My exit out of Living Word Church (a pseudonym), and Charismania in general, for that matter, was prompted by a handful of what Oprah Winfrey would call “Aha!” moments. One of those moments, ironically, was born out of a friendship, probably the only true friendship I had at Living Word.
Living Word Church was NOT a place where it was easy to connect with others. During the years we attended, there were no “Adult Bible Fellowships” (aka “Sunday school classes”). There were no small-group Bible studies where discussion was encouraged. They did have a system of church-organized social groups, called “Care Groups” (now changed to “Life Groups”), but the groups rarely met, and when they did, the get-togethers were often painfully awkward meetings of strangers with next to nothing in common.
Incidentally, something I always found fascinating is how just about every decent conversation among Living Word folks seemed to end up focused on Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) or the story of how one came to be a member of Living Word. Seriously. I can remember attending at least three different Living Word get-togethers where there was little but stiff small talk, until someone mentioned something about Pastor Smith. Suddenly, everyone in the room came alive and began participating in the conversation.
Much later, I realized that this was exactly the way Pastor Smith liked things to be. He and his family were the focal point of Living Word Church, and you’d better not forget it. To ensure that you wouldn’t forget, you could feast your eyes on large portraits of the Smith family plastered prominently in the church lobby. You could watch people during praise and worship time, prior to the Smiths’ grand entrance on the stage, and feel the level of anticipation for Pastor Smith’s arrival. If Smith wasn’t going to be there on a particular Sunday, they’d rarely announce that ahead of time, because they knew how few people would actually still show up.
So in this very Pastor Smith-centric atmosphere, I considered my friendship with two ladies, middle-aged never-married sisters who typically sat in the same area of the sanctuary as we did, a real treasure. What started because of conversations struck up during long periods of waiting for the church services to begin eventually grew into a deep, heart-to-heart friendship.
One of the sisters – I’ll call her “Jean” – became an especially close friend. She and I would always have a wonderful time when we’d talk on the phone or meet for lunch. Although we shared interests in more mundane things, our conversations also often touched on our deepest spiritual struggles, hopes, and dreams. Jean and I frequently shared with each other what we were praying about, the things in our lives that we wanted to change, and where we thought God was leading us.
In retrospect, it seems almost funny that it was one of those conversations that ultimately sent me down the path of questioning just about everything we’d been taught at Living Word. During the time we were involved with the church, I probably would have said that the one thing that made us less than content with Living Word was the lack of ways to truly fellowship with other believers. I always felt uncomfortable with the extreme focus on the Smith family and earnestly wished I had more friends like Jean.
I never would have guessed that Jean would play a role in our leaving.
Not long after we first became friends, Jean revealed to me something that even at that time struck me as a bit unreal. In the early days of our involvement at Living Word, I honestly felt like a whole new world had been opened for me. After a lifetime of a Bible-based faith rooted firmly in reality, where normal human disappointments still might lurk around every corner, I was suddenly introduced to a Christian life that talked about “dreaming big,” about “having favor,” about “taking the limits off.” After years of knowing that Christians should not love money, should not place too much importance on “things of this world,” and should not put their hopes in earthly riches, we were suddenly thrust into a world where it was OK – indeed, it was merely a sign of God’s blessing – to drive a luxury car and dream for a huge house. In fact, it was God’s will for us to have those things.
So when Jean told me that God had given her and her sister an amazing vision and had also told them that it was going to come to pass, I had mixed feelings when she revealed exactly what that dream was. On the one hand, we were fed a steady diet of, “The sky’s the limit!” from Living Word’s pulpit. Nothing is impossible with God…it’s God’s will for you to have the desires of your heart…we are more than conquerors through Christ…God wants us to prosper and be in good health…
Who was I to tell anyone that their dream was too far-fetched for God to turn into reality? God could do anything!
Well, when it came right down to what the sisters’ dream actually WAS, I ran into huge roadblocks in my thinking.
They totally and sincerely believed that God had told them they would both soon retire from their secretarial jobs, come into $53 million, and establish a “hospitality house” where they would play hostess to the visiting ministers whom Living Word brought in on occasion to speak to the church. They already even had selected their exact mansion – in one of the finest communities of luxury homes that this area affords. Like, they already knew WHICH HOUSE God had shown them that He was going to give them.
They also believed that God had told them that they were going to experience supernatural weight loss – that one day in the near future, Pastor Smith would give an altar call for those who wanted to lose weight, and when they’d go forward for this altar call, a miracle would happen and weight would instantly drop off their bodies, to the point where they’d start losing their clothes as they’d make their way back to their seats.
In other words, the sisters believed that someday soon, they’d be both wealthy and slim, even though currently their paychecks only afforded them life’s necessities…they had saved NOTHING for retirement, neither of them had health insurance, and they were still living in their mother’s basement…and even though they had absolutely no plans to change their eating and exercise habits.
I know it might seem silly to those of you who have never been engulfed in the “Charismaniac” mindset, but I did not immediately dismiss the sisters’ beliefs about their future. I felt conflicted about them, actually. On the one hand, the part of me that still had my feet planted somewhere near reality would inwardly shake my head and marvel that they could put so much stock in what they thought that “God told them.” I mean, although Pastor Smith frequently delivered vague but very positive prophecies over lots of folks in Living Word’s audience, he’d never pulled out either sister for a personal “word.” They didn’t even have one of Pastor Smith’s prophecies to fall back on. All they had was their confidence in their own prophetic dreams, visions, and ability to “hear God’s voice.”
I often thought, even as I was growing to love the gals and enjoy our friendship more and more, that they were setting themselves up for a huge disappointment every time they would strain their meager finances to “sow a seed” into Living Word Church or ministries like Benny Hinn’s. I cringed on their behalf when, right before offering time one Sunday night, Jean whispered to me that although they’d finally saved enough money to buy themselves new mattresses, they felt that God had told them to give the entire amount to the church instead. Her trembling hand was clutching a white offering envelope, which she proceeded to bring down to the waiting ushers holding the offering buckets at the front of the church.
Even then – and this was in the midst of my highest love and loyalty for Living Word – I was greatly troubled at the thought of Jean and her sister sleeping on broken-down beds for several more years while the Smiths barely batted an eye at spending $29,000 per year on floral arrangements and “needed” a new $80,000 Mercedes to replace their perfectly respectable 5-year-old model.
Yet…well, on the other hand, I never could bring myself to completely discount the sisters’ belief in their dream. After all, who was I to question their faith? At the time, I myself was “believing God for something” that probably would have seemed quite far-fetched to other people.
For at least awhile, I made a sort of uneasy peace with the two parts of my thinking. To be honest, I was motivated by more than a little selfishness. My reasoning went something like this: if I did not honor the sisters’ dream – the object of THEIR faith – then why should anybody, God Himself included, honor MY dream and answer MY prayers?
I never quite lost the sense, though, that there was a missing link in the sisters’ (actually, the whole church’s, mine included) theology. I realize – again – that this might not make sense to anyone who hasn’t been engulfed in Charismania, but we’d listen to sermon after sermon from Pastor Smith about faith, about believing God for our dreams, about how our “destiny” was always just about to be fulfilled. I’d say at least nine Sundays out of ten, the terms “destiny,” “dreams,” “visions,” and “favor” would figure prominently in Pastor Smith’s preaching. And always, he’d seem to have plenty of Bible verses to back up his assurances to us. Despite all the years of solid Bible training I’d had and the many college theology courses I’d taken, I could never really pinpoint what – if anything – was wrong with Pastor Smith’s messages.
The truth was, I actually WANTED Living Word’s teachings – the same teachings that buoyed up my friends’ commitment to their mansion and their future instantaneous weight loss – to be true. Church had become an extremely positive, uplifting experience for me. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing, week after week, how God had a great destiny in store for me, and how my dreams would all be fulfilled. Just like the two sisters, I myself was hoping and praying every day for a specific outcome, and I did not want to lose what I thought were the theological underpinnings for believing that I would eventually get what I wanted.
Ultimately, though, I finally concluded that since I could never reconcile the God of the Bible with the sisters’ vision, I had to rethink almost everything we’d been taught about God’s “obligation” to answer our prayers and fulfill our dreams. I had to go back to the Bible alone, and I had to ask the hard questions about whether or not all the “dream talk” was consistent with God’s character and wisdom, as He has revealed those things to us in the Bible.
When we finally made the painful decision to leave Living Word, it was due in part to the fact that I could never fully and honestly get behind my friends and cheer them on, even though I really wanted to out of my deep affection for them. I finally acknowledged what I’d always still known deep down: that the God of the Bible was not likely to give my friends such a dream and “tell them” that they were going to stumble upon $53 million. I knew that the God of the Bible was not likely to melt pounds off of them during a five-minute altar call. I knew that the God of the Bible – as He has revealed Himself to us through books like Proverbs – was not likely to promote a lifestyle that never planned for the future, never even tried to save for retirement.
I recently stumbled upon a book review by Bob DeWaay, in which he discusses this very subject. While Pastor Smith never cited this particular book (Prayer Quest, by Dee Duke) in any of his sermons, the book is apparently based upon the exact same principles we were taught at Living Word Chuch. DeWaay articulates far better than I ever could the faulty theology behind Charismania’s extreme focus on “dreams” and “visions.” I know this blog post is already quite long, but I’d encourage everybody to read the excerpt below. I’ve put what I considered the key paragraph in bold.
Bob DeWaay’s Book Review of Dee Duke’s Prayer Quest
The subtitle to this book is “Breaking through to your God-given dreams and destiny.” Duke speaks of our dreams and God’s dreams throughout his book. In the Bible God gave dreams to certain people. Those dreams, if interpreted by an infallible prophet, revealed God’s will and God plans. In the Bible, the dreams were from God, but they were not God’s dreams. They were the dreams of the people who dreamt them (for example Nebuchadnezzar’s in Daniel 2). Here we have to add a point of clarification: Only the dreams that are interpreted in the Bible by God’s prophets and spokespersons can be considered to authoritatively reveal God’s will.
The term “dream” in English can mean “hope for an ideal future,” as in, “I have a dream.” This denotes the hope for some better state of affairs that may or may not come into existence. Duke, in his book, is clearly not using the term in the Biblical sense as a dream a person has that has been interpreted by an authoritative prophet. Instead he says, “He calls us now to dream His dreams, to ask Him daily to display His power. Duke is speaking of a hoped for future when he uses the term “dream”:
“Welcome to the reality where dreams come true! God has a dream, and it is certain to happen just as He imagines it. He has placed the stamp of His image on our souls, so that we also dream great dreams. As we learn to passionately share and enjoy God’s dreams, we will see Him work in amazing ways . . .”
This statement involves some serious category problems. Supposedly God’s dream is His imagination about the future. We (all humans evidently because all humans are created in God’s image) can dream like God. Either this is anthropomorphism run amok or some seriously bad theology. God is the one who says this about Himself: “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure‘” (Isaiah 46:9, 10). God does not dream, He decrees. God calls things into being and works all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11). He doesn’t imagine a potential future that may or may not happen.
Concerning us, the only thing we know about what God “dreams” (using Duke’s terminology) is what is revealed in Scripture. Our own dreams about what we would like the future to bring are not going to make God do anything. Duke says, “This book is intended to help you learn to walk so intimately with God that you will see Him fulfill His dreams in and through you.” This brings us back to the typical “prayer secret” genre of Christian writing. Supposedly there is some key to “intimacy with God” that is not based on the once-for-all finished work of Christ, not based on availing ourselves of the means of grace by faith, but based on our own level of personal piety and the use of practices not revealed in the Bible.
Duke asks his readers, “Do you feel as though you’ve given up on dreams you had when your faith was new?” The implication is that our “dreams” (i.e., hopes for an ideal or optimal future) somehow authoritatively reveal God’s will and that we must make these come to pass by some process. But our ideas about what we hope life will be like are nothing more than ideas and may have nothing to do with God’s purposes. Our dreams are part of providence, but providence contains good and evil. Duke is treating personal imaginations about the future as if they were infallible guidance to be nurtured and followed. But personal dreams are not God’s moral law.
Here is a further definition of what Duke means by “dream,”
“A dream is a desire felt so strongly that we think and meditate on it constantly until we see it in our mind as clearly as if it were reality. A dream believes that what is desired will happen; it is accomplished by anticipation and positive expectation. People who dream tend to be upbeat and enthusiastic.”
This is a very much the type of mind over matter thinking that has enjoyed popularity in self-help circles.
He gives people some practical guidance on releasing their “imagination” in prayer: “Envision yourself embarking on a day trip into the presence of God. . . . Envision yourself approaching God in His glory.”
This is strikingly similar to guided imagery. He gives more examples of how to manage your dream time with God, including making lists of dream notes. This is a journey into the subjective realm under the guise of “prayer.”
Much bad teaching comes into the church by route of mysticism, subjectivism, and having faulty theological categories. In previous articles I carefully defined categories to help my readers avoid these pitfalls. Risking redundancy, I must again assert that there is God’s revealed will in Scripture as well as God’s providential will (containing good and evil) that is revealed as history unfolds. Though Duke wants us to dream God’s dreams about the future, he admits that these dreams we might have come from various sources. He lists thoughts from God, your own thoughts, thoughts from the world, and thoughts from Satan. His readers are supposed to sort through their dream notes to find ones that they think are from God. But how? God’s future providential will is not revealed and cannot be known until it unfolds in history. Our dreams about the future cannot be determined to be from God by any means available to us because they are not revealed in Scripture.
Duke reveals his lack of Biblical understanding when he cites the scripture, “My sheep know my voice,” as proof that we can figure out which of our dreams is God’s voice. That passage in John 10 is about those whom the Father has given to the Son and who consequently will respond to the gospel and follow Christ, not about listening to various subjective voices in our heads and trying to figure out which one sounds the most like Christ.
There is no need to belabor how bad this book is theologically. It starts from a series of faulty premises and bad theology and builds from there a concept of prayer that is not taught in the Bible. The term “dream” as he uses it is basically the idea of one’s imagination. The Bible tells us about those who speak in this manner: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; They speak a vision of their own imagination, Not from the mouth of the Lord‘”. (Jeremiah 23:16).