I continue to receive a lot of interesting and challenging questions as part of my regular Ask Me Anything feature, and today I’m going to do my best to answer a few of them. These ones concern the purpose of worship services, ordinary versus radical, visiting bad churches, repenting for depraved dreams, and children who die in infancy.
Are weekly church services primarily for believers or for non-believers?
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this question. The modern history of evangelicalism would seem to indicate that the primary purpose of church services is evangelistic—they are for unbelievers and ought to be structured accordingly. But I would contend that the foremost purpose of church services is to equip and encourage Christians—they are for believers and ought to be structured accordingly.
As I have said often in the past, we live at a time when the church is dominated by pragmatism. Pragmatism insists we are to set goals, then do whatever it takes to meet those goals. For many years the church growth movement has insisted that the foremost goal of a church service should be for people to come to faith. Therefore, they tend to endorse whatever means will make that happen. We can look back to the early days of the church growth movement to find people endorsing the idea of polling unbelievers to learn what they want from church, creating it for them, then inviting them to experience it. Over the years, elements of church services that are deemed offensive or otherwise objectionable to unbelievers have been slowly pared away. I once went to one of the most mega of America’s mega-churches and sat through a service that was devoid of Scripture, prayer, and sacraments. In short, it had almost no identifiable characteristics of Christian worship. That is the fruit of pragmatism.
When we look to Scripture, we see church services primarily geared to believers. In Acts we see believers gathering together, sometimes with unbelievers present and sometimes not. Sometimes unbelievers were even afraid to attend! Likewise, when we read the epistles, we find few hints that sermons or services are meant to appeal primarily to unbelievers. Rather, we see public worship as an occasion for believers to gather together as a family to worship God and to minister to one another through the ordinary means of grace—Word, prayer, and fellowship.
This is not to say unbelievers are unwelcome. To the contrary, we should freely invite them to come and to join us. But they join us as our guests, as people who can observe fully but only participate partially. We can and should make them feel welcome and, as much as possible, avoid making them uncomfortable. But we must not allow them to shape our services or diminish the distinct elements and message of Christian worship. We trust that when we do things God’s way, we experience God’s blessing.
I recently read The Insanity of God. I have also read Radical and Ordinary. How do you juxtapose all these books against one another? You can read The Insanity of God and Radical and feel guilty that you are not doing more for God. Then you read Ordinary and realize God uses you in the day-to-day. How do we balance these against one another?
Over the past 5 or 10 years, we have seen an interesting back-and-forth between people advocating the goodness of the radical and people endorsing the goodness of the ordinary. Some leaders are calling for Christians to put aside the American dream and to instead live lives of extraordinary fervor, generous giving, and missionary zeal. Meanwhile, other leaders are assuring people that we can live lives that are pleasing to God even in the most mundane circumstances.
To bring balance, I think we have to know ourselves and our particular temptations to sin. The trouble with radical is that it can foster discontentment in people who are already living God-honoring but ordinary lives, perhaps unfairly convicting them that suburban 9-to-5 life cannot be good enough for God. It can also foster the works-righteousness of people who are convinced God will be pleased with them to only the extent that they do grander and harder things. Of course ordinary can foster complacency or the notion that God doesn’t much care what we do, what we give, or how we live. As usual in the Christian life, the way is narrow and there is peril on both sides.
I believe there is value in reading and considering both perspectives—to read them thoroughly, pray about them earnestly, and refuse to react hastily. The best result is that through your reading God assures you of the goodness of the ordinary while also exposing areas of complacency in your life. It is those who are willing to be normal who are best equipped to handle being radical.
I’m unsure whether I should attend a family member’s church with them while visiting them out-of-state. The church they go to is part of a liberal denomination and teaches unbiblical doctrine. But I’m not sure how I would go about saying something like “I don’t want to go because it’s not a good church.” (To them, it’s just my opinion or preference). Is it okay to visit a “bad” church?
I suppose this will depend on a number of factors, including how bad the “bad” actually is. There are churches that teach poor theology (or teach good theology poorly) and there are churches that are full-out cults. There are churches that may worship Jesus in trite or inaccurate ways and there are churches that full-out disparage him. So the first consideration may simply be the badness of this bad church. That will tell you whether you even can attend and, if so, how to approach it.
If it is not the kind of church you must avoid, you are into an area in which Christians disagree and, therefore, a matter for which you should first inform and then heed your conscience. For example, while almost all Protestants agree it is wrong to participate in a Roman Catholic mass by taking the host, many are still comfortable attending the service as an observer or a supporter of someone who is there—perhaps a niece being baptized or a friend being married. Some are comfortable going to a “bad” service as long as it does not keep them from attending a “good” service as their primary worship for the week. You will find no clear consensus among all believers. Therefore, I’d urge you to consider the service you’ve been invited to, to pray, and then to monitor how your conscience responds to it. As Luther said, it is neither right nor safe to ignore your conscience.
Should we repent of sinful things we do in our dreams?
Dreams are funny things, aren’t they? They can be mysterious, they can be hilarious, they can be downright bizarre. And, as you indicate, they can sometimes even be dark or perverse.
You ask whether we should repent of sinful things we do in our dreams. Should is a word of moral obligation, so I would respond that we are not always morally obligated to repent of our dreams. Dreams occur outside of the conscious mind in a context in which we have no control over our thoughts or imaginations. For this reason, I don’t think we have the same obligation as we do toward our deliberate and conscious thoughts. In the Bible we see that dreams can be influenced by spiritual forces, further showing that we are not responsible for them in the same way we are responsible for our conscious thoughts and even our semi-conscious daydreams.
But while I do not think we are under obligation to repent of things we have dreamed, I do think there is wisdom in pondering whether ugly dreams have their root in external circumstances. I once watched an episode of a television show that involved a child being kidnapped and that night had a horrifying nightmare about my daughter being taken. It was not hard to discern the causal link between what I had seen and what I had dreamed. Perhaps in a case like that it’s a warning system of sorts that can direct us to areas of sin or apathy. Or maybe it’s a form of satanic temptation or onslaught. Or maybe it’s just that extra burrito. We are weak and silly creatures, aren’t we?
What is your take on the “Law of Attraction” and its influence on Christianity?
The Law of Attraction is a belief that you attract to yourself whatever becomes the fixation of your mind or faith. Those who focus on negative thoughts, desires, or images naturally attract negative things. Those who focus on what is positive attract positive things. We see this Law described or taught in bestselling books like The Secret, in pop psychology where you may be told to visualize your goals, and in times of joy or sorrow when friends assure you they are sending their happy thoughts or positive vibes.
It is, a word, nonsense and proves that when people stop believing truth, they’ll believe just about anything. Still, the Law of Attraction has just enough truth to it to be deceptive and attractive. After all, people who are relentlessly negative do seem to have woeful lives and those who are always upbeat seem to have joyful lives. To some degree we are the product of our thoughts and desires.
Yet to a much greater degree we are not. Perhaps the biggest and most ridiculous weakness of the Law of Attraction is that it deifies the universe. It gives the universe divine power that has the ability to hear, understand, and respond to us. Where Christians honor and serve a personal being, the Law leaves us beholden to an abstract force. Stuff and nonsense.
Within the church, we may see the Law of Attraction most clearly in the prosperity gospel. This false gospel holds out the promise of power and riches or any other desire to those who have enough faith. This kind of faith is not active reliance on Jesus Christ, but a kind of bargaining power meant to twist the arm and compel the mind of Almighty God. If the Law of Attraction is ugly in any form, it is doubly ugly in its supposedly Christian form.
I am a pediatric nurse and sometimes care for children who are dying. It is not uncommon for nurses to say some variation of “it’s time for this one to go home to Jesus” or “get her wings” or “become an angel.” As a believer I struggle with this because I cannot accept that all children go to heaven. But when it comes to an actual child who has a name and is suffering, but whose parents do not believe in Jesus Christ, how can I explain to my co-workers that I believe in a loving and just God who loves his children, but maybe not this child? How do I explain that I do not believe all children go to heaven no matter how much they suffered on earth?
It is one thing to have well-developed theology, and it is another entirely to have to actually rely on that theology in difficult circumstances. And I cannot imagine a more difficult circumstance than yours.
There are essentially three schools of thought on the matter of children who die in infancy. The majority of believers hold that all children who die in infancy immediately go to heaven. They are all, therefore, especially loved and chosen by God. Those who hold this position can comfortably tell any parent, “Your child is in heaven.”
The second position is that elect infants who die in infancy go to heaven. This is the position taken in the Westminster Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian tradition and is usually taken to mean that the children of believers are saved if they die in infancy. The Canons of Dort of the Dutch Reformed tradition takes a similar perspective. Those who hold this position can comfortably tell believers, “Your child is in heaven.”
The third position is the Bible does not make it clear. This being the case, it is unwise to make bold declarations one way or the other. I expect this is your position. It is mine as well. I have examined the evidence for the other positions and, though I want to hold them, find that I cannot. What I can do, though, is rely on the good character and kind sovereignty of God and say with confidence that what happens is not outside of his knowledge or his will.
Where does this leave you? Perhaps you will have an opportune moment to address some of the common errors you hear from your co-workers, like this idea that people become angels when they die. That would be a downgrade, not an upgrade, for we alone bear God’s image! Or perhaps you can address the notion that a child’s suffering somehow makes them either worthy or more worthy of God’s favor. Perhaps best of all you’ll simply be able to tell others about the grace of God which is the only hope of your patients and your colleagues. I would address their poor theology only as a means to tell them the gospel.
(For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that I’d ever address “it’s time for this one to go home to Jesus” since that view is well within the Christian mainstream and the position of many fine Christian theologians.)