Pastor's Blog

The water in our town is very hard.  When my wife and I were very young we considered the purchase of a water softener.  We contacted a company and the salesman came to our home to give us his pitch.  When he came into the house, I told him, “I’m not buying anything tonight.  I know this will be a lot of money and I want time to think about it.”

He smiled, agreed, and for the next three hours he tested our water and showed us the results and explained what they meant and then he showed us pictures of water softeners and patiently explained how they worked.  We asked a lot of questions and he answered them.

At the end of the evening he said, “So, if you’re ready to purchase, I’ll need you to sign right here on this line.”  And he handed me the pen.

I didn’t take the pen.  I reminded him that I told him at the beginning of the evening that I wasn’t purchasing anything tonight, but I greatly appreciated his presentation.  I wanted time to consider the purchase.

Rather than respecting my decision, the salesman flew into a red-faced rage.  “You just put me through a three-hour presentation.  I answered every one of your questions.  I have a wife and kids at home, but I came out this evening and gave you my time – only to have you tell me you’re NOT buying my water softener?!?!”

“I told you that I wasn’t buying TONIGHT,” I said.  “I told you that when you came in.”

This sent him back through the same tantrum and I became more convinced that I would NEVER buy from this man.  He finally packed up his test kit and left the house in a boisterous huff.

I wanted time to think through the decision and time to talk it over privately with my wife.
He didn’t want to afford me that time. 
So why didn’t he want me to think too much?  Why was a spur of the moment decision so important to him?  If the facts about his product could stand on their own, they would be true tonight, and they would be true tomorrow after I’d given it thought and done more research.  The need to manipulate my feelings told me he wasn’t confident about his product, and THAT smacked of deceit and dishonesty.

If the naked truth is true and good, why bypass my mind and appeal to my feelings?

This is the reason I don’t like gimmicks.  Gimmicks seem to me just another form of emotional manipulation – a way to do an end run around my mind, an appeal to something other than my thinking.  Why do you need something beyond the truth? 

I don’t like gimmicks and manipulation in sales, and I don’t like it in Christianity.  If something is good, if something is true, the naked truth should be sufficient to persuade me of it.  If you had to manipulate my feelings, then when my feelings change – which is bound to happen – so will my feelings about what you sold me – or told me.

Over the years I’ve run into a lot of people who “became Christians”, not because they believed the claims of Jesus, not because they were convicted of sin and knew deep within their hearts that they had to turn to God for forgiveness in Christ, but because they were temporarily made afraid of dying, or because they were sad at the loss of a loved one and they were temporarily made happy at the thought of one day being reunited with that loved one, or because they were made temporarily made happy at the thought of living in a pain-free trouble-free eternity.

And when the feelings passed, so did their “Christianity”.

Jesus and the apostles didn’t teach that way and I think it’s a dishonest travesty to emotionally manipulate people that way, even in the best of causes.

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…


In my two most recent blogs, I mentioned ideals that I held when I came into ministry.  In “Ideals, Thermometers, and Mountain Climbers” I mentioned the use of a painted thermometer to track giving towards a project, and in “Winning Alice Back” I mentioned that I believed it was the Holy Spirit’s job to apply preaching (and not the preacher’s).  Both illustrations are connected to ideals I held about how the Spirit of God works. 

When I began ministry, I expected a LOT from the Spirit of God.  The biblical theory behind my ideals is simple.  First, when we say the Bible is “inspired” we mean that it is the product of God’s Spirit.  His Word was generated by His breath.  What the Bible says is what the Spirit of God says.  That’s how He speaks and that’s the tool I expect Him to use to touch hearts.  Second, the church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Christianity teaches that the Holy Spirit lives amidst the entire church and in each individual Christian.  Put those points together, and the way God gets things done is by His Word being understood by His people.  His Word, His truth, motivates and moves us to accomplish what God wants from each of us as individuals and from all of us working together as a body.

I believed ANY attempt to motivate people with a gimmick or manipulative technique was WRONG and cheapened the work of the Spirit of God.  I felt it was a failure to trust the Spirit to work.  It was an attempt to artificially do His work for Him.  The first thing I tore down when I came to Mountain View was the little wooden board at the front of the church where the amount of the previous week’s offering was displayed.  What did we need that for?  I was told people gauge their giving by the need.  I could hardly believe it.  You either pledge a percentage of your income to God or you don’t.  If last week’s offering was bigger than expected, what do you do -- keep back part of the next week’s offering for yourself? 

When I traveled with a gospel quartet in college, a church where we sang held “Pack-a-Pew Night”.  The family that brought the most visitors won a prize.  The church was full, but I was so livid at the gimmick I could hardly focus on singing.  Were people there because they wanted to be, or because they wanted to win a stupid prize?  It seemed cheap – like another church I knew of that had held a week-long evangelistic conference and every night put a $100 bill under one of the chairs, and whoever sat on that chair got the money.  Why do you think people attended THOSE services?  Did anyone care about the message?

I preached once at the Bowery Mission in New York.  I was told to fill 20-30 minutes.  I preached and then invited my unkempt and unshaven listeners to trust Christ.  I was met with blank stares.  So I closed in prayer.  I had hardly said “Amen” before all of them rose and RAN to get in line for dinner.  I was ENRAGED.  Not at them, poor souls.  But at the mission.  Why not just feed them, instead of FORCING them to sit through a 30-minute message to get the reward of a hot meal?  I WAS THE GIMMICK, and I felt cheap, an insult to the Spirit of God.  He could probably do more through the love of the offered meal than the endured message preceding it.

Occasionally people from “Spirit-filled” churches visit our church.  The first week they sing with eyes closed and hands waving wildly in the air.  They loudly whisper “Jesus, Jesus, oh Jesus, yes Jesus” when I lead in prayer.  Until they realize NO ONE ELSE is doing these things!  Each week their waving and whispering gets less and less.  Twice I’ve had such people tell me the Holy Spirit wasn’t in our church because we didn’t sway, wave, or whisper.  Both times I asked why, if the Spirit of God was moving them to worship that way, did they stop?  No one asked them to stop, and no one criticized them for what they were doing.  Both shrugged and said, “I just don’t feel the presence of Jesus here.”  From my perspective, they have cheapened the work and the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and confused it with an emotional manipulation induced by low lighting, emotional music, and crowd psychology.

I have more to say on this topic – next week.

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