Category Archives: Faith Practice, the Exercise

Should Children be Forced to Attend Church with Adults?

Recently, my pastor decided to provide a “children’s sermon” each week, right before he preaches to the adults. The format will be familiar to many people. As soon as the pastor is ready to preach, he calls the children up to the front of the church. He sits with them on the steps. He usually has a an object or photo to introduce his topic, and he teaches in childrenspeak while the adults wait. This format and practice are believed by many to be a good way to engage children in worship.

I profoundly disagree.

Many try to say that the whole idea of children in the worship service is a big mistake. Children are noisy and fidgety. They don’t understand what is happening, and they get bored. The only way to hold their attention is to entertain them while they learn something without knowing it. People also complain because noisy children and crying babies interrupt and distract. It is better, they say, to eliminate noise sources so the grown-ups can worship in peace.

I profoundly disagree.

I was glad to read a concurring opinion last week. Speaking of the experience of young children in “big church,” the author wrote,

Of course, it is over their head. It is supposed to be over their head. They are beginners. The English language is over their head as soon as they come out of the womb. But we don’t say: Well, let’s put them with other children in their own situations and limitations so they can understand a word or two. No. We immerse them in the English language every day that they don’t understand 90% of in the hope and expectation that they grow up into joyful use of the English language.

http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-children-sit-through-big-church

Guess what. I remember going to church before I understood it, but those memories all come flooding back frequently in my adult life. Those memories are some of the earliest steps I took toward becoming the person I am today.

As a child, when we sang the Doxology, I thought the “heavenly hosts above” were sitting in the balcony. How I wanted to sit in that elevated company! But when I grew up, I came to understand something very different. Now my memories of worship as a child are even richer than before; the images are not changed, but my comprehension has changed.

I remember sermon content from childhood, too. Don’t doubt me. I learned about the beam in my eye and the splinter in someone else’s eye before I could understand it. I learned that people need to forgive each other over and over long before I could comprehend the math of “seventy times seven.” I heard about the Good Samaritan, and the selfish brothers James and John long before I was “old enough” to understand worship. I learned about the wide gate and the narrow gate, and I knew it was about choices, but I had to grow some before I understood how to make wise choices. Because I remember the settings where I first heard these stories, I know I was nine or younger at the time. When I heard or read the stories later, those new experiences built on the old ones.  I could sing a lot of hymns by heart when I was nine or ten, so I know I heard them frequently and was attentive enough to get the words at a very young age.

I remember hearing about Zaccheus, too. Not just the Sunday School lesson. I heard the sermon, and I absorbed the truth that meeting Jesus can change someone immediately! I can still see my pastor leaning forward and gesturing toward the congregation. That memory returned when I later heard my Sunbeam teacher tell about Zaccheus.

I vividly remember an Indian pastor telling all of us that the ministry of Jesus was “preaching, teaching, and healing.” His sermon shaped my image of missions and mission work profoundly. I was nine years old at the time.

I have these memories, because my parents took me to church with them. They did not give me coloring books to keep me quiet; they told me to be quiet, and I knew the consequences of disobedience. The other parents did the same, and I saw more than one child temporarily removed from the sanctuary for an education in the etiquette and meaning of worship. My parents told me to bow my head and pray when everyone else did. (I knew about praying, because we did it at home.) They told me to stand up when the other people did, and be respectful of God’s house. I was not to scoot right and left, fall in the floor and climb back up into the seat. I was not to wander in the aisle. Bathroom breaks were taken care of before church. During church, we remained in church, and we behaved appropriately. I did not understand why we needed to be respectful of God, but I did not understand why I needed to be respectful of my parents, either. I learned all those things over time, but my early experiences prepared me for the higher level truths.

I remember wondering as a child how the ushers actually delivered God’s money to him, but I had no doubt that He received it. I remember wondering, when I was very small, if God hid in one of the rooms behind the choir loft to hear our prayers and hymns. In the big picture, I doubt my childish misconceptions were a lot farther from the truth than my adult ones. After all, my efforts at visualizing God suffer from warping by my sinful human nature at any age. However, I believe my parents did the right thing by taking me to “big church,” (a term I never even heard as a child–nobody had imagined a separate church service for children then) and I believe my faith is stronger because of it. My appreciation of and my glad participation in worship as an adult has roots in years of worship experiences that poured over me and around me and through me long before I understood any of it.

When Moses gave his farewell address to the Israelites, he spent some time talking about the importance of educating children while they were still children. Inspired by God, the creator of all things, seen and unseen, Moses told the Israelites to talk with their children about what they had learned in the wilderness. He told them to be talking with those kids morning, noon, and night. They were not to have children’s church, but they were to have Everyday School, conversations between parents and their children about God. Moses said children needed to be part of every worship service.

Children need to be in church. There is no other way for them to absorb the meaning of worship. There is no other way for them to grow up in the faith. Children need to be in church, and they need to recognize that they will need to grow up in order to understand it. That is what it means to grow up. Too many adults today never did grow up in their faith, because nobody let them be exposed to the necessity of growing up. They do not know that growing up is necessary. They still think that God has failed them if they ask for self-serving gain and don’t get it.

If children need the instruction and language of “children’s church,” then they need to receive it in Sunday School. When they go to church, worship is what they should be doing. They will not do it “right” the first time. They may have trouble singing the songs and following the hymnal, but just like the discipline of courtesy to adults and obedience to authority, they will learn to worship. God spoke to Samuel when he was just a child, and even though Samuel did not likely understand what it was all about, he did what God told him to do, and he never forgot the experience. Your children should not be led to think of church as something to tolerate while the grownups do their secret thing with God.

 

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More Than Survival

I just finished reading a long essay by a man who believes that everyone should acquire the knowledge that enabled people to survive and thrive before electronic technology existed. I agree. Electronics are seriously vulnerable, but the ways of pre-electronic society can and will enable a good life to anyone. God’s earth will still be here, even after the EMP or a hurricane or a world war.

People in today’s world need another “tool” in their “survival kit,” too. They need faith in Christ who redeemed humankind and all creation when he died and rose again.

Many people believe that it is “all up to me” and there is no help other than their own wits and strength. Self-sufficiency is an important and valuable character trait that keeps us from being needy and dependent on our fellow man and on government, but it is not enough to give us real health and long life. Only faith in Christ and a life lived in relationship with him will enable us to thrive in utterly destructive circumstances.

The first principle of a successful life before, during, or after disaster is to put all your hope in God alone.

Contemporary culture rejects the existence of God, and that stance means that one must be completely self-sufficient. God cannot help a person who denies his existence. God sends rain on the believers and the unbelievers alike, but only believers see God’s hand at work in the blessing of the rain. Unbelievers see a water control problem that they must fix. Unbelievers see no blessing in the seeming randomness of the rain, or in the gradual increase in the size of a desert, or in the transitions of natural climate change. Unbelievers see Inequality in the difference in rainfall, paychecks, or intellectual gifts. Unbelievers think that only equal pay, equal rain, and equal intellect is equality, and therefore unbelievers are always at war with God’s diversity and inclusiveness. God loves all people equally, but his gifts are distributed according to his perfect plan, not according to the ability of humans to measure equality.

To put your hope in God alone is to accept his work and his administration without fear. If you hope in God alone, for example, then when voters choose a tyrannical president as wicked and faithless as the ancient king Ahab, you do not lose faith in God. You recognize that a purpose and plan bigger than yourself is at work. When that godless tyrant begins to disassemble legal and moral structures that were God’s gifts delivered through leaders obedient to God’s direction, you recognize God’s judgment on people who chose the tyrant who hands out bread and circuses rather than a Godly leader who focuses on protecting opportunity for all. God has not stopped caring about the nation; the nation has stopped caring about God.

If you put your hope in God alone, then you trust God’s guidance and care for the nation and for you as an individual. You don’t despair when God’s will for the nation results in pain for you; rather, you give thanks to God for the privilege of suffering for His Name’s sake, in the same way the disciples suffered from human evil: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”  (Acts 6:41)

This is why Christians who mourn the collapse of Constitutional government and the moral rot perpetuated by government mandate in public schools do not, nevertheless, despair. The church, Christ’s body on earth, was not made for the easy times; it was born of inhuman suffering and it thrives in the most inhospitable times and places.

Christians thrive and bear the sweetest fruit when nourished by being like Christ—despised and rejected by men.

It is wise for Christians to prepare for disasters. A wise person will be ready for war, civil unrest, hurricanes, or whatever hard times he can foresee. However, all that common sense wisdom can be made worthless by disasters nobody could have foreseen. When that happens, it is good to be able to testify with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) Only those who put all their hope in God alone will thrive in times like that.

Don’t Expect to Get Anything Out Of Church

Too many people reject prospective churches saying, “I went there but I did not get anything out of it.”

Why do you attend the church you are attending? If you do not attend church right now, why did you reject the last two or three churches you visited? If you do attend church regularly, why did you choose this church?

I meet people from all over the country in my boat-based lifestyle. Because I have been blessed to belong to a great church, and because wherever I go, God has always had a great church waiting for me to visit, I feel quite fortunate. However, before you assume you know what I just said, I will tell you that I have never once said, “Wow! That is the church for me. I really got a lot out of that visit.”

In fact, if anyone were to ask me why I continue my membership in my present church, I would not answer, “Boy, I really get a lot out of that church.” Yet I have invited many people to church, only to have them tell me about the last time they went to church, saying, “I just gave up on them. I didn’t get anything out of it.”

What do you expect to get out of attending church? What led you to expect what you expect? How will you know if you get what you want?

I ask these questions, because it seems to me that biblically speaking, we don’t belong to a church in order to “get anything” out of the Sunday service.

A church certainly should embody the quality of encouraging people in the faith. That quality might be something a person could “get” from a church. A one-time visitor could probably discern something of that quality from the Scriptures read aloud, from comments during the sermon, by hearing prayer requests, or even by reading the announcements of the week’s activities. In my experience, the role of a church in encouragement is only apparent over some period of time, say six months or a year, during which a new member might build relationships, see some suffering, endure some suffering, face a challenge, or help someone else face a challenge. Yet through all of those experiences, one wonders if someone would characterize the growing perception that the church truly nurtured and encouraged the faith of the member by saying, “I really got a lot out of it.”

This comment seems even less appropriate when drawn from a worship service perhaps an hour long or a little more. Why? Because a worship service is not about what the congregation gets. A Christian worship service is about what the congregation gives to God.

We start giving to God the minute we enter the sanctuary. There are occasionally people in the room who are not quiet before the service, but most people are. I rarely look around after I am seated, but as I enter, or if I do look around for some reason, I see people just being quiet. Some heads are bowed, some eyes are closed, and some are looking at the bulletin. Many appear to be communing with God in some way, and even those who are not, show respect for those who might be. People give quiet respect to God as we all wait for the worship service to begin.

The first item on the bulletin is a hymn. The hymn always gives praise to God in some way. Sometimes it focuses on the word “Hallelujah!” the song the angels sing to give praise to God. Some of the opening hymns recite what God has done, or they describe God himself to the best of human ability. We give praise and thanks to him for who he is and what he has done and for the joy of being with him.

The experience is similar to my experience as a child when I visited my grandmother. I don’t know who was happier when I boiled out of the family car and ran joyfully into her arms. She always stood right by the cistern at her back door until the car door opened, and then she, too, hurried eagerly toward me. We smothered each other with hugs and kisses until she turned to greet my mom and dad and brother. I didn’t “get anything” out of that encounter. We just melted into each other, and that is the way things continued until time to go. That first hymn of each service at church is our time to run to God and hug him to us and let him wrap us up in his love. We give and we get, and it is hard to say who “gets” more out of that moment.

Then it is time to give God our shame.

The love and joy of the first hymn reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son’s welcome when he came home. The time of confession and forgiveness is that moment when he finally confesses, “Dad, I’m sorry. I messed up big time. I know it. Look what I did!” The psalms talk about that moment, too.  In Psalm 32, David describes how it felt to try to keep his sin to himself.

3  When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.
4 The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.
Psalm 32:3-4 (The Message)

We all feel it, and that is one of the reasons we need to go to church and worship God. Sure, we can confess to God any time, any place. But when we all get together and admit what miserable sinners we are, it is actually comforting to let it go in a group and recognize that we are part of the human race.

Like David we feel relieved when we give all our sin and shame to God.

Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to GOD.”
Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.
Psalm 32:4-5

The pastor says, “Your sins are forgiven. The gates of heaven are open to you!” and a great load lifts off.

Then we are truly ready to do our work, the work of the people, the work of giving God the glory due to his name.

Worship proceeds. It isn’t about getting. It is about giving. We give our attention. We give our love. We give our faith. We give our ears and our minds and our hearts.

At some point, the pastor preaches a sermon. Ah, you may say. At last the place where I “get” something. That is not the point of the sermon at all. If you are not giving God his glory, submitting yourself to his sovereignty, worshiping him in the beauty of holiness, then you won’t “get” anything out of the sermon. If you are not constantly giving yourself to the Lord throughout the worship, do not expect him to salvage your inattention and introspection and then “give” you something from the sermon. The pastor speaks, the congregation listens, but if the congregation is not doing its work of worship, the sermon might as well be an advertisement for a phone. We, the congregation, must be in the Spirit along with the pastor, or the sermon will fall flat. The work of worship calls for all the people to be of one heart.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg on the subject of worship. I do hope I have opened your eyes if you have been thinking that you need to find a church where you “get something out of it” during the worship.

The work of the congregation does not end with worship, although many people appear to think their duty is done if they make it to church on Sunday. Statisticians like the Barna Group have even found it necessary to revise their tag for people who attend “regularly.” A few decades back, “regular” attendance meant weekly attendance. In recent years, they have revised the definition, and now “regular” attendance is at least once a month. That being said, it should not be surprising to find that every aspect of involvement in church life has been similarly diminished. If you only attend in order to “get something,” and if your attendance is no more frequent than once each month, you will certainly not grow close to the other members.

“Getting something” from a church is like any other relationship. It requires that you give something. For example, if you want your church to mean anything to you, you need to be praying for it. Constantly. You need to be praying for the pastor, especially if his sermons are floundering. God did not bring you this pastor so he could flounder; God brought him here to work with you in the harvest that is so big there are never enough workers.

If you want to “get something,” therefore, you need to be working for the good of your church. If you help clean, if you help teach, if you help manage the budget, that is all necessary and good. But you also need to be building up your church in the eyes of the community. Be a light yourself, and recognize that you are only part of the light the church sheds in the community. Who you are and what you do and where you go and whom you serve are all important elements of the work you must do to build up your church.

Don’t choose a church because you “get something out of it.” Don’t expect your church to look the way you want or sound the way you want or give you pats on the back for doing what Christ asks you to do. Choose your church, because Christ himself brings you together and because there is godly service you need to do in this church. The church is not about doing anything for you; it is all about doing things for God.

Celebrity Christians Do Not Replace Christ

There is plenty of excitement among secular thinkers because of apparent defections from Christian faith by celebrity musicians. This reaction to stories about George Perdikis and Dan Haseltine grows out of a principle of secularism: if someone is rich and famous, then he must be right. These two stories sound good to secularists because to secularists, it appears that both celebrity musicians are defecting from orthodox Christian teaching.

George Perdikis was one of the founding musicians in the News Boys band. In his own words Perdikis describes how the band came together, and also how it came to be characterized as a Christian band. The part I found interesting was the missing part. Nowhere in the story did George or anyone else in the band express any sense that Christ had led them to their success. Their “starving artist” story just happened to turn into a band considered to be Christian, because it was a Christian band that brought them out of the background. Neither George nor anyone else set out to serve Christ by using the gift of music. They all set out to become self-supporting, if not actually famous, with their music.

George explained his own position very well:

I always felt uncomfortable with the strict rules imposed by Christianity. All I wanted to do was create and play rock and roll… and yet most of the attention I received was focused on how well I maintained the impossible standards of religion. I wanted my life to be measured by my music, not by my ability to resist temptation.

In his own words, he considered Christianity a religion with impossible standards, and he is completely correct. Christianity does hold up standards no human being can meet. What he does not say is that Christ is the answer to those impossible standards, and he does not say that he trusted Christ to take him through the temptations. In his own words, he was always trying to deal with the standards and the temptations by his own strength.

Christians will recognize that George Perdikis has not “defected” from the faith, because he has never yet experienced grace. George Perdikis clearly never received the Good News that we human beings do not have to meet those standards, because God already knows we cannot do it. George Perdikis clearly never did receive the forgiveness and grace Christ purchases for every human being on the cross, because he always thought and still thinks that it is up to him to resist temptation in his own power. I have Good News for George Perdikis: George, you were never anything but an atheist, because you clearly never belonged to Christ. That is okay. Jesus loves you anyway, and if you decide to receive his forgiveness and grace, that gift is already waiting for you.

Dan Haseltine is a founding member of Jars of Clay, another band famous among Christians for exciting, innovative expression of Christian values. However, when he tweeted, “I just don’t see a negative effect to allowing gay marriage,” Christians committed to an orthodox interpretation of the Bible were understandably disturbed.

Orthodox Christian teaching looks to the Bible for definitions of marriage and family, and there they find that the consistent model for marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and they further find that this model for marriage is rooted in the model of Christ’s union with his bride, the Church. There is nothing in the Bible that even hints that same-sex unions can be called marriages, and there are many admonitions against the sexual behavior that underlies a same-sex union. The Bible is a Christian’s guide for faith and life, and the Bible teaches only one definition of marriage: the union of a man and a woman. There are certainly other models portrayed in Bible stories, but only the union of one man and one woman union meets the standard of following the model of Christ’s union with his church.

Haseltine did not shore up his case for gay marriage by a later tweet in which he said, “I don’t particularly care about Scripture’s stance on what is ‘wrong.’” He later took the road political charlatans often take, telling the fans that they don’t understand the context of his thought or that it was a “poor choice of words.” Being a celebrity means that Haseltine has at his fingertips professional wordsmiths and masters of marketing mantras who will glibly help him talk himself out of this faux pas.

Haseltine is busily working his feet in his swamp of words on the subject of gay marriage. My mother always said, “When you are in a swamp, keep your feet still.” Her point was that stirring up the mud of a swamp would result in sinking, and the time would come when your head would sink below the surface of the muck. Haseltine is in danger of reaching that point, not because he “defected” from the faith, but rather, because there is no evidence that he had any faith to defect from. If he valued the Bible, he would not try to diminish its value as a guide for faith and life, acting as if he could pick and choose the parts that he liked the way a child might push peas to the side of his plate and eat only the mac and cheese. Haseltine defected from the image his band wants to project, and it happened, because that image is inconsistent with Haseltine’s personal values. To secular minds, it therefore appears that he has demonstrated that Christian teaching does not satisfy the loftier moral conclusions that arise from being one’s own god.

Fans of Jars of Clay who love the band for its rock style and pay little, if any, attention to the words of the songs or the words of the performers will forgive and forget this little faux pas. Fans can do that, because the Bible is not necessarily the guide for faith of life of fans of rock bands, Christian or otherwise. Christians cannot, however, casually dismiss the words of someone whose music has been injected into worship settings to honor God Most High. Worshipers who raise their hands in prayer and praise to the Resurrected Son, will not readily forget that the singer leading them in worship has said that he doesn’t care what Scripture says.

And they should not.

Probably someone will tell me I am a wet blanket or an old curmudgeon, but stories like this remind me how deeply I reject the place celebrity bands have won in Christian worship settings around the world. I am of the confirmed opinion that local people should worship the Lord with local talent. It may not sound or look like the professionals, but as you can see in the lives of George Perdekis and Dan Haseltine, there is some question about the likely validity of considering these bands to be “leaders” in Christian worship. I would rather sing a capella in a house church or be accompanied by a one-finger pianist who loves Christ and does her best than be led in worship music by a professional musician whose god is himself.

Beyond that, I also reject the idea that Satan won some big battle and has showed Christians a thing or two by his work in the lives of these two celebrity musicians. Hemant Mehta was thrilled to publish a post by George Perdikis, because he believes atheism has snatched a Christian out of the church, but he is, of course, mistaken. Some LGBTQ social and political activists are thrilled that Dan Haseltine has “exposed” the “hypocrisy” of Christianity. They have good noses for a cover-up, and they see the self-serving game Haseltine is playing in order to appear simply to have made an error in diction. They can see the truth of his pretended “slip of the tongue,” so they pretend to themselves that they have increased their demographic statistic of people who do not consider the Bible to be reliably true in all its teachings.

The Church is truly engaged in a battle with “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). That is why we put our faith in Christ, not in pastors or in famous evangelists or in celebrity musicians. George Perdikis and Dan Haseltine are merely today’s features in Satan’s never-ending quest to separate us from Christ. The “spiritual forces of evil” are constantly pounding Christians in their attempt to pull us out of the arms of Jesus, our Rock, our Fortress, our Savior, but Paul comforts us with these words:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.              Romans 8:35-39

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the summer of 2016

What is the right Way?

If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Several years ago I read with deep interest about atheist gatherings that deliberately borrowed the model of church services. It may sound odd, but atheists, not having a holy day or a history of worshiping anything, suffer from a challenge Continue reading What is the right Way?