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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, because Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, all humans come into this world with a sin nature. 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 the world with sin natures, children aren’t accountable for their sin until they reach a certain age or a certain intellectual capability (none of which is taught in the Bible). 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 decisions 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 the invitation time. These altar workers give the unaware the illusion that God is moving and people are being saved. Contrary to Donald Trump saying 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 souls. Countless prospects for Heaven were badgered into coming to the front where altar workers would take them through the plan of salvation (the Romans Road). 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! Afterward, 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 the 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 me 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.

Video Link

Video Link

These movies were quite scary, warning sinners of the danger of waiting until tomorrow to be saved. During my ministry 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 through 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. Believing that life was short and Hell was 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.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Wait, I thought “a lake of fire” was just one of many generic descriptions of hell, ie: “What’s hell like?” “Oh, like a whole bunch of fire–like if a lake caught fire, it’d be like that.” But I know you refer to “THE Lake of Fire” as a regular phrase, and here its in a sentence with hell–are they different things? (I realize this is a minor semantics question, and in the grand scheme of things that baffle me about evangelicals this is small potatoes… but if anyone wants to answer me, I’m confused and curious.)

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      Bruce Gerencser

      Heaven and Hell are temporary holding places.

      This passage might help:

      And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:11-15

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        RF, I am an ex-Christian, so I am not a better, worse, or equal Christian to you. I hope that one day you may read the kinder, gentler parts of the Bible and will be touched to treat your fellow humans with kindness rather than with judgmental vitriol. You’re right – one day we will all be dead. I won’t be in the grave though, as I have instructed my family to cremate me. Unless, of course, I am murdered and buried somewhere by the perpetrator or their accomplice.

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        “No one is going to want to spend even 1 second in Heaven with me! I’m a Christian asshole and 🍆🍆🍆.”

        well, poor Christian failure here did get this right. Who wants to spend time with an ignorant and vicious failure?

        “Yet those who choose to reject the gift of salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ will spend all eternity in the same place I will — the grave.”

        Hmmm, the grave? or hell?

        “There is no God, but I’m a perverse son of a bitch who loves to harass others. I’m everything a True Christian isn’t. Bruce and the readers of his blog are far better Christians than I am.”

        yep, our Christian failure here is exactly as he has described himself. And alas no Christian can show that his version is what “TrueChristianity(tm)” is. I do love when Christians speak the quiet part aloud in their meltdowns.

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    Bruce, sometimes I feel like I risk PTSD when I read some of your posts. So much of what you describe here I experienced in my youth and young adult years. Growing up in a Christian home I always believed but I still felt the need to raise my hand during an altar call when I was very young. My mother made a big deal about this but even at a very young age I felt coerced into doing something that didn’t seem right. Fear and guilt were constant themes I regularly endured in church, youth group, summer camp and family devotions. People who have not grown up in fundamentalist homes have no idea about the bullshit that many people have to endure.

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    I remember the “Thief in the Night” series from youth group-literally intended to “scare the hell of us”. The scene with the little boy’s implied beheading (offscreen) by the servants of the anti-christ sticks with me to this day. We watched several videos of this nature, all intended to frighten us into or out of some type of behavior. I am ashamed to admit I was complicit in this sort of thing myself. At 16 or 17 years old I was asked by my youth pastor to share an essay by Jack Van Impe titled “That Hideous Doctrine” with my peers in the youth group. Ol’ Jack had a very explicit depiction of hell.

    I have never understood how all the supposed attributes of God meshed together. He is perfect love but also perfect justice, so even though he loves all people (except for those the Bible says he hates) more than humanly possible he is forced by his own nature to enternally torture humans for any sin they ever commit (a white lie and genocide merit the same penalty)…for our own good???? Pastors clearly don’t understand this, but they sure talk a lot of nonsense about it. None has ever satisfactorially explained (at least to me) how the supreme being of the universe caused a situation where it broke its own creation by sovereignly directing humans to do things it doesn’t want them to do and them condemning them for doing those very same things it makes them do….all in the name of love.

    At least I can get a pass/exemption from the punishment by believing in Jesus….as long as I also acknowledge my worthlessness as a sinner, repent, understand Jesus’ substitutionary atonement on the cross, actually have faith in this instead of just assenting to it, …..(seriously, how much of all of this did that 6 year I saw baptized actually understand). And this is justice. Even though I am the criminal, I can get off by having someone else tortuted and executed in my place? Or is this the mercy and God can set his justice aside afterall? But if so, then why punish anyone?

    I re-dedicated lots of times because I wasn’t sure if I was sincere before, or I didn’t understand properly, or maybe I had “head knowledge instead of heart knowledge”. Writing it all done here really serves to shine a light on how very strange these doctines are, and how easily young me could be manipulated by fear and confusion.

    Even as I slip further and further into agnosticism, I still suffer from these beliefs. Even though I know it is irrational, there is a fear of “what if I am wrong”. Hell might still be waiting. Decades of programming is very hard to overcome. The self-authenticatiion of the Bible has been strongly ingrained in me (ie: the gospel is foolishness to the unbeliver)

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      JW, I realized that I still had a fear reaction every time hell was mentioned, even after I no longer believed in God. That’s how deeply that fear indoctrination goes – it was drilled into us when we were children a d our critical thinking skills were not yet developed enough for us to have any defenses against the indoctrination.

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    I have tried to explain this pressure and fear-based indoctrination to friends who didn’t grow up with that. The response is somewhere in the “OMG that’s so f&%$ed up” realm.

    In the early 80s when I was an adolescent/teen at Southern Baptist church and fundamentalist Christian school, the hard pressure to “make a profession of faith” started around ages 11-13. They weren’t getting after us before that. It seemed like the loose “age of accountability” must have been around that age. The pressure was ramped up with stories of people who missed their chance to get saved, people who went down “the wrong path”, lots of description of hell and what it’s like to be too late, and why you needed to make sure you and all those around you were duly warned. I dug in my heels. I don’t respond well to “you must do this” pronouncements.

    When I was 12, the pressure from family was so great I picked a day to go down front and get it over with. It was such a relief to be done and to get baptized. But….I didn’t feel like it “stuck” because I hadn’t wanted to do it. I wrestled with the knowledge that I never truly loved God and Jesus and DEFINITELY NOT the Holy Spirit who scared the living daylights out of me. Fear? Yes. Love? No. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” so many times, desperate for it to “stick”, fearful of eternal torment in hell. Each time I felt relief for a few days until another fear-based sermon would put me into mortal terror again. Now I feel so bad for all the people who are terrified into this type of thing.

    I chose not to put my kids through any of that. We did attend a progressive church when the kids were little. There was no talk of sin or hell – it was all about being a better person and serving your fellow humans. But we left Christianity when the kids were in the 6-8 range. They know NOTHING of that torture. My husband, raised nominally Catholic and barely so at that, didn’t suffer through that either.

    My kids aren’t religious. They really don’t care about religion at all. They see how some conservative white Christians are trying to force their particular brand of bigotry and culture wars on the rest of us and want nothing to do with Christianity. Ironically, I am the one who has pointed out that some brands of Christianity aren’t like that! I don’t see them getting into religion, but who knows where life will take them. At least it will be their choice as adults, and not something I indoctrinated them into.

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      I went the other way. When my kids were born I doubled down on my faith, volunteering to teach Sunday Schools, running a Men’s Ministry, going on retreats, and generally injecting my faith into more of our family’s life than my parents ever did, (Growing up we seldom prayed at meals, never when eating out and my folks preferred their sons to be in Boy Scouts over AWANA, but we were regular church goers and my public declaration of faith was around 13-14.) My wife and I, mostly me, really ramped up the Christian living “for the children” as it were. I think now, behind it all, was me trying to beat down my doubts by immersing myself and my family in Christian “values”.

      One of my kids (adult now) finds a great deal of their self-worth in their faith, which is a stressor to me. I am responsible and I don’t want to cause them the pain that outing my agnosticism would bring, so I keep quiet and join them at church or have them over for online services when they ask. My other child has, I think, figured out that Dad isn’t so gung-ho about his faith anymore and is okay with it. This child is mostly in youth group for the friends they have there. Again, I don’t want to take that away from them.

      The youth groups my kids attended, and the pulpits we all sat at don’t seem as full of the turn-or-burn stuff that was so prevalent in the ’80s, but it lurks underneath.

      My turning point was the proverbial mid-life crisis. I reached a spot where I finally decided I wanted to figure out what I believed, not just what my parents, friends, and pastors believed. Once I started studying and asking questions, tightly held beliefs started to unravel. Things are still unravelling now. It’s quite stressful.

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        JW, I hear you – it is stressful when your faith starts unraveling. In my case, it was also political beliefs that were unraveling alongside the religious ones. A lot was happening! I hope you are able to find some peace soon!

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          Yes! My politics have also shifted along with my faith. I have slid quite a bit to the left in this journey, and pretty quickly. As with my faith, I found myself making excuses for right-wing positions and people that I was uncomfortable with, but afraid to let go of. I’ve given up many positions I once held and I’m glad they’re gone. Given where I was before, I’m basically a centrist now, and yet it feels liberal to me.

          This is actually much less stressful than watching my faith fall apart. I like who I am, I am discovering levels of empathy I didn’t have before, and I don’t fear that “they” are out to get me anymore. It’s quite liberating, but also a little alienating, so I keep pretty quiet about this too.

          I don’t know where I’m going to land. I often think that given a choice, I’d choose the blue pill and go back to how things were, but that’s not really an option for me. Thank you for your encouragement.

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    I was a member of the Church of Christ (non-instrumental) in high school. They are pretty hard core, and in fact, if you profess your sins and are saved you get immediately baptized by immersion. Lots of pressure to conform. Now, later on, when I was already a Seventh-day Adventist there were some traveling Adventist preachers “saving” people. (Except Adventists don’t believe in once saved, always saved, your salvation is constantly in doubt.) My husband and I worked with this preacher, along with lots of students at our Adventist college. And one person said she believed, but she didn’t understand. I tried mentioning this to the preacher and his attitude was “She says she gets it, I’m not worried.” Yeah, and I don’t think she ever went back.*

    *One nice thing: we were at a church having a potluck after this preaching/saving event. I met a lovely Muslim woman and chatted with her. Her son was an adult and he had gotten “saved” and she was very gracious. She was actually fasting for Ramadan and didn’t eat, but was around all of us Christians eating and drinking. To this day, nearly 40 years later, I remember her warmly. THAT is a much better way of presenting your religion: kind and friendly.

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    Karuna Gal

    I was a little kid when the priest gave a hellfire and brimstone homily during Mass. I don’t remember the details of that wretched homily, but it scared me so much that I started sobbing and wailing loudly. My mother must have hustled me out of church. Even after all these years this experience haunts me. “To terrify children with the image of hell, to consider women an inferior creation—is that good for the world?” –
    Christopher Hitchens

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    Never saw the movies or a Hell House, but I do remember reading some scary Christian comics and Chick tracts. The only thing they accomplished was to scare me away from religion. Don’t know if my childhood church preached Hellfire sermons. I was too busy daydreaming. Looking back, that was probably a good thing. : )

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Christianity is designed to harm humanity. Its basis is a foundation that undergirds all else: You are born guilty, fallen. In your innocence as a newborn, you might or might not be given a pass at the Pearly Gates. Nevertheless, you are a piece of shit without Jesus. With that foundation, how can you you build a healthy space for a biped? Your stained glass windows hide the plain truth. Once you have been indoctrinated into self-harm, anything else is anti-Jesus, of-the-fallen-world, doomed.
    I was a child, still single digit child. I could no longer sleep because of the terror of burning flesh hellfire and begged to be saved… I begged for it. You grinny Christian apologists who come along and make excuses for abuse, say that fear is no longer a child’s experience etc., that things have changed…. well, you are blind. You harm yourself and humanity in general with your sick ideas. Jesus was never a Savior. If he existed at all, he was a wandering preacher, a poet with words. The religion that has grown up around this figure over the generations reflects the harm done in the past, a harm still repeated among us, not because we are born bad but because we have not learned to love ourselves and one another. Christianity is a Ponzi that preys on the poor, that borrows from Peter to pay Paul, that asks parents to give their children over to horror, to ‘slavery’, to harm. Do some Christians do good in the world? Of course, if they are acting with humanity and not proselytizing and spreading lies. Those given over to the Great (sic) Commission are quite another matter…

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Bruce Gerencser