Guest post by Ian.
I have read several things lately that made me think of how I was conditioned, or manipulated, to think. I’m not talking about what to think, but the way I was made to think. By think, I mean believe what someone else told me to believe. There are several tools that can be used in the conditioning process. They are the same tools used by motivational speakers, cults and anyone else who wants to control your thought processes. I would like to share four of them.
The first tool is emotional manipulation. When the pastor stands up to speak on Sundays and Wednesday nights, we are primed to believe what he has to tell us. The priming, or manipulation, was done by using music, prayer and testimonies (short praises about what God/Jesus had done during the week). All of this is done in a staged setting and is choreographed to induce the maximum level of readiness. As a child, and later as a non-participating adult, I had no idea that I was being manipulated.
When I did become part of the service, by leading music and speaking, I didn’t realize that I already knew how to manipulate people. I had been manipulated my whole life and I used the same methods on my fellow church goers, even though I didn’t realize it. Music is probably the biggest manipulator that the church has. If you look at a lot of the mega churches and churches with young people, you will find a thriving music program.
One of my most memorable emotional experiences was at a revival being held at Bible Baptist Church. The song leader worked us up pretty well and the last song we sang was “What A Day That Will Be”. I can still remember the feeling I got when we sang that song, and that was almost 30 years ago. At a different church, the pastor was having some difficulties with people challenging his authority, at the same time he was going through some health issues. One Sunday night, he told the church that he felt his time on earth was short and that he wanted to sing a song that had blessed him over the years. He sang the song “Sweet Beulah Land” and many of the people in the church were reduced to tears. This simple act helped quiet some of the turmoil for a little while. I know for sure that he was pretty sick at the time, so maybe he felt like he was ready to die. All I know is that he did the same thing once more, about a year later, during more unrest. He manipulated the situation using music and his health. I’m sure he was doing for “the good of the church”; but, it was still manipulation. That was 15 years ago and he is still around.
I never did anything like that, though I would gauge the mood of the people and use the music to get them emotional. When I led music, I would decide on a theme and choose songs based on that theme. Depending on what I wanted to happen, I might choose all fast tempo songs, except for the last one. I might choose two fast, two slow, and two fast. There were many things I could do with music to control the church group. Having a pianist who could follow my cues was important, and I had excellent pianists at the churches I participated in. There were even times I saw people get worked up and I wanted to continue the feeling, so I would trash my music list and pick songs that I knew would keep people in a worked up state. After services like that, people would tell me they felt the spirit working. There was a time I believed that. Towards the end of my time in church, when I had de-converted but not told anyone, I led a couple of services where “the spirit worked”. Part of me felt bad that I was manipulating people, part of me thought it was pretty cool that I could do it as a non-believer. I now feel totally bad that I manipulated people and don’t think it was cool at all. These were people who trusted me and I lied to them.
The second tool used in conditioning is being told we have no self-worth or goodness outside of Jesus and the church. In Calvinism and Reformed theology, this is especially prevalent. We are told that everyone is born a sinner and only through the blood of Jesus could we have a chance at being a decent person. I had questioned that, asking about millionaires who gave money away or missionaries from other religions who spent their lives helping the poor and needy. I was told that they were doing it for selfish reasons, to ensure that people would always remember them or to use the tax breaks that charities provide. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. All I know is that someone who gives money to a school to help buy books is doing a good deed, no matter their motive. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pouring millions into a toilet for desert areas. According to the Bible, this is a worthless endeavor without Jesus. I’m sure that the people who will reap the benefits of better sanitation don’t care if it is a Christian endeavor or not, it will improve their quality of life more than the most eloquent prayer.
Since we have no self-worth, according to the Bible, we are dependent on someone else tell us that we are good. Everyone wants to be told that they have worth and that is what people find at church. We all have failings, and some people are more affected by them than others. This is why people go to self-help gurus as well as to church. They want to be told that they are OK and everything will be fine.
Church is more dangerous than a self-help guru, though. It creates a mentally and emotionally abusive cycle that is no different from a person in an abusive relationship. Being constantly told that you are no good and deserving of punishment makes you feel bad; so when you are told a way to become better, you will do whatever it takes to please to one who has power over you. Whether this is the church or your drug addicted boyfriend/girlfriend makes no difference. They hold the keys to your happiness and they realize that they have enormous power. They will continue to do whatever it takes to keep this power over you. In an abusive relationship, the bad times are so bad that the good times seem like Heaven, Nirvana, or whatever pleasant place you can imagine. Leaving the person or organization that makes you feel good becomes almost impossible because you are emotionally damaged. The bad thing is that people stuck in this type of relationship can’t see it, even when it is explained to them. Try telling a Christian that they are in an abusive relationship and see what happens.
The third tool used to condition people to believe what they are told is by always revealing a new truth. I can’t count how many times I was told of a new doctrine. Sometimes these were small things, other times they were huge. The leap from Arminianism to Calvinism was huge, finding out that women shouldn’t teach Sunday school to kids over 12 wasn’t so big. With few exceptions, the new truths were more restrictive and less mainstream. This goes back to the self-worth issue, we were always looking for a way to better please God. It seems that God (the pastor) is never happy with where you are in your spiritual life. (Unless, of course, you are one of his kids or were a founding member of the church.) He will continually find new things for you to believe and do. Having strange beliefs and practices isn’t too much of a problem for a pastor; after all, his job is to be a pastor. Often, though, these beliefs and practices have a huge impact on the congregation. I knew people who quit their jobs when they could ill afford it, based on a new truth from the pastor. Whatever these new truths are, there are always people who will follow them. I know of a church where they only refer to Jesus by title (Lord, Savior, Master, etc.,) rather than by name. Someone figured that since the Disciples only referred to him by title and demons called him Jesus, then all Christians should refer to him by title.
Instability is another tool used to condition a person’s thinking. This instability ties in to the first three ideas. When you are emotionally manipulated, mentally abused and always being told something new, you are never stable for very long. Your stability comes from the pastor and what he tells you that God is telling you. Keeping you unstable allows an organization or person to exert much more power over you than if things remained the same all the time.
Now, I am not saying that every church leader has diabolical intentions. I’m sure that many people do these things and don’t realize that are conditioning people. Other people, though, are totally aware of what they are doing and enjoy the power they have. If you don’t believe me, think about a revival meeting or an old-fashioned tent meeting. The first thing that happens is instability; you are there at odd times, after working all day. Then, you are emotionally worked up by the music and testimonies. During a revival, there aren’t usually any new doctrines taught, but you are certainly told that you are a sinner and in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. Other tools come into play during this scenario- being tired, being hungry and loss of time (the preacher telling you to forget the clock, God has more for him to say and the time doesn’t matter right now). People respond to these tools by accepting Jesus as their savior, dedicating their lives to God or just repenting of their sinful ways. Money usually pours into the offering plates and people become faithful Christians again, for a while. The men who are professional evangelists are quite good at their craft and know exactly how to work the crowd. They are the modern version of snake oil salesmen.
There are other tools that people can use to condition your thinking, but these the main ones. These are the tools used week after week by pastors in IFB churches across the country. While in the pew, very few ever stop to think that they are being conditioned to blindly follow what they are being told. They read their Bibles and pray, but the tools have been used and their minds are open to believing the man in charge. When they challenge the pastor, the rest of the church is there to shut them down and help them fall back into the conditioning they have received.