Manipulation in Disguise

Manipulation in preaching is a subject I have visited periodically on this site.  Yesterday I touched on a new angle though (new to this site, although I wouldn’t claim anything on here is truly new, of course).  Here is that final sentence again – Am I really avoiding manipulation when I give the impression that Christianity is primarily about the commodity of knowledge and I am the dispenser of it?

This is a real issue that needs to be addressed.  I would hope that no preacher wants to manipulate, but that all good-willed preachers are doing the best they can.  Of course, I don’t want to accuse anyone of sinful motivation.  But I do want to undermine the logic supporting an approach to preaching that esteems the intellectual at the expense of any engagingly affective fare.  There is here, as so often is the case, a pendulum swing that goes too far.

At one extreme we have manipulative emotional preaching that stirs up the listeners, manipulates commitments and response, sways the feelings of listeners and then seals the deal while they are off balance.  There are ways to do this.  Certain rhythms of speech, stirring background music, heart-wrenching anecdotes, excessive passion in the preacher, tear-jerking vulnerability, etc.  It is certainly possible to go places the preaching text doesn’t go in order to manipulate reaction.

At the other extreme we have disaffected preaching that avoids any hint of manipulation, but leaves all response to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.  (Did you see what I just did?  I presented this extreme in entirely justifiable and honourable terms.  Who would resist this approach?  What if I kept the excessive tones of the previous paragraph though?)

At the other extreme we have manipulative intellectual preaching that puffs up the preacher, manipulates affirmation and the fleshly desire to be as spiritual as the preacher, and then guarantees positive response by offering humble explanation of the approach to preaching that is being advocated (sometimes giving the impression that any other approach to preaching would be in direct violation of some clear mandate of God himself).  There are ways to manipulate listeners at the other extreme of the scale.  It is possible to present yourself and your ministry in ways that do not reflect the character and values of God, and do not truly represent the Word we preach.

Now I am deliberately pushing this issue to get us to think.  Again, I don’t know of many who are seeking to manipulate.  But what if our position is doing that and we are unaware?  We must be careful.  Perhaps when we see the pendulum has swung too far we need to come back closer to the centre.  The answer is not to disaffect our preaching, but to stick closer to the text.  When people are moved deeply by the truth of the text being preached, we represent God’s Word well.  We don’t need to add anything to it.  Neither do we need to strip it of all emotion.  Rather we need to re-present it to the best of our ability, while simultaneously leaning fully into God’s Spirit to do what our best efforts can never do – to transform us and our listeners as we preach the Word.

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4 thoughts on “Manipulation in Disguise

  1. Deliberately manipulating people – in preaching is common, in the circle that I grew up in and most of our ministry. Loud preaching, long invitation, raising the hand, singing, sad stories, etc is so too often a part of the preaching, which does not reflect Biblical preaching/teaching.

  2. Your negative preoccupation with “manipulation” is troublesome. You are making a normative presupposition and making us dance to the non sequitor.

    Let us be clear: ALL preaching contains a degree of manipulation because it is an exercise in exhortation. The skillful use of the pulpit, including verbal, audio and visual means, to convey the power, majesty, and (ultimately) the message of Scripture is a prerequisite.

    Audiences vary by culture, ethnicity, education, income, and even regional distinctions. A pastor who cannot reach his audience through skillful preaching is not fulfilling his call.

    Is it “manipulation” to find creative ways to communicate the Gospel message? Is this fraudulent, unfair or callous? I think not. The challenge is to find inspiration through prayer and let our words be guided accordingly.

    • Martin, thanks for engaging with the site and this post. I’m sorry you find these two posts troubling (actually there have been twelve posts referring to manipulation in over 1,100, so I think preoccupation may be a bit harsh). Actually, I am addressing in this post and the previous one a specific issue that has raised its head repeatedly in recent weeks. I would suggest that the term “manipulation” has an inherently sinful connotation since, by definition, it involves “shrewd, devious or dishonest management.” While we could argue that manipulation is on the same continuum as persuasion, I think we would be wise to distance ourselves from the former, even as we pursue the latter. Semantics it may be, but in a world where preaching is viewed negatively, we have to be careful, I’m sure you agree.

      I think that if you read the posts on this site you will see that I wholeheartedly affirm the need for true preaching to connect with the particular audience in question, distinguished as it is by culture, ethnicity, education, income, etc.

      You ask, is it “manipulation” to find creative ways to communicate the Gospel message? Is this fraudulent, unfair or callous? My suggestion would be that finding creative ways to communicate the Gospel is not, by definition, manipulation. This is part of our task. We should be pursuing the most creative and effective ways to engage people with the gospel. But is it not possible to go too far and step over from effective communication and persuasion into the realm of fraudulent or unfair manipulation? I think so.

      The point of my post is not that we shouldn’t seek to communicate effectively, but that we should do so. But I think it may be naive to suggest that such a goal cannot slide beyond the ethical and into manipulation. Equally, and this is the point of my post, simply going to the opposite extreme to avoid all accusation of manipulation does not work. The other extreme, a bland and poorly communicated, distanced and detached presentation, may be just as manipulative as the emotion stirring show we tend to think of.

      I am with you that we have to preach to the very best of our ability. I agree that we have to connect with the audience. I am onboard with the need for creativity and prayer. I’m not sure if we’re quite on the same dance floor in respect to your first paragraph, but I hope my poor attempt at clarification helps to ease your concern.

      Warmly,

      Peter

  3. Manipulation. Yes we want our preaching/teaching to have an effect on those who we preach to. Preaching to the best of our ability and connecting to our people of course is our goal. Too many preachers in our area preach with such fleshly emotions and some use forceful means to try to get the people to respond to the message. They would not call it manipulation, they would call it powerful preaching.

    Any means of the flesh to try to get people to respond to the Word of God could produce a flesh responds and not a spirit response.

    As you said you were addressing the extreme preachers who use this method of trying to get people to respond to their message.

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