Pastor's Blog

Years ago, a pre-teen approached me after a Sunday sermon, visibly shaken.  “Pastor,” the student said, “after today’s sermon, I’m not sure if I’m a Christian.”  I asked why, and the young soul told me that sin was a “churchy-word” that she had used her whole life but hadn’t really grasped until the sermon that day.  And she understood what it meant to be guilty before God and knew of some particular sins in her own life of which she was guilty. 

She told me that she had become a Christian when she was three.  When I asked what she had believed at three years old, she shrugged and said, “My parents kept telling me that if I died without praying the ‘prayer of salvation’ I wouldn’t go to heaven with them.”

“And so you prayed the prayer that they told you to pray so you’d all be in heaven together,” I said.  The young soul nodded. 

She was able to explain how the death of Jesus forgives sin, and she believed that – but had never fully understood it or applied it to herself until that day.  I explained that what was most likely happening was the Holy Spirit was putting some of the last puzzle pieces in place in her soul, and that it’s not praying a prayer that saves you, but believing the message, trusting Christ.  And she was expressing that mature faith.

I asked if she minded if I spoke with her parents, and she wanted me to.  When I told her parents about our conversation and suggested that their child had come to faith in Christ that morning, her mother was indignant and told me that was ridiculous, that she herself had led her in the ‘prayer of salvation’ by her bed when the child was three years old.

I suggested that another way to look at it was that the seeds the mother planted had germinated in the child’s maturing soul.  I encouraged the parents to water that faith and watch it bloom and blossom.  To my surprise, they would have nothing of it.

“You’re saying our child wasn’t saved at three years old?”

“I’m saying that at three years old your child had a three-year-old understanding,” I said, “and today the Holy Spirit clarified that message in your child’s heart, and she now has – not your faith – but her own – born in her own heart.  She understands the gospel herself!  She grasps it in an adult way!” 

I saw it as a reason to rejoice.  But this mother was not rejoicing.  I got an angry lecture about how I was undermining the child’s simple faith.  “You’re scaring her with all this stuff about sin,” the mother said.  “She prayed the prayer with me when she was three and she’s going to heaven.  She doesn’t need to know anything else.”

That day was the last day the family attended our church.

Evangelicals mean well with ‘child evangelism’, but the road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.  I strongly support teaching children biblical truth, but what some evangelicals call ‘child evangelism’ seems to me little more than emotional manipulation.  Manipulating the emotions of a fragile, vulnerable child is easy – and, I think, especially despicable.  I’ve seen some pretty despicable manipulation of children, including the use of gimmicks – prizes, toys, gifts – to “bring them to Christ.”

There is a difference, I think, between a healthy fear of God and merely fearing the prospect of suffering in hell;  the latter is easy to generate by emotional manipulation – the former, not so much.  Likewise, it’s easy to want to go to heaven to be with a relative or friend or even a pet that died – and you can easily manipulate a child that way – “Don’t you wanna see Fluffy again?”.  It’s quite a different matter to want to go to heaven, not because of personal pleasure and comforts, but because you want an eternal life in a world driven by rejoicing in what God wants.

I think that’s sometimes a fine line, but a crucial one, that we evangelicals need to observe.

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…


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