When is persuasion actually manipulation?

Paul contrasts his approach to preaching the gospel (1Cor.1-4) with the Greek rhetorical approach which relied on “persuasive words of wisdom.” Duane Litfin has argued that the significance for us as preachers is that we must not take decision-making from our listeners by employing persuasive techniques that induce a listener to yield a specific response. What we are to do is to induce comprehension of the reality of God’s claim on their life. Thus there may be some aspects of persuasion that are appropriate tools for the preacher, but others that manipulate a response by means of our own power. So here is a question that can be answered comment by comment – when is persuasion actually manipulation? For example, this week I heard a famous speaker build his presentation around a supposedly true story from his experience in another country. That story centered on a very emotive element that seemed to carry an inappropriate amount of influence over the listeners. Whether or not his point was Biblical, I felt uneasy with the tools he used to make his point. Yet at the same time I believe it is important to communicate to the heart and not just the head. So what persuasive tools are legitimate, and what tools are actually manipulative?

(Peter has commented on this post) 

3 thoughts on “When is persuasion actually manipulation?

  1. Litfin wrote a brief article on this issue and finished with several examples of inappropriate preaching practice. I’ll share two here: sad story laden messages lacking in biblical substance and unending invitations to respond at the end of a message that wear down resistance until somebody, actually anybody, responds.

  2. It would seem that if a preacher uses a persuasive story he should always define how that story influenced either himself, or remark on how the illustration influenced the transformed person within the story. Thus, not only the story, but also an evaluation. (I am assuming that all persuasion has at its centre the idea of transforming someone.) It is then necessary for the preacher to illustrate why this came about and that it is one of many responses that we can have to the reality of God’s claim on their life. Then, the preacher can ask, “is this the response that God is looking for?” Whether it falls short, or meets God pleasure, it can then serve, persuasive or not, to show the depth of the reality of God’s claims on our lives.

    Is this likely?

    Recently we had a missionary share stories from their life in a closed country. As host I then asked the congregation gathered, “I’d like to find out what responses you are having within your hearts right now.”

    Some said “sad”, some said, “grateful”, others wanted to pray. One even said that it was amazing that McDonalds had gotten there (a response from the heart I guess!)

    Why this story? For me the necessary starting place is to have people verbalize what is going on in the heart.

    I do believe that preachers owe integrity to the message, as Litfin rightly points out, and if there is to be persuasion, then it should be given honestly without guile by engaging other tools.

    My father used to use a plane, but he always used it on a level bench (another tool). I’m not advocating manipulation, but even when persuasion is used, another tool should always be deployed. In this case, a simple question “how are you responding? Is this the response that God is looking for?”

  3. No one wants to be accused of manipulation. After all it is what cult leaders do. But we do want to use “powerful” stories, examples and metaphors that have great “impact”. Its a judgment call for each of us. I think the most manipulative preaching I have personally heard has been at Bible camp, especially when there was a camp fire close by. So where does persuasion (a good thing) become extreme to the point that we call it manipulation? I imagine most who look at this blog would agree that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate persuader, but if I could just use the right words the right way it would make His job so much easier. 😉

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