Old Faith and New Faith

Realizing that God has called you to serve Him in ministry is an incredible thing.  Think of it this way, God is asking you to be His partial mouthpiece in the Body of Christ.  He is asking you to direct the hands and feet of the Body of Christ.  He is directing you to exercise the spiritual muscles of the Body of Christ.  I am beginning to realize that this is a daunting task, and one that is too big for an individual.  I am realizing that leaning on God as my strength is more important than ever.  God has lovingly brought me along and has been my portion and prize.

There is one thing that I have started to think about and that is the difference between Old Faith and New Faith.  I recently had a conversation with a dear friend and we talked about the difference between old money and new money.  Having neither old or new money, I do not have a point of reference, so I had to lean on their understanding between the two.

She had told me that you can tell the difference between old and new money rather easily.  Old money doesn’t care to flaunt their money.  They go about their business in a quiet way and in a way like they have been there before.  Old money isn’t interested in the accolades and the notoriety of their wealth.  They are the ones that make an anonymous donation to their cause that they are passionate about, and nobody is the wiser.

New money is the opposite.  New money typically wants you to know that they have money.  They can’t wait to show you their new stuff.  They want you to know that they have done well…and have the toys to prove it.  The most poignant example of new money can be found on the cover of the website TMZ.  Paparazzi follows them around, because they will flaunt their new money.  In a society that lives vicariously, new money is good for a story.  New money seeks publicity, and when they make a donation to their cause, it is usually with a stipulation that a building be named after them.

I started to think about how this relates to faith and have concluded that there is old faith and new faith and the comparisons are strikingly similar to the above comparison.  Old faith is one that goes about it’s business in trying to please God everyday in a way that tries to advance the kingdom.  Their prayers are heartfelt.  When they are asked to pray in public, it feels that you are witnessing an ongoing conversation with an old friend.  Most of their spiritual disciplines are done in the “secret place” where only God sees and blesses it.  Old faith recognizes that storms will come and go.  Old faith recognizes that sometimes the storms are good, because they blow away things that aren’t rooted down and removes things (or even people) that don’t need to be there.  Old faith is a faith that has progressed from spiritual milk to something more substantive.  Old faith wants the name of Jesus to be talked about more than their own.

New faith though is immature.  New faith wants everyone to see how they pray.  New faith is more concerned sometimes about looking good rather than being good.  New faith has an excitement that is sometimes lacking in old faith (which is a good thing).  New faith doesn’t recognize that the storms will come, but when they do it is a catastrophe.  New faith hasn’t quite gotten past spiritual immaturity.  New faith gives and serves, but makes sure everyone knows about it.

Let me be clear about something.  I am not saying that new faith is worse than old faith, or vice versa.  That is not the case.  Also, I am using the terms old and new loosely because old and new faith has nothing to do with the amount of time you have been a believer.  I know people with old faith that are still teenagers and people with new faith that are close to retirement.

I am finding that when you start to see ground taken from the enemy, that he is not terribly pleased about it.  I believe that scripture is true when it says that our battle is not against flesh and blood but the spirits and authorities of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).  In other words, if you are going to choose to follow Christ in this regard, get ready to be on Satan’s radar and on his to-do list.  Get ready for the storm and to survive the storm, an old faith…a mature faith…is what is needed.

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Six Month Reflection

I haven’t said this in a while in either this forum or other outlets of social networking, but I love my job.  My job as a minister is something that I have been searching for, for a very long time, and I feel like I am at home where I am at.  My job is not without challenges and nor am I perfect in applying where I feel that God is calling me to the lead those who would follow.  

Ministry carries its own sets of challenges and triumphs to be sure.  What I am finding is the most challenging is following someone who was beloved mainly because I will always be compared to them.  I find myself resting in several of promises.  First of all, God called the previous leader to a different place for a reason.  I don’t know that the reason is, but I know that God is in control and that He is moving pieces around the board that will ultimately end in His kingdom being advanced.  

Second of all, God called me to this place for the same reason…to ultimately see His kingdom advanced and to see his will be done.  Once again, the reasons are that God is in control, and this His ultimate goal is for the kingdom to be advanced.  

Third, what I am finding is that there are many different ways to do ministry.  I am finding that I have to be the minister that God has called me and gifted me to be, not a replica of the previous guy.  I am finding that I have to play to my strengths as a laborer for Christ.  I am finding that I have to be sensitive to where God is calling me to lead, not where He called the previous guy.  That is tough, especially if the previous guy was beloved, because the natural instinct is that the previous administration had a monopoly on how things should be done.  My hope is that God uses me and what I bring to the table in a way that compliments what has already been done in the past and takes it further, not replace it.  My prayer is that the group that I lead has an appreciation and respect for the past, but an eye towards the future as God continues to move.  I find that learning from the past is much better than living there.  

Fourth, I find that as I lead, I am being lead.  I am being lead by those who sacrifice their time, talents, resources, and even frustrations with me.  Most importantly I am being lead by the only person worth following, and that is Jesus.  I find that I am nowhere near perfect in my application of leadership, and a person just as much in need of grace as anyone else.  I am finding that as I lead am being lead, that you cannot be overstocked in grace and understanding.  I am grateful for the leaders who understand this, and are there to pick me up when I fall, provide an ear and a hug in my times of frustration, and celebration when we have victories. 

Finally, I recognize the presence of metaphysics and what they mean by that is that there is a spiritual aspect to ministry that I think we are too quick to dismiss.  Here is the truth.  There is an enemy. His goal is to steal, kill, and destroy.  And when ministries begin to move the ball forward in terms of seeing people’s lives changed with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is usually met with some sort of resistance.  I am guilty of dismissing this aspect of ministry just as much as anyone, but will begin to pay more credence to this aspect.  It is clear in my experience in all of my ministries that I have been directly or indirectly involved in is that success is usually met with resistance, and we are in a battle against metaphysical elements.  

Overall, I am glad that God has called me to this position and this church.  My frustrations are infinitesimal compared to the ultimate glory that lies in the work that has been accomplished by Jesus.  As long as I continue to be lead by Him, offer forgiveness and road to resolution for those who need it, and be continuously amazed at His provision in my shortcomings, I think things will ultimately work out in a way where God is glorified. 

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Pew Research Reaction: Thank you “nones”

For the first time in the country’s history Protestant affiliation is less than half of the population.  That may be alarming, but that is not that the statistic that concerns me.  Reason being is that the research did not account for non-denominational Christians as being Protestant.

What does concern me though is another statistic in the same study.  The number of people that claim no affiliation to any kind of church has grown from around 15% to just under 20% over the past five years.  There is only one of two conclusions.  Either people are leaving the church, or they have already left the church and have decided to make it official by claiming no religious affiliation.  More than likely it is a mix of both.

As they left though, they have done the church an incredible favor.  They have identified why they have left, which opens up an amazing opportunity.  Not only does it give us some feedback on why every mainline denomination is current on decline, but also it brings us to a point where we can come back to where the church should have been all along.

In the study itself it says that “Overwhelmingly, they [religiously unaffiliated] think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics. (emphasis added).

In essence those who are becoming unaffiliated are saying that, hey we like this idea of God (68% of the unaffiliated saying they believe in God), but we don’t think that you are doing a good job following what He has told you to do.

Fellow laborers in Christ, this is a gift.  We have been given quantifiable data showing why those who are leaving our churches are doing so.  They are in essence paraphrasing a quote from Ghandi where he says that he likes our Jesus, it’s the Christians that he has a problem with.

Fellow laborers, now is the time to actually take a hard look at our own ministerial strategies and do some of that repenting that we like to preach about.  We have turned the church and the word “evangelical” to something that is closer to a voting bloc rather than something where life change can and should happen.

I know this because currently, according to polling, the church has a lower approval rating then either presidential candidate.  Our response to this criticism is to double down on it and declare “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” where pastors challenge the IRS by explicitly endorsing a candidate during a Sunday morning.  My problem with this event is not legal but rather practical.  Our congregations already hear enough about politics from politicians.  If they wanted to hear about that, then they would find their closest rally.  Our congregations want to hear about Jesus and how He can change their life.  When we endorse candidates from the pulpit, we turn church into a Super PAC, and the message of Christ is muddied as it filters through the fallibility that is a party’s platform.

We have been given a gift.  I view this research as an opportunity to say, our congregations will hear about Jesus and the life changing power of the gospel.  That stuff that Jesus talked about, He actually meant.  The result of that was a movement of the gospel that defied all logic and say Christianity go from 11 guys who were scared out of their mind as they were faithful to share the good news about Jesus to a global movement where God’s love was spread in a remarkable amount of time.  It’s not unreasonable that God can spread revival again, but first we have to repent from our mistakes and begin being the church once again.

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Pastor Youcef is Free!

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  -John 16:33

Three years ago in the country of Iran a pastor by the name of Youcef Nardarkhani was jailed and sentenced to death for “apostasy”.  For those who don’t know, apostasy, as defined as “a total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc…”

Saturday, September 8th, 2012 after more than three years in prison, he was freed.  After appearing before the Iranian supreme court, he was acquitted of apostasy but found guilty of a lesser crime of “evangelizing to Muslims” which carries with it a 3 year prison sentence.  The court granted him time served and he was reunited with his family.

This is an incredible turn of events.  We should celebrate that our brother in Christ has been reunited with is family and able to continue the work that God has called him to.  I am thankful that this has happened.  I am personally almost to the point of tears that this happened, because at many turns, Pastor Youcef’s sentence could have been carried out.  God is good!

What I have learned about this story is several things.  First, the power of prayer has not been diminished.  The number of people that have prayed for Youcef have been countless, and God is still in the business of listening to His people.  This is nothing short of a miracle, and all praise to God for that.

What I have also learned is that there is persecution in the world.  Pastor Youcef’s story is not an isolated incident.  There are people right now who are claiming Jesus as their savior in the face of incredible oppression not some of the cosmetic persecution that we like to make a big deal about.  Our prayers for them needs to be just as strong and fervent as our prayers for Youcef.  Our prayer should be that they remain faithful despite whatever cost.  Our prayer should be that they rest in Paul’s assertion that for us to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Here is also what I learned.  We live in an amazing country.  I am a professional minister, in that my job is to minister to people…and can tell you about my job without fear of being thrown in prison.  The church I serve at is an incredible group of people and I am thankful God has called me to this place.  There is nothing stopping me from worshipping, speaking about, or glorifying Jesus.  I understand that this freedom is an amazing thing.  I understand that some believe that it is something that is in some level of jeopardy.  Although I don’t agree with some of their premise that it is in jeopardy, I have a mentality that my worshipping of Jesus is not contingent on whatever freedom that we may or may not have.  Ask Pastor Youcef if he thinks the absence or presence of the First Amendment was in his decision making process when he decided to follow Jesus.  After being imprisoned for more than 3 years and staring death in the face the entire time, I think you can guess his response.

This is a special day, and I celebrate Youcef’s release.  But his call is no different than ours.  To follow Jesus with all our mind, body, soul, and strength without regard for the thoughts, concerns, affect on popularity, possibility of oppression, arrest, or death.  Pastor Youcef is free!  And so are we!

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America’s Three Economies

This was an article that I submitted to the Editorial section of the Wall Street Journal on my dad’s urging.  It was not picked up, but that’s ok.  I first wrote a blurb on Dad’s Facebook page.  He called me and told me to put a little polish on it and he would give me instructions on how to submit it.  The link below is also the article that is referenced in the writing.  



To the editor: 

Daniel Henninger posits (Wonderland, July 26) that this year’s election is a choice between two economies – a clash to determine whether the public sector serves the private sector, or vice versa.  The idea that this election is an absolute choice between the two forgets the third and perhaps most vital role of a third economy – the economy of morality.  In his book Rediscovering Values, Jim Wallis contends our country was built on these three economies and they should not necessarily be viewed as competing, but rather must be balanced.  By design and in light of human nature, the animal spirits of capitalism and the thirst for power, we have called upon the third economy to serve as a check and balance to the others, similar to how our three branches of government are supposed to operate. 

Public and private economies are obvious and will be discussed at length by those who are presenting this election as an absolute choice between the two.  By their very nature, public and private sectors are amoral by nature.  The third is the moral compass of our country and is wielded mostly by religious institutions.  Building a road or running a business is neither good nor bad on its merits.  Can the public or private sector be used for good?  Absolutely!  If we concede that fact though then we have also concede that public and private economies can be used for bad as well.  Therefore, it is the duty of the third economy to steer the other two economies towards good and away from bad. 

The narrative presented is that the parties representing the interests of the public (Democrats) and private (Republicans) sectors are about to enter into a Thunderdome-esque fight for America’s soul is a false choice.  When the public sector wields too much power it is socialism.  Too much in the private sector is feudalism.  Too much power on the morality side is a theocracy.  None of these scenarios are appealing, none of them have a history of sustainable success, and none of them are an efficient use of our country’s resources.  It is in the balance of the three and demonization of none where we will return to the potential that is the United States of America. 

Phillip Larsen

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Approval Ratings

Any institution that has a strong desire to appeal to the public at large should pay attention to statistic called the “approval rating”.  The approval rating is a measure of the general feeling towards a certain person or group.  Typically we see approval ratings in the context of politics.  The most common approval rating reported is that of the president.  Several polling and statistical analysis institutions poll on the general feeling that the public has towards it’s leader and at worst this is a weekly report.

I want to give you two numbers.  First is 46 and the second is 44.  Both of these numbers are current approval numbers (at the time of this writing).  Both numbers are not encouraging.

The current job approval rating for the president is 46% (Rasmussen).  Statistically speaking, less than half of the country approve of the job the president is doing.  The current job approval for the church is 44% (Gallup).  In other words, more people have more confidence in the current president than they do the church.  For my friends in leadership at a church, if this doesn’t catch your attention, then nothing will and you can stop reading.  For the rest of you consider this, for the president, he will probably never get above 60% in approval rating.  Roughly 80% of the population claims either one party or the other as an affiliation (40% Democrat, 40% Republican) the other 20% consider themselves as independent.  That means that roughly 40% of the country will never approve of any given president’s job simply because of his affiliation.  The church should not have that same problem of disapproval simply by label, yet our approval ratings are worse.  This is unsettling.

Recently I had a group of students affiliated with UM ARMY come in and serve in Livingston.  I had a wonderful conversation with one of the speakers about the overall health of not only the Methodist church but the (big C) Church.  It is no secret that most mainline denominations are experiencing an overall loss in their attendance and participation.  In light of the current approval ratings, it is logical that there is an overall loss of attendance and participation by our society.  It has became a significant problem and there has been some significant discussions on why and how to stem that tide.  I have several thoughts on the subject, and submit them as possible solutions.

The first and an important thing that leaders within the church have to do is de-couple the church from politics entirely.  I am not saying that we should be silent on the issues, because the church is called to speak out against injustice.  Ever since the 70’s, the church has tried to use politics to promote our values rather than being an avenue to balance the political debate.  Doing so, it has partnered with one of the major American political parties.  We are now at the point where “evangelical” has become a voting bloc to be catered to.  Here is the truth of the matter.  If we take abortion and gay marriage off of the table for a moment, half of the people in our congregations are Democrats and half of Republicans.  Generally speaking, people are not single issue voters and if they are it is more related to their pocketbook than social issues.  Finally, I think that moderate believers are realizing that these two very important issues of abortion and the definition of marriage were used mostly as hot button issues to secure votes.  Once their chosen candidate was in office they did very little to address the issue.  Instead they moved on to other issues that took precedent, and if they did address the issue, they reinforced existing law.  Because of this and the theory that younger Christians are trending away from conservatism in the political sense, younger generations simply don’t want to go to church and have it turn into a partisan exercise.  Our congregations want something more and they deserve more.

Our society has always had a strong reliance on the individual.  God, however, did not create us to have a complete individualistic mentality.  Our faith and our sustainability as a church is directly tied to the spiritual well being of our brother.  The church in Acts sold everything that they had, pooled their resources, and lived in a communal way.  Their well being was directly tied to the person sitting with them.  We, at the very least, have to realize that our spiritual well-being is directly tied to those sitting in church with us.  No longer can we let our brother struggle with an issue or sin alone and walk away thinking “well, that is there problem”.  No man is an island and that is good news because God did not create us to be one.

Finally, we have to be authentic.  Our services cannot be about programming, “the show”, or infrastructure, but it absolutely must be about authenticity.  For the person who is coming in from off the street to visit a church, they will likely be pulled in by something that is appealing (coffee shop in the lobby, strong worship band, well known pastor, etc…).  What will keep that person there for a period of time is the professional presentation of the service.  Is it conducive to worship?  Is there a lot of “dead air”?  Is it a group of people that take pride in what they do?  Does the church want to present a worship service that reflects their very best and sermon that is compelling and enlightening?  In this regard the professional service is not something that I have a problem with.  It is important that we offer our best when worshipping God.  It is when the fidelity to the “the show” goes beyond the desire to worship where we get into trouble.  All of this said, what will commit an individual is the relationships they build with a group of people who realize that their spiritual health is directly tied to their brother as well.  These authentic relationships will move them from someone who consumes worship like a commodity to someone is invests their lives in the Kingdom.  When trouble comes and the enemy throws his best shot, its the relationships that they will lean on to get them through, not the frills or the show.

Overall, Jesus does not withdraw from the world.  Jesus relied on the contributions from the people that followed them.  At His death, Jesus was not rich in the monetary sense.  I think it is fitting that Jesus invested in a relationship with the disciples and was interested in making sure that they were ready for what was to come after His death, resurrection, and ascension.  If Jesus was not invested in these men I think His message would not have taken hold as quickly and effectively as it did.  Jesus did not hold fidelity to a government or political movement (even though there were some in his own crew who wish he did).  Jesus was the most compelling teacher, preacher, and worship leader that there ever was, and even appealed to people’s needs and wants from time to time.  Jesus was, and most importantly, genuine.  It would seem to me that the example has already been given, and thus worthy of imitation.  It would seem that this model would be perfect of positively influencing the church’s approval rating.

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The Legacy of Cornerstone

Cornerstone ended its 29 year run this past week.  I had never been to Cornerstone, though I did want to go at least once.  My wife and my sister in law were regular attendees of the event.  

For those of you who don’t know, Cornerstone is a Christian musical festival that was held every summer in Bushnell, Illinois.  It is a musical festival unlike any other though.  Bands from the well known to indie are able to book time, and it has historically attracted large names such as P.O.D. amongst others.  Because of the fact that it attracts bands that are not Chris Tomlin clones, but rather those closer to Bryan “Head” Welch, it also attracts believers that look like they would listen to Flatfoot 56 rather than Robbie Seay.

When thinking about the last year of Cornerstone, my first thought is that I was sad for my wife and my sister-in-law.  For them, this is the end of an era.  The last three years they have spent quality sister time driving to Illinois, spending the week together and being with people who share their same musical style and desire to see them live.  For them, this is the people that they feel most comfortable with.  My sister-in-law has even said that it is the only place that she feels normal.  They have befriended so many people there because they set up a “Free Ramen tent” which lets them become a level of Cornerstone royalty.  My prayer for them, and especially my sister-in-law, that she finds a similar opportunity either in one event or in aggregate through a number of events that she is able to replace the hole that Cornerstone’s departure left.  Overall though, my prayer is that she finds a church where she feel comfortable and call home.  

What I also think about when I think about Cornerstone is that those who are counted as followers of Christ are not uniform in their appearance.  Those who go to Cornerstone have tattoos (more than I do), piercings, dreadlocks, and do not necessarily have the all-American look that has seemed to been accepted as the standard for the prototypical Christian.  Their appearance does not make them either less or more of a follower of Christ than I am.  Those who claim Jesus as their Lord do not have a typical physical appearance.  Thankfully the view the stereotype of the prototypical Christian is evolving to a stance that is more concerned about the heart and less concerned about clothing style.  It is my prayer that those who are more comfortable with a peer group that is closer to that found at Cornerstone find a place where they find comfort and peace, and not necessarily feel uncomfortable because of their outward appearance.  My prayer is that people who look more like me also let go of some of the preconceived notions of these individuals and realize that God is bigger than our biases.  

I think about lost opportunities as well.  Cornerstone is something that I did want to try at least once.  I have known about Cornerstone since high school.  Even then I found it intriguing, but never went because of numerous conflicts or lack of cash flow.  There is no doubt that I would have been the person that stuck out because of my own personal appearance.  There is also no doubt that I am a guy who appreciates a good concierge rather than a well made tent.  Regardless, it is something that I have always found beneficial and intriguing.  I find this is a good object lesson.  Because the greater truth is that Cornerstone was not promised another year, just as we are not promised another day.  I think this is an important to seize the moments that God has gives us and make sure that it is done so for Kingdom work.  Kingdom work not only accounts for spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, fasting, evangelism, disciple making, etc…but also fellowship and enjoying the blessings that God has given us as well.

The take away is this.  Our God is bigger than our biases and works through people because of their diversity, not despite of it.  God also expects us to faithfully and diligently steward the resources that He gives us, time of which is one of the most precious.

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