As part of my responsibilities as a critic of Evangelical Christianity, I read Christian blogs and news sites and listen to sermon and music videos. Hey, someone has to do it! Better me than you, right? Yesterday, I spent some time swimming in the waters of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church movement — my spiritual home for many years. While doing the backstroke, I stumbled upon a website for IFB evangelist C.T. Townsend.
Here’s a video of Townsend and his wife Becky singing a duet at Trinity Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina. IFB luminary Ralph Sexton is the pastor of Trinity. Both C.T. and Becky are the progeny of IFB preachers.
If you carefully watch these videos, you will see that listeners find the music emotionally stirring. This results in a lot of emotional outbursts and movement by congregants down to the front of the church to pray. Are these things “God moving” or are they the result of emotional manipulation and cultural expectations? I contend it’s the latter.
Here’s a video clip of Townsend preaching a sermon titled, The King Has One More Move at Rubyville Community Church in Portsmouth, Ohio. The video clip starts around the 26 minute mark.
As you will see from this video, Townsend uses certain preaching techniques to manipulate listeners into making a decision for Jesus. In the last five minutes of the video, Townsend whips the crowd into an emotional frenzy, and then scales their fervor down so he can give an invitation. I watched a handful of his sermon videos, and he uses the same technique in each one.
There’s nothing in these videos that surprises me. Townsend is a product of IFB (and Southern Baptist) culture and practice — particularly in the South. I don’t know him personally, but I have heard and seen his methods and mannerism many times in the sermons of other IFB preachers. There was a time early in my ministry when I preached in a similar manner. My results were akin to those of Townsend.
The spirited, emotional songs are meant to prime the pump, so to speak; to prepare listeners for the sermon that follows. Already emotionally manipulated by the music, congregants are more open to what preachers such as Townsend have to say. The goal is always the same: to bring people to the place where they are willing to walk the aisle and make a decision; whether to get saved, confess one’s sin, rededicate one’s life, or surrender to some sort of calling.
I am in no way suggesting that C.T. Townsend is an Elmer Gantry-like con man. He is a product of his environment. Spend some time in the Deep South attending camp meetings, youth rallies, and revival services, and you will see countless C.T. Townsends using similar emotionally manipulative techniques to elicit desired emotional responses.
Townsend and other preachers like him will object to my characterizations of their methodologies, attributing everything to the power and work of the Holy Spirit. It’s all God, they will say. However, one-time insiders such as myself know better. These preachers, whether consciously aware of it or not, are psychologically manipulating people. (Please read Walking the Aisle — A Few Thoughts on Altar Calls)
Let me conclude this post with a video of a young man singing a solo at the Carolina Youth Rally. C.T. Townsend is a featured speaker at the event. As you will see, children are also used to emotionally manipulate listeners. I have no doubt that this young man will someday walk the aisle and say, God is calling me to be a preacher. And so the cycle continues.
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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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!
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.
Fear is a tool used by Evangelical preachers to manipulate and control church attendees. While many Evangelical churches are taking more of a relational approach that focuses on feel-good how-to sermons, hellfire-and-brimstone churches can still be found in virtually every community. These kind of churches are known for sin-hating, devil-chasing “hard” preaching. The men who pastor such churches take pride in the fact that their toe-stomping sermons cause sinners and saints alike to fear God. And in some instances, not only do church attendees fear the Almighty, they also fear the preacher.
There are two ways commonly used by preachers to cause people to feel afraid of God. First, there are the various Bible verses that promote a healthy fear of God. The book of Hebrews says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon said that the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments. The Bible also says that people should fear he who has the keys of life and death, “he” being, of course, God. Then there are also various Bible stories that remind people of what might happen if they disobey God. Preachers remind church attendees that disobeying God shows that they have a lack of fear. Church members who are not regular attendees or faithful tithers are told that their disobedience reveals a heart that does not fear God. No matter the sin, according to Evangelical preachers, the root cause is a lack of fear of God. If people feared God they would do all that God commands them to do. Of course, far too many Evangelical preachers confuse their personal convictions and way of life with the laws, commands, and precepts found in the Bible. I have written several posts in the past about the long list of rules and regulations that can be found in many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches. (Please see An Independent Baptist Hate List and The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook) These rules and regulations are little more than personal interpretations of various Bible verses. There are no verses in the Bible that prohibit many of the things that Evangelical preachers preach against, but this does not keep them from conflating personal beliefs with the teachings of the Bible. While many Evangelical churches have softened their stance on many social issues, plenty of churches still preach against “sins” such as alcohol drinking, drug use, gambling, mixed bathing, movie attendance, swearing, immodest clothing, long hair on men, pants on women, rock ‘n roll music,dancing, petting, and premarital sex. Preachers scour their Bibles looking for verses and stories that can be used to prop up their peculiar social and moral codes. Again, the main purpose is to put the fear of God into people so they will not do the things that preachers and churches consider sin.
The second method that Evangelical preachers use to promote the fear of God is the telling of personal stories that are meant to remind people of what happens when people ignore God and live in ways that show a lack of fear. Remember, people show that they rightly fear God by obeying God and the teachings of the Bible. People who attend church, yet ignore God’s commands, are treading on thin ice, and if they do not repent, God could bring judgment down upon their heads. Preachers often tell stories about former church members who ignored their preaching and stern admonitions, only to find themselves being punished or even killed by God. Years ago I listened to a preaching tape by Southern Baptist evangelist Rolfe Barnard. His sermon was titled, God kills people. Will he have to kill you? The purpose of Barnard’s sermon was to provoke church members to explicitly obey the commands of God. Threatening people with death was certainly a good way to get their attention. Of course, despite all the fear-mongering, most church members remained passive attendees who threw a few bucks in the offering plate and said, Great Show.
Evangelists were often the best storytellers. These merchandisers of fear and judgment use unverifiable stories about people in other churches who did not fear God. With thundering voices and apocalyptic pronouncements, these men of God tell stories about people who angered God, and He made them sick, took away their jobs, killed their children, or suffered any of a number of other reversals of fortune people face in this life. Instead of seeing such things as shit happens, evangelists see these things as signs of God chastising his children.
I vividly remember a revival meeting with Don Hardman in the late 1980s when the evangelist left the pulpit and came down to where the church teenagers were sitting. With a raised voice Hardman pointed his finger at each teenager, telling them that GOD sees everything they do. He then recited a list of the typical “sins” committed by rambunctious, hormone-raging young people. By the time he was done, I could see that the teenagers were fearful. I thought, at the time, that God was using Hardman to ferret out sin and rebellion against God. I now know that the church teenagers did not fear God as much as they feared Don Hardman. Or perhaps they feared being found out. Either way, come invitation time, numerous teenagers came to the altar to pray. I suspect very little changed for these teenagers, but by coming to the altar to pray, they showed, outwardly at least, that they had received God’s and evangelist Hardman’s message.
Many Evangelical preachers save their best fear-mongering stories for unsaved church attendees. These kind of stories are used to show unsaved people what could happen to them if they put off getting saved. Every Evangelical preacher knows of people who had heard the gospel and had an opportunity to be saved, yet they put off their decision to another day. And before they could be saved some sort of tragic accident happened that led to their death. Once dead, the sinners no longer had an opportunity to make things right with God. They should have feared God and taken him up on his offer of eternal salvation. But because they didn’t, they are now burning in hell.
I wish I could say that I did not use such manipulative stories and means to get people saved, but I did. I justified it, at the time, by reminding myself that the Apostle Paul became all things to all men so that by all means he could save some. What is the harm of a psychologically manipulative story if the end result is sinners saved from the fiery pit of hell. I employed all sorts of justifications for my use of heart-wrenching, tear-inducing stories of human tragedy, suffering, and death. Believing that I somehow had to get people’s attention, I used these stories to force people to see the brevity of life and the importance of putting their faith in Jesus Christ. Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of people came forward at invitation time, knelt at the altar, and asked Jesus to save them. Nearby, at the same altar, would be church members — people who were saved — who were also doing business with God — confessing secret and not-so-secret sins.
Putting the fear of God into people is good for business. Without it, I suspect many people would not bother to attend church. Without fear and threats of judgment, most people would choose to sleep in on Sundays and enjoy a leisurely brunch before they turn on the game. I know I would. One of the greatest joys that came with becoming an atheist is that I no longer fear God. Since God doesn’t exist, I no longer have a need to quake in my boots at the very mention of his name. Of course, Evangelicals are fond of reminding me that there is coming a day when Bruce Gerencser WILL fear God, but I am confident that when that day comes, the fear-inducing God will be found nowhere. This God is little more than a tool used by preachers and churches to keep people in the pews and money in the offering plates. Remove fear from the equation and I suspect there will be a lot more Baptists at the lake on Sunday morning.
Did you attend a church where the preacher regularly made use of fear inducing sermon illustrations? Was his fear mongering successful? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.