to, including some who do not regularly attend church, think the idea of churches working together to share God’ love to those who need it is a good thing. For most it is, as my mother would say, a “No Duh!” kind of thing.

Not so for everyone. The following excerpt was published in the Fairmont Sentinel on Oct 24th in response to our push for greater unity in the Christian community and our Unity Station outreach at the county fair;

Laudable intention. Wrong approach. An outward display of unity is pointless, even harmful, if there isn’t true unity based upon the Word of God. Christians end up settling for a “least common denominator” faith: We all believe that the Bible is true and Jesus has provided a way for us to be forgiven. Every other doctrine in Scripture is discarded as “secondary.”

…We’re more willing to settle for a façade of unity than to actually confront and correct false teaching on the basis of Scripture alone.

-Peter Hagen, “Can we achieve unity in the Christian church?” Fairmont Sentinel, Friday, Oct 24, 2014, pg 6

I don’t disagree with the concept of unity being based on the Word of God. In fact, as we have communicated our vision for unity it has been based on the truth of Scripture and the need for saving faith. We have in no way “discarded” other theological beliefs, but we have stated that those beliefs are secondary because without saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord they are irrelevant; you can be the strongest believer the episcopal form of church government or consubstantiation in the world, but if you do not believe you are a sinner whose only hope for salvation lies in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, then those beliefs are about as useful as a cardboard box in a hurricane. I believe that all followers of Christ should have some theological viewpoints on these and a multitude of other positions, but as I wrote previously, these things are not “essentials.”

Somehow, when I read the words this pastor wrote in October and received several phone calls from concerned friends and ministry partners, I didn’t think this pastor and I were on the same page. A month later in a follow-up article, the pastor continued his thoughts;

I contend that Scripture is clear. God’s Word means what it says and says what it means…

The problem is with unbelief, which sets God’s Word aside in favor of some other authority.

This problem is compounded by arrogance and condescension, masquerading as pity upon the poor soul who would dare assert that God’s Word is clear (and that, on the basis of that Word, a doctrine could be declared to be “false”).

-Peter Hagen, “Christian unity is good, but how do we attain it?” Fairmont Sentinel, Friday, Nov 14, 2014, pg 6

Again, on the surface I agree with much of this statement, but the pastor’s statement that humility regarding our ability to fully comprehend God and His truth is actually “arrogance and condescension” is, to me, massively narrow-minded. The example this pastor uses regarding how “God’s Word is clear” is the creation account in Genesis 1. He encourages readers to survey local churches and ask, “Does your church teach a literal creation – seven regular days of 24 hours each?” Any other belief, in this pastor’s opinion, is nothing less than a rejection of God’s Word for the acceptance of man’s misguided wisdom.

This point struck home for me. On the specific issue of creation I have in the past shared his viewpoint. I remember a conversation I once had with one of my students, a highly intelligent and well-studied high school girl, over creation. She and her family would be described as “old-earth creationists,” clearly believing that God created everything, but that it was not necessarily in a 168-hour window of time around 7,000 years ago. The statement I made to this student at that time was this; “I’m not sure someone who doesn’t believe in a young-earth creation view really believes the Bible is true.”

I now look back at that conversation with regret (and I later apologized to that family), because I now believe that viewpoint was misguided and arrogant.

For what it’s worth, I am still a young-earth creationist – I do believe that the world was created in a 168-hour window of time around 7,000-10,000 years ago. The thing is, I don’t really care all that much if someone agrees with me on those specific points. My reasons for saying this are the following:

  • I believe that all truth is God’s truth-not just Scripture, but truth found in nature and the world around us. Everything that is true, good and right is intentionally put in place by the Creator. Anything that is evil is a corruption of God’s good, true creation.
  • Our understanding of truth is open to some interpretation. I have extensively studied evolutionary theory for years, and I do not believe it is scientifically irresponsible to hold a young-earth creation view. I can read the Bible and come up with the belief that professing believers should be baptized, others can read the same words and believe that children should be baptized. This isn’t one side or the other refusing to submit to the truth of scripture, it is simply a difference in reading and understanding truth that God is communicating. God is bigger than us, and He is a bit smarter than us. His truth as communicated to us stretches us because it’s more than we can deal with on our own. As Augustine said,

If you understand it, it isn’t God.

  • We must approach the search for truth and understanding with humility, acknowledging that some of God’s truth is beyond our ability to comprehend and must be opened to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. We must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12, ESV). God has begun a good work in us, and we are called to spend our lives humbly pursuing His truth wherever and however He reveals it.
  • On the issue of creation, I believe that there is sufficient evidence to acknowledge that it is very possible that there are other models of creation that are not only possible from a scientific perspective but also from a biblical viewpoint. For example, each day in Genesis 1 is not transitioned with “the next day,” leaving open the possibility of time gaps between days. It says “there was evening and morning,” but the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day, so what requires that the first 3 days be viewed as 24 hour periods of time, a standard humanity has built from the movements of the sun and the moon? The list of examples could continue, but my point is this: even if I believe in a young-earth view, I can humbly acknowledge that I may be wrong and, more importantly, I can acknowledge that this belief does not directly impact the truth of the Bible as a whole or the gospel specifically.

As God has grown me and taught me more about His truth, He has been required to repeatedly pound into my skull my need to acknowledge that I don’t know everything and I will never know everything. I look back at where God has brought me, from a narrow-minded perspective on the Bible that looked at any and every disagreement as a hill to die on, to a place where I am willing to humbly continue to pursue and defend truth while acknowledging that not every difference is worth arguing over, and I am thankful for the lessons God has taught me. 10 years ago I was one of the last people in the world that anyone would expect to be pushing for unity and solidarity across personal and denominational lines, but I can rejoice that God has and continues to refine me and use me. As Paul wrote,

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

-2 Corinthians 12:10

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You can’t spell ‘Unity’ without ‘U’…and some other stuff

U = YOUIt is now over 9 months since I began my push towards a more unified community of faith in and around Martin County, MN. The early months were spent in preparation and vision-casting among some trusted ministry leaders. That push was followed by a concerted effort to spread the word, especially focused on our county fair outreach, as well as messages sent to individuals and churches. Like most of what my organization, The Gathering, has done, this was something new and different, so the ball began rolling very slowly while people got their minds around what we were trying to do. Doing something different and new often garners reactions like that: people are slow to respond to something they are not used to or do not fully understand. However, I often find myself quoting Charles Spurgeon and Craig Groeschel in those situations:

If we can’t get sinners to Jesus by ordinary methods, we must use extraordinary ones.
-Charles Spurgeon

To reach people that no one is reaching, we have to do things that no one is doing.
-Craig Groeschel

To put it another way: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If we want different results, we have to do things differently.

That was the goal: do something different, something that showed that our faith community was not simply a collection of churches competing for attendance and tithe dollars, because if that is the perception in the young adult community of churches then we have exactly 0% chance of reaching them. I was realistic in my promotion of this idea; if we were to achieve a level of success in this area we would be accomplishing something that very few (if any) communities have accomplished. However, I believe that we are capable of accomplishing great things because God has empowered us to do great things in His name.

But what would this look like? What shape would unity in a local community take given the breadth of established churches from a variety of differing denominations, each with its own congregational personality and set of distinctions? Here are some of my ideas:

First, I do not think this would become a movement that would seek to dissolve all of our independent churches to become one uber-church serving the entire area. I think we have individual churches for some good and practical reasons, and I see no reason to change that. By having smaller churches comprised of people that work well together and are in full agreement on a variety of theological beliefs, it allows for better discipleship and growth as well as a better structure for ministry and support that starts from and grows out of deep and meaningful relationships.

Second, I think we do have the potential to come together more often for deeper and more connected worship of our God; not just the God of the Lutherans or Methodists, but the God of all Bible-believing Christ followers. It’s true that we can worship by ourselves, but worship in a group can (and should) take that worship to another level when we gather together in a community of believers. Those who have experienced worship on an even larger scale, maybe at a festival or conference, can attest to an even deeper worship experience when an even larger and more diverse group of believers gathers for worship and praise. Worship can be powerful, and the experience of God’s people coming together can not only move believers but it can impact others and draw them towards God. I hope and pray that we can come together as a community in Martin County and as communities of faith around the country and world for the sake of God’s glory.

Third, I believe that God has created us not to simply wander aimlessly through life, but to live life for a purpose. We were created to do His good work, and I believe that when we work together to do God’s work we can accomplish exponentially more. My small group, working together, can accomplish more than any of us individually could accomplish alone; my church can accomplish more than its collection of small groups or Sunday school classes could accomplish alone. And, I believe, a collection of churches working together can accomplish more than the same group of churches could accomplish working alone. We have the hungry to feed, the hurting to comfort, and the lost people to lead towards the Good News of Christ. If we come together, we can do so much more than we are doing now.

Finally, I believe that those beliefs that unites us are greater than those that divide us. There is a Latin phrase that bears this idea:

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas

Translated, the phrase means this:

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

This is the essence of the unity I have been pressing for. The essentials we have taken a stand for are the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, the work of the God/Man Jesus Christ, and the need for salvation for all of humanity. In other debates, whether they center on baptism, worship style, format of the Lord’s Supper, etc, there is no a need to quarrel or disassociate over the difference. Some of these things are important, but they are not essential to our faith – we are all believers and followers of God regardless of what our specific beliefs on these subjects are if we have followed the Bible’s guidance for salvation;

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
-Romans 10:9 (ESV)

But in all our interactions and discussions, we have charity, love and graciousness, with a view of the big picture of what God has called us to, both individually and as a group.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges or conflicts. We are bound to have struggles. We will come under attack from the Evil One, who most certainly does not want us to accomplish greater things for God and would be most happy to have us settle in to a comfortable, status-quo “faith” that does not seek to challenge ourselves or others. We will have divisions and rifts that will arise based on disagreements, differences in personalities and ideas, and varying beliefs. The road towards unity is one that is long, treacherous and largely uncharted, but I hope we continue to walk down it together, for the Glory of God.

For further reading, check out this excellent article by Dr. Mark E. Ross; “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”

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Our Attempt At Unity – The Unity Station

An excerpt of this article was published in the Fairmont Sentinel, September 2014.

unityStationThis year’s Martin County Fair saw a new attraction – the Unity Station tent. Unity Station was a cooperative effort between The Gathering, Martin County Youth For Christ, and over a dozen other local churches and ministries from the Martin County, MN area. It saw a variety of people with different ideas, passions, and goals come together behind one idea: unity of God’s people.

1 Corinthians 1:10 says this:

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.

Too often Christians divide: denominations, worship styles, priorities, theology. If we want to reach younger generations, this must stop. We need to come together more behind the things we agree about that are of primary importance, things like the truth of the Bible and the fact that Jesus Christ has provided a way for us to be forgiven of our sin. We need to let those other things that are secondary stay secondary and not get in the way of us working together for the common good.

Unity Station was a good start for our community. We saw believers in Jesus Christ from a variety of churches, ages, and backgrounds come together to celebrate what our faith community does to improve Martin County and to share the love of Christ with our community. It was encouraging seeing teens through 70-somethings together for the same purpose and goal. But it needs to not stop there.

To truly see our communities, our churches, and each of us as individuals reach the potential we have, we need to see more of this. We need more groups looking to work together for the good of others, more sacrifice for the sake of what God wants us to accomplish, and more commitment to unity across our community. If we can continue this trajectory, we can become what God has intended for us; to be communities committed to loving God and loving others. I believe that nothing would draw people faster and in greater numbers to an area or a group of people than to become a group of people that are known for their genuine love and concern for one another.

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The Beginnings of Unity

An excerpt of this article was published in the Fairmont Sentinel, May 2014.

While playing football for Granada-Huntley-East Chain High School in the late 1990s I had the opportunity to experience something that seems to have become commonplace in our area now – school sports-sharing. I played for the Granada-Huntley-East Chain-Martin Luther Mustangs. That’s quite a name for a team, and we even received a little light-hearted media attention around the state when we faced off against the Mountain Lake-Butterfield-Oden football team in a playoff game that feature the longest named matchup in most people’s memories. I have been proud to be able to return to the area and give back to my high school by working as a coach, now for the GHEC-Truman Jaguars.

Adding another school isn’t as simple as plugging in a handful of players. After spending time together in a small school, those students are close to each other and have a familiarity and comfort level that they do not have with the students from the other school. I remember those football camps where we would show up for practice in August and not only had to go through the process of preparing for the season but also get to know all of the new teammates that we would be playing alongside, guys that we would have to trust and rely on if we were going to be successful. It took time, but these strangers became teammates and eventually friends, which made for some interesting basketball games later in the year. In a large way our success or failure relied on whether we could be unified as a team put together from two schools.

Many of us are a part of a local church congregation. We may identify ourselves as a member or attender of that church or point it out to others and say, “That’s my church.” But what we sometimes forget is that when the Bible talks about church it usually isn’t referring to one specific congregation or group of believers but rather to the “church universal”, all those who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ everywhere. To all believers Paul gives a specific command:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
(1 Corinthians 1:10, ESV)

In the two years since we have launched The Gathering, a local ministry focused on reaching out to young adults in their 20s and 30s in and around Fairmont, MN, I have seen impressive examples of unity in our community as well as disheartening examples of a lack of unity. Our new ministry has been invited openly into many churches and I have seen great examples of encouragement and support from many in our community, along with a desire to reach out to and love the younger residents of Martin County and the surrounding communities. The Gathering was one of almost 30 co-sponsors of a community concert/festival in Sylvania Park last fall. Fairmont Area Youth Ministries (FAYM) has consistently done events that not only bring together local church youth groups but does so in a way that impacts the community and world by doing events like collecting food for local food shelves or raising money to feed starving kids worldwide. These are encouraging and exciting opportunities that I hope continue to grow more and more!

But there has been another side as well. I have seen reluctance to get behind opportunities to reach out, skepticism over ideas and visions, and a lack of willingness to support plans that could have real impact on our community. The hesitancy comes in several forms but has often boiled down to a few reasons for the lack of support.

We often have a difficult time getting behind an idea that is not our own. If someone comes to us with an idea they want our support on we may be reluctant, but if we were to come up with the same idea we would all of the sudden be excited. If our church is organizing an event we are all for it, but if another church or organization wants our support for the same idea we are unsure if we want to be involved.

Another barrier to our unity is our time. We often talk about or hear from others that our lives are so busy we never have time for anything, but we do have time to keep up with our favorite TV shows, our hobbies, our vacations and trips and the other things that we really want to do.

Finally, we often hear variations on the detestable phrase, “we’ve never done that before.” For some reason we get this idea that things have been going so well that we shouldn’t change anything. If that were the case we would have a community filled with joyful people that are loving, encouraging and supporting one another so well that needs like loneliness, depression, homelessness and poverty wouldn’t be problems. The reality is that these things are problems in our community, and if we think we are going to change that by continuing to do things the same way that we have done them in the past we are fooling ourselves. As it has been said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If we are to truly impact those around us in need of love and support we need unity within our community of faith. That means supporting good ideas that are not our own, being willing to put in the time it takes to care about other people, and being willing to do things that might be outside our comfort zone.

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