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Scaring Children and Teenagers Into Getting Saved


Why do Evangelical churches, pastors, and parents use scare tactics and methodologies to elicit salvation decisions from their young children and teenagers? Why are high pressure tactics used to get children to ask Jesus to save them and forgive their sins? Why can’t Evangelical parents wait until their children are older — say late teens — before pressuring them to repent of their sins and ask Jesus to become their Lord and Savior?

In what follows, I will attempt to explain the theological beliefs that drive Evangelicals to treat their children like prospects for buying new vacuüm cleaners or Florida timeshares. Week after week, Evangelical pastors preach the gospel, imploring non-Christians to admit they are sinners and in need of salvation and forgiveness. As I shall discuss at the conclusion of this post, many Evangelical preachers and churches go to extreme lengths to scare children into becoming Christians.

According to Evangelicals, thanks to Adam and Eve sinning against God in the Garden of Eden, all humans come into this world with sin natures. This means that humans are born sinners, and not that they become sinners. Humans have no choice in the matter. Adam and Eve as the first humans are the father and mother of the human race. Because they were sinners, so are we.

God’s punishment for human sin is that every human must die physically and spiritually (first and second death).  Eternal punishment in a burning lake of fire and brimstone — Hell and the Lake of Fire — awaits all humans after death.

Sometime in the future, Jesus Christ (God) will come back to earth on a white horse. Once he arrives he will defeat Satan and his followers, vanquishing sin from the earth. Jesus will then resurrect the dead and judge them, along with those who are still alive when He returns. Those who are Christians will be rewarded with a room in the eternal Kingdom of God. Everyone else will be cast into the Lake of Fire. Once this final judgment is completed, God will make a new heaven and a new earth. (I am well aware of the various eschatological schemes. I am trying to paint a general picture without getting caught up with all the various end-times interpretations.)

Since hell awaits all humans, the only way to escape the eternal pain, suffering, and darkness of the Lake of Fire is for humans to admit that they are sinners and that Jesus — thanks to his death on the cross, paying for our sins and satisfying God’s wrath — is their only hope for salvation and forgiveness. Only those who put their faith in Jesus will go to heaven when they die. (Again, I know that there are various soteriological schemes. I am trying to give the reader a broad picture without going into all the details concerning the order of salvation, Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.)

It should come as no surprise, then, based on the aforementioned core beliefs, that Evangelical churches, pastors, and parents are worried about their children going to hell when they die. Most Evangelicals believe that, while all humans are born into world with sin natures, children aren’t accountable for their sin until they reach a certain age or a certain intellectual capability. Some Evangelicals believe that the age of accountability is age twelve, whereas other Evangelicals believe that children are accountable for their sin the moment they understand the difference between right and wrong. All Evangelicals believe it is vitally important for their children to get saved as soon as possible — the younger, the better. It is not uncommon for Evangelical children to become Christians before they enter elementary school. In many Evangelical sects, formerly saved children, make new commitments to Christ — rededications — as teenagers. It is also not uncommon to hear of adults who have repeatedly rededicated their lives to Christ. As one old preacher said, just keep praying and asking Jesus to save you until it sticks.

Many Evangelical churches have what are called revivals. Hired guns called evangelists hold days- and weeks-long meetings at churches with the express purpose of “reviving” Christians and saving the lost. These evangelists are known for their fire and brimstone preaching, complete with stories about people who died without becoming Christians. These stories are key to evangelizing the lost. The unsaved, according to evangelists, need to know that every breath they breathe is a gift from God, and since the appointed time of death could happen at any moment, it is vital that sinners get saved today.

Evangelists held numerous meetings for me during my pastoring days. Two come to mind, both of whom went to great lengths to scare children and teenagers (and adults) into getting saved. One man was Dennis Corle. Corle preached several meetings for me in the 1980s. During one meeting, Corle asked if he could meet for a short time every night with the church’s children. I said yes, not bothering to ask why Corle wanted to do so. Imagine my surprise when I read a Sword of the Lord report of the Corle revival meeting at our church which stated that dozens of children were saved. Evidently, Corle spent his time with the children scaring the living hell out of them. And it worked. Previously saved children even made new professions of faith.

Another evangelist who comes to mind is Don Hardman. (Please see The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman, A Book Review  and Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman, A Book Review .) Hardman held numerous meetings for me at two different churches. Some of the meetings were two weeks long — every weeknight, Saturday, and twice on Sunday. Hardman would often come out of the pulpit and address attendees personally, calling them by name if he knew them. At one such meeting, Hardman zeroed in on teenagers, going down the pews pointing his finger and reminding them that God saw everything they did. Needless to say, this scared a number of attendees — most of whom were church members — and come invitation time, numerous people came forward to get saved or get “right” with God.

Corle and Hardman were hardly unique as far as evangelists go. I sat in a number of revival meetings during my days as a Christian and a pastor, and I heard evangelist after evangelist attempt to psychologically manipulate people into making a decision for Christ.

Evangelists rely on love offerings to fund their ministries. These hired guns know that good love offerings and future engagements rely on them producing decisions. Sinners and backsliders walking the sawdust trail (a reference to yesteryear when evangelists held tent meetings and covered the aisles with sawdust) to the front of the church so they can do business with God, are visible demonstrations not only of God’s power, but the evangelist’s ability to goad, manipulate, shame, and scare people into making decisions.

Some evangelists, using the Billy Graham model, ‘prime the pump’ by having trained Christian altar workers come forward during invitation time. These altar workers give the unaware the illusion that God is moving and people are being saved. Contrary to Donald Trump saying today that he invented the phrase ‘priming the pump,’ Evangelical evangelists have been talking about and using this practice since the 1920s. While many evangelists don’t use such a crass phrase as ‘priming the pump,’ and instead use less offensive phrases such as ‘helping sinners take the first step’, I have heard several notable evangelists utter the phrase. The late Joe Boyd is one evangelist who comes to mind.

In the 1970s, I attended Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. It was there that I was, at the age of fifteen, saved and called to preach. As was typical of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches during the church growth heyday, Trinity held two services on Sunday and one on Wednesday, along with Sunday school before the morning service and youth group before/after the evening service. The goal of every service was the same: the salvation of sinners and the reclamation of backsliders. Added to the weekly schedule of services were revival meetings. These revival meetings were special events geared towards reaching non-Christians. Church members were encouraged (commanded) to invite their friends, neighbors, and everyone they came in contact with to the revival. Get them to the revival, the thinking went, and let the evangelist, uh I mean God, do the rest.

These revival meetings were high pressure events. During the invitation, church members were encouraged to speak to their visitors about the condition of their soul. Countless prospects for heaven were badgered into coming to the front where altar workers would take them through the plan of salvation. Those who prayed the sinner’s prayer and answered the correct questions were deemed saved. At the conclusion of the service, the newly saved were mentioned by name to congregants who then showed their approval by saying AMEN! Afterwards, these newly minted Christians stood at the front so their new brothers and sisters in Christ could shake their hands, hug them, and give them spiritual advice.

One Wednesday night, a friend of mine by the name of Deke Roberts came with me to Wednesday night service. During the invitation, one of the high-pressure saleswomen of the church came to Deke and started asking him questions about his spiritual condition. After being sufficiently badgered, my friend went forward and prayed the sinner’s prayer. Several days later I asked Deke about his salvation decision. He told that he got “saved” just so that lady would leave him alone!

the burning hell

Some Evangelical churches use movies and drama events to lure people into getting saved. Teenagers, in particular, are the focus of these events. During my teen years, Trinity showed movies such as The Burning Hell and A Thief in the Night. These movies were quite scary, warning sinners of the danger of waiting until tomorrow to be saved. During my pastoring years, drama presentations became a popular way to get people saved.  Hell Houses and dramas such as Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames were (and still are) used as evangelistic tools to reach the lost. Thousands and thousands of people have made professions of faith though these manipulative tools.

Let me conclude this post with an honest reflection on my own use of psychological manipulation. At the time, I wouldn’t have considered my actions as manipulation, but I now know they were. At the time, believing that life is short and hell is real, I felt burdened to use any means necessary to reach people with the gospel. For many years, Sunday after Sunday, service after service, I preached the gospel, using poignant stories and passages of Scripture to remind sinners of the danger of waiting to get saved. Hundreds and hundreds of people made professions of faith and got right with God during my time pastoring churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.  While I deeply regret manipulating people, in my defense I was only modeling that which I had experienced growing up in Evangelical churches and attending an IFB college. I did the only thing I knew to do. Fortunately, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I began moving away from using such tactics. Embracing Calvinism put an end to my use of altar calls.  While I still passionately chased after the souls of men, I left it up to “God” to save sinners. Needless to say, once I embraced Calvinism, the number of people saved under my ministry greatly decreased.

Did you grow up in an Evangelical church? Did the church hold revival meetings? What techniques did the church use during church services to “reach the lost”? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.


  1. Avatar
    Melissa Montana

    I still have phobias because of evangelical services and church camp. It didn’t save me, it just made me get creeped out by churches and crucifixes. The thing I hated most was the pictures of the world burning up in the end times in so-called “children’s” bibles. To this day, preachers not only offend me, they still scare me and bring up tons of negative emotions that can take days to overcome. And yet I still get people telling me to overcome my depression by embracing god. Religion (along with other things) made my mental heath problems worse. I will never understand why churches use this strong arm tactic. A church told my husband (who has severe depression and OCD) that he would go to Hell if he didn’t get his act together. Then they wondered why their membership is dropping.

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    Danny Campbell

    I remember very few instances of fire and brimstone revivals, and no camp meetings at all at my Southern Baptist Church. Once in a while the church would have a “Revival Week” or some such thing but it was just an opportunity for the preacher to dust off his top-shelf sermons. Thinking WAY back to my youth in the mid-1970s, most of my memories of subversive indoctrination centered on the evils of backwards masking (which was all the rage at the time) and the immorality of premarital sex. They were billed as methods that Satan uses to lure us in and yes, we were warned about the price we would pay in hell. The memories that really stand out are those endured at church summer camp. It was just a day camp, every day for a couple weeks. The church bus made the rounds picking up kids – with the blessing of parents who wanted them out of the house for a few hours! We did art projects, sang songs, played sports, had a nice lunch… We also watched film strips (this was the 70s, remember) about Christian history, read Bible stories, and – got to listen to the preacher give us a focused sermon on the battles with sin we were surely waging as 12-14 year-olds. I don’t have any residual bad feelings about the experience but knowing what I know now, I’d never want to my kids to put up with that bull.

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    There was a time in recent history when a fag was a cigarette and a faggot had nothing to do with sexual orientation. At the Baptist summer camp, I would never see a fag because if somebody smoked, they did not do it onsite. At the end of the week or so of camp with early morning exercises before breakfast and lights out not long after dark, the faggot service was the last hurrah on the week, the last chance and all the rest. We kids were gathered into the hall and a fire was lit. One by one we were expected to stand before our peers, pick up a small piece of wood (the faggot) and admit our ugly hearts, our worthless lives; explain just how God had brought us back from the brink. There were many tears shed during confessions and so much bullshit sprayed out that the whole world stunk of it. After the confession, the faggot was tossed into the fire and the next kid put on the spot.
    One thing that this abuse does teach is how to live a lie to escape torture. And how to begin to actually believe what has been drilled into you forever, that you are lost and found, that the big shit in the sky has given you a break by killing off his own boy and letting you live. We really were grateful and told the truth as best we could. It made me quite sick. There has been no better number done on me in my life than that performed by evangelical Christianity. The fundamentalism in world religions is designed to destroy freedom and being and is an ongoing war that reflects long human suffering and endless misery. Get those children young and tell them that this hateful Bible teaching is really the foundation and epitiome of love in the world and that to seek the God at the heart of it is the ultimate goal of life. All else pales and is essentially a waste. To ruin innocence is a noble thing and churches accomplish it with glee. What a wonderful thing it is to see your 10 year old weeping in shame and misery, in the knowledge of their filthy existence! Praise sweet Jesus!

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    Justine Valinotti

    Some years back, in a school near me, a high school guidance counselor–an African American students–was fired for telling her African-American male students that if they don’t finish high school, they may as well soot themselves in the head.

    I don’t see the difference between that and scaring vulnerable young children into “salvation.” If anything, it’s more pernicious, because what that counselor told her students at least has some basis in fact: a young African American man without a high school diploma has practically no legal opportunities in this economy and culture.

    Yet the folks who scare kids into “accepting Jesus” or whatever get away with it. And the kids live with the scars for the rest of their lives.

    • Avatar
      Justine Valinotti

      My first sentence should read that the counselor was an African-American woman.

      In my third sentence, I meant that scaring young children in to salvation is more pernicious.\

      Mea culpa. (That’s Latin for “my bad”.)

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    The main reason I disliked church camp was the fact that you spent a good portion of time sitting in chapel getting preached at about the same stuff over and over again. Lets not forget all the testimonies and the speaking in tongues(fake it until you make it haha). Not to mention on opposite day they served hot pizza for breakfast(talk about actual hell). Everyone knows only cold pizza is appropriate for breakfast. Either way I was an arrogant prick at that point in my life and sort of snobby and had already gotten “saved” so most of the whole ordeal was rather pointless.

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    Dennis Corle.
    What a windbag. Had that butthole at our church in Southern Cal back in the early 80’s.
    He pranced and shouted and called people out.
    “YOU!! Are you ashamed of JESUS-uh CHRIST-uh?”
    “NO SIR!!”

    Our pastor was left reeling in his wake… how had Dennis SAVED ALL THOSE SOULS????

    So HE started prancing and shouting and calling people out.
    The church board didn’t like that and asked him to stop it.
    So he resigned. Because they didn’t understand how important saving the lost was.

    Good times.

    I’m sorry. What was the question?

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    Was ‘converted’ at the age of 10yo in c1967, under Arminian teaching at an (Australian) camp. 4 years later joined a calvinistic amillenial ‘true’ church and was fed TULIP for ever. (Mind you Edwards sermon …Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God… was sometimes used as an illustration.) The elders hated revivalist tent meetings and those who conducted them with a vengeance. They hated Billy Graham too and produced anti Graham literature. All the time the elders taught dogmatism of calvinism and had great debates about all things useless. Funnily enough one elder once said to me that pple get saved under Arminianism and then get their theology corrected under calvinism.
    Thankfully that chapter in my life is closed, now I’ve deconverted.

    Wasn’t it the Jesuits who said that give me a child, and we’ve got him/her forever? Or words to that effect. Evangelicals have taken that one step further…..

    One day Bruce, I’d love to read your thoughts on the new calvinism with its gurus such as Piper, Macarthur, disgraced Driscoll et al.

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    Evangelists who bible-thumped at my church in the 1960s nearly all said we should repent as ‘we might get run down by a bus on the way home and die tonight’. This was London where red buses were two-a-penny and I travelled on them everywhere as we had no car. I always stepped on and off them very carefully – they had open platforms at the back, not doors and I was very wary of crossing roads if one was in sight….it was a kind of self-preservation thing, I’d cheat death that way..I had plans for my adult life that no god would thwart. (Sadly I did convert a few years later…then saw the light more recently) but the sight of a London bus sometimes makes the evangelists’ warning pop into mind still – that bus is out to get me….!

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      Double-decker whammy! Tis always an amazement to me (and unending horror) to know how gleefully and willingly adults prey on innocent children, with what joy they harm those who have no defences to protect themselves. How heinous Christians can be!
      What is the difference between a religious abuser and an atheist abuser? The religious abuser is tax-free! He enjoys free support from a sick society. The ‘poor’ atheist who is compelled in similar ways to harm children, must do it independently but he can garner support from the web from Christians like Piper and Pearl, like angry-rant Anderson. No need to believe their God: Just tune in for the excitement of bashing with the Bible! (I have so many memories of church parents being so unkind to children. I believe their vicious faith helped me find the exit later, helped me get away.)

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    I remember when my 2 oldest were at Harvest Baptist Church in North Charleston SC in the early nineties. Now, I raised the kids as RC and my husband is a jew. So, I had the kids in their daycare for summers and after school. I really like the daycare – they taught my youngest to read at 3 years old, so I thought, what harm? The last year we were there, my oldest 10 yrs old at the time, came home from Vacation Bible School (wasn’t informed all the daycare kids were automatically enrolled in the VBS….WTF). He tells me of the pastor , after a short kids play, came on stage that they were all headed to HELL and burn in the lake of fire, if they didn’t accept JC as their personal lord and savior. My boy didn’t seem overly concerned and I blew it off. The final blow came that November when my then 4 year daughter was in a play about Thanksgiving. It was at the church and was so cute…..until the pastor at the end of the play sez to all the kids to sit down, he had to preach to the parents. He lit into, well, you can imagine, an ends times sermon, with the kids sitting behind them, scared to death. My husband and I pulled the kids out next work day from the asshole’s daycare. We had a few other mildly disturbing incidents with them, but this was the last straw. The bozo in charge, Marvin Woods and his lovely wife, after a scandal with their Christian School (teacher brought up on charges of sex with one of the high school students) suddenly “Got the call” to preach in the old USSR. Damn, I hope they rot in hell (should such a place exist)

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    I was a already a believer but when I went to Christian camp when I was twelve or so we had this teacher that just kept pushing us. It was so important to be converted; it was the most important thing in the world.
    And so at the end of the week she had a whole bunch of girls crying and converting themselves. Just to be on the safe side.

    I hated those leaflets – the chick tracts – about hell and demons. They made me so afraid. And all the bullying by preachers: their blood is on your hands… that kind of stuff.

    Most of the time I was sure I would go to heaven, but when I looked at all my sins, I wondered if I really would and so when the pulpit bullying began, that would cause me to doubt my salvation sometimes.

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    I read “Leaving the Fold” by Martine Winell and the big takeaway I got was that evangelical terminology and phrases can stick with us and trigger fear years after we stop believing in them because they basically work as Pavlovian suggestions. I grew up hearing pastors hiss out words like reprobate and apostate, and years later they still sound scary. But it helps knowing that the reason they sound scary is simply because of conditioning. The same way Christians are conditioned over many years to associate a word like “faith” with nice feelings, even though faith is often anything but nice.

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    “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?” was the question which I was left to think about 24/7. When I think on it now, I think of how manipulated I was by fear at such an early age. It was the first thing I thought of from when I woke up until I went to bed trembling. Usually I did not get to bed as I had made it a ritual of praying the prayer of salvation every night from the church pamphlets. As a child, I would read them all over and over and pray each prayer at the end and when another one was added to the rack in the back of the church, I would add that to my regimen, just in case I had not been truly saved. On the whole, I think I have been really fanatical about religion at least three times since then during the course of my life, driven by primal fear each time. I know I’m not the only one suffering from this form of PTSD. At this stage, I’m agnostic and haven’t been to church regularly in years. I have many reasons for my lack of attendance. In general, I have little use for the church now and abhor its attitudes, abuses, policies, politics, treatment of women and minorities as “less than”, intolerance toward anyone not believing or believing differently and all the other B.S. Thank you Bruce for having the courage to speak about this and for creating this forum for those of us who have been wanting to say what you are saying.
    In Jesus name, Amen. (Just kidding) Kudos and Best wishes.

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    Bass Amp

    Ah, the trials of irrational, delusional, anti scientific minds attempting to convey a “powerful” message of be good, do good, or else. The chance of there being a god or gods (scientifically speaking) is no chance. The chance of survival after physical death is 99.9% unlikely. Why not 100% percent unlikely? Well because some researchers (credibility?) claim that there’s some evidence of survival after death. Well, that’s highly controversial so say the least. And the paranormal is fraught with mere speculation, controversy and human error. So, live your life the only one you’ve got the best way possible. Eat, drink and be merry! Don’t worry about the old moon monster casting a cold eye on you for doing something “naughty”. Shit, life’s way, way too short to restrict yourself from this adventure. Take advantage and enjoy life without fear of imaginary creatures religionists created. Like the theme song to the old classic TV show “One Day at a Time” went, This is it. This is life THE ONLY ONE YOU GET so go and have a ball. This is it. Straight ahead and rest assured you can’t be sure at all. So while you’re here enjoying the view, keep on doing what you do, hold on tight we’ll muddle through one day at a time one day at a time. So, up on your feet, some where there’s music playing, don’t you worry none, we’ll just take it like it comes. One day at a time.

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    Some of the comments here I could have written myself – Melody and Steven – wow, I hear you! I am, at 43, only just realising the extent of my religious trauma from an ultra fundamentalist Pentecostal upbringing, complete with living on a designated church property, father in leadership, and a church school started by the community. I look back now and see elements of a cult, nothing that probably didn’t occur on a very closed, fundamentalist Pentecost community, but yeah, blurred lines. I still have anxiety about those awful religious tracts. I feel so sad for the sweet, innocent, desperate to please little child I was. I also feel anger for the adults in my life who I still love. So complex.

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