Pastor's Blog

I have had a distaste for gimmickry and emotional manipulation in religion from my earliest days in evangelicalism.  I think the first sour taste came when I was sixteen and got involved with the Word of Life program at our church youth group.  The Word of Life program provided a competition called “Teens Involved”.  There were local, regional, and national competitions in gospel singing, playing instruments, puppet ministry, preaching and Bible quizzing.  Though new to evangelicalism, I enjoyed public speaking and people encouraged me to enter the “preacher boy” competition.  So I did.

I decided that since everyone who attended these competitions was a believer, preaching a message about becoming a Christian would be pointless.  Instead, I constructed a sermon to encourage believers in the faith.  I used the account of the man who fell asleep and fell out of a window while Paul was preaching (Acts 20), although I don’t remember anymore the gist of the message.

I had done public speaking in speech class and had done well, but I had never preached.  How hard could it be, I thought?

It wasn’t hard at all.  I felt comfortable before the judges and the people listening.  I spoke to them about the passage and encouraged them in the faith.  When I got my scoresheet all three judges deducted points because (a) I didn’t preach a salvation message and (b) I didn’t give an invitation at the end of my sermon for people to “get saved”.  I found that odd.  Why would I ask people who are already Christians to become Christians?

I did well enough in the first competition to move to the next level, where there were even more “preacher boys”.  As I sat in the “prep room” before the competition, I was stunned to discover several things.  First, I was the only boy in the room to prepare my sermon myself and without help.  All the other boys’ sermons were either written by their pastors or with a lot of coaching from the pastor.  Some pastors were even coaching their students in the prep room.  But the “coaching” was strange.  The boys were being coached on how to make hand gestures and when to make them;  when to get loud, when to get soft;  when to turn your body and lean on the pulpit and point and look and sound stern;  when to look sad, when to laugh, and when to look somber.  And of course, how to give an invitation.  They were practicing all these things and their pastors were teaching them how to do it just right.

I encountered the same boys and the same coaching as I went up the ladder to the national competition.  When I asked one boy why he was preaching a salvation message to people who were already Christians he screwed up his face and said,  “You’re not gonna win if you don’t give a salvation message,” he said.

He was right.  As I went up the competitive ladder I always placed third or fourth;  in the national competition I was tenth.  Points were always deducted because I didn’t give a salvation message and I didn’t give an invitation for people to come forward.

I learned a lot from that experience.  I learned some things about preaching, but more than that I learned a good bit about evangelicals.  I didn’t come away from the experience disappointed at losing so much as I came away disappointed that evangelical pastors were passing off their sermons as the boys’ work.  That seemed like lying and cheating to me.  And they did it because winning was the important thing.  If it wasn’t that, why not let their boys prepare their own messages?

More than that I was disappointed that pastors believed it was necessary to manipulate their listeners people with gestures, looks, and tone of voice.  Did God need gimmicks to change minds and move hearts?  Wasn’t His truth sufficient?  If they were teaching boys these methods, it meant that they believed in those methods and used them when they preached.  It changed the way I listened to preachers.  I had my guard up, lest I be manipulated with an insincere gimmick.

I was already getting a bad taste in my mouth about evangelicals, and I was only sixteen.

And I don’t think I’m finished yet with the topic of gimmicks and manipulation…


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