Human beings are easily influenced and manipulated, some more so than others. What we hear and see often elicits an emotional response. As much as we try to steel ourselves against such things, we inevitably find ourselves being influenced and manipulated by what we see and hear.
Advertisers count on this. Every TV, print, internet, and radio ad is an attempt to sell us something or get us to do something. Certain colors, air brushed hunks and babes, starving children, action scenes, and the like are all used to elicit an emotional response from us.
We know this, we know the psychology of it, yet we still, unless we forcibly fight it, get sucked in. Human behavior is studied by those who want to sell us something or get us to do something. They know what visual or audible cues get our attention. They are the experts and we are the lab rats.
It should come as no surprise that Evangelical churches use these very same methods. I know this post is likely to cause Evangelicals to scream, whine, moan, and complain but…protest all they want, they know I am right.
I am no atheist outsider chucking rocks at the Evangelical church. I am a former insider, having spent twenty-five years in the Evangelical trenches. I served as assistant pastor or senior pastor in seven churches. A General Association of Regular Baptist Church (GARBC), a Christian Union Church, a Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church, 2 Independent Baptist Churches, and a Non-denominational Church.
I preached thousands of sermons and held thousands of public worship services. I held revival meetings, spoke at youth camp, and was guest speaker for various special events. I was a guest speaker at churches from 20 different sects or denominations.
After I left the ministry our family visited over a hundred churches, looking for a church that took seriously the teachings of Jesus. You can check out the list of churches we visited here.
It is safe to say that my experience with Evangelical Christianity is broad and that I am quite qualified to make some observations about Evangelicalism. I continue to monitor and study the Evangelical movement. The fact that I am an atheist is immaterial.
Now that we have that out of the way…
Now some Evangelical churches and pastors don’t have a clue how to effectively reach (manipulate) people. Usually churches like this have a handful people attending. I am not talking about these kind of churches.
Every church I pastored grew in attendance. Several of them had dramatic attendance growth. Some of the churches were small churches, churches that had been in decline for years. When I became their pastor attendance began to increase. Why did every church I pastored (or was an assistant pastor) grow in attendance? (at the time I ascribed it to God and his blessing on my ministry)
The first thing we must understand is that Evangelical churches are all about WHO the pastor is. Churches are known as Pastor So and So’s church. Every piece of church literature has the pastor’s name on it. The church sign, the church’s website, well just about everything, has the pastor’s name attached to it. The bottom line is this…it is all about the pastor. (see my post The Cult of Personality)
I know there will Evangelicals that will object and say, MY CHURCH IS NOT LIKE THIS. I am sure there are a few outliers, but most Evangelical churches are just like I described above.
What happens when a well-liked Pastor leaves a church? Attendance numbers decline. Why is this? Simple. Large numbers of Evangelicals attend the church they do because of who the pastor is. Pastor leaves, they leave, doing what many Evangelicals have turned into a fine-art,
church pastor shopping.
Most of the people who attended the churches I pastored did so because I was the pastor. They liked my friendly personality. They liked that I paid attention to them and that I listened to them when they had problems. I was always available, always willing to lend a helping hand. (or loan them money or the use of my car)
Most of all they liked my preaching. I was good at my craft. My sermons were, for the most part, well received. I took great pride in putting together sermons that were as close to perfect as possible. I studied hard and put a lot of work into making sure my sermon would say exactly what I wanted it to say and that it would elicit the response I wanted it to. (of course I bathed every sermon in prayer, asking God to use my sermon to advance the kingdom of God)
Every pastor preaches with the hope that his sermon will be well received and that those hearing it will respond appropriately. Most public speakers, religious or not, want the same result. Who publicly speaks and expects no response?
In his sermon, the pastor uses verbal language, illustrations, voice inflections, and body language to effectively deliver the sermon. Over time, the pastor learns what works and what doesn’t.
I know of several pastors who are “crying” pastors. They cry at some point in most every sermon. As any pastor knows, tears are very effective in reinforcing what he is saying in his sermon. As his voice quivers and the tears run down his cheeks, parishioners are often emotionally affected and begin to cry. (advertisers do the same when they use pictures of starving black children or sickly, starving puppies.)
When people gather together in Evangelical churches for public worship they believe that God meets with them and, if they are listening, God will speak to them. (through the music, prayer, the sermon, etc.) Emotional outbursts are often viewed as God speaking or God moving.
Add to this the fact that most people entering the church on Sunday, enter with personal problems and burdens. During the past week they have faced troubles and trials and they enter the church hoping to find peace, comfort, and direction. And more often than not, through the sermon, the music, or some other aspect of public worship, they find some help and they “feel” better when they leave the church than when they came in.
Even in hell fire and brimstone, preaching hard against sin, churches, people generally leave in better shape than they came in. How? Through the sermon,
God the pastor exposed their sin and showed them they needed to repent. What better way to find peace than to have your sins exposed and expiated?
People enter the church emotionally vulnerable. They come wanting a changed life. They want God to speak to them, to change them, to deliver them. They are open to manipulation and often are unaware they are even being manipulated.
I should make clear at this point that the manipulators, most often the pastor or maybe a worship leader, are often not even aware they are manipulating people. They do what they were taught to do, what they grew up experiencing. They are a product of their environment and often think that their manipulative methods are simply what pastors are supposed to do. (though some pastors, especially of the charismatic, faith healer type, are con-artists and they know exactly what they are doing)
As I look back over twenty-five years of pastoring churches, I sadly must conclude that I was an expert manipulator. At the time I would never have thought myself to be a manipulator since I was only doing what I had experienced and been taught, but it was manipulation nonetheless. ( and I wonder if ANY religious service is free of manipulation, no matter how subtle it might be)
Smart pastors know first impressions are very important and they do everything they can to make sure the first impression is a good impression. What they are doing is what every business tries do; get consumers to buy their product. Services, music, programs, printed material, sermons, etc. are all designed to get the consumer to buy what the church/pastor is selling.
Evangelical companies like Lifeway and Barna spend considerable money and time studying American behavior.The study results are made available to Evangelical denominations, churches, and pastors. Growing churches know their niche, they know the demographics of the area they are in. Everything is geared towards reaching their target audience.
As any pastor knows, no church can be all things to all people. Every church must decide who to reach, who to sell their product to. Churches who think they can be all things to all people generally don’t grow and aren’t very effective in reaching the community they are in.
Let me tie all this together. Yes, there really is a point to this post.
When you take everything I have written here together, you perhaps can see how easy it is for people to be manipulated when they visit or are a member of an Evangelical church. Most everything the church/pastor does is done to attract new people or keep members in the chair. (pews are s-o 20th century) They have a product to sell and they do everything they can to get people to buy what they are selling.
From the physical structure, to the seat layout, to the order of the service, everything is geared towards closing the deal. The worship leader carefully plans the service, choosing songs that mesh with the pastor’s sermon. Even the lighting and sound are carefully managed to produce the desired result.
Churches that have altar calls are the most manipulative of all. They use all of the above and them some, with their heads bowed, everyone praying, softly singing, pleas to obey God, altar calls.
I have watched hundreds and hundreds of people come to the altar to do business with God. Many of them were weeping and emotionally distraught. Surely this was God moving, right? Or maybe, it was emotional manipulation, Evangelical style.
I am of the opinion that going to an Evangelical church with your emotional guard down can be very dangerous. If a person is not careful they can be be easily manipulated into saying and doing things they would not normally say or do. I know the Evangelical will say this is God moving but I am convinced most Evangelicals can not tell the difference between God moving and emotional manipulation. (as an atheist, since I don’t believe God exists, I am certain it is emotional manipulation)
Over the course of twenty-five years as a pastor I saw countless numbers of people get saved, get right with God, confess their sins, etc., only to never return to the church or revert right back to doing whatever sin they confessed.
They were emotionally manipulated into making a decision, praying a prayer, or responding to a sermon. Once they were free from the church and the pastor they realized how foolish they had been. (as many atheists find out years after the fact)
Individuality is not encouraged in the Evangelical church. (with exceptions made for the pastor, worship leader, and other church super-stars) Herd mentality is prominent in many churches. Watch a contemporary praise and worship service. It “looks” like everyone is freely worshiping God, but are they? Granted there are some signs of individuality , but, for the most part, everyone is doing the same thing.
I know most Evangelicals will heartily and vehemently reject what I have written in this post. I doubt there is anything I can say that will change their mind. This much I know…if you look at Evangelicalism from a emotional, psychological, and sociological perspective, it is hard not to see emotional manipulation in most everything Evangelicals do when they gather together for public worship.
In many ways, Evangelicals mirror the age we live in. Their techniques are not much different from those used by advertisers, political campaign managers, or TV producers. All of them have a product to sell and will do whatever they need to do to get us to buy what they are selling.