I grew up in a rural Southern Baptist Church nestled in the gently rolling hills of Browning, Kentucky, which is just outside of Rockfield, which is just outside of Bowling Green, which is an hour’s drive north of Nashville, Tennessee (this is how I usually describe it to people who’ve never heard of any of these places). And in our little church, every single worship service closed with an invitation (I didn’t hear the phrase “altar call” until I made it to college).
I still remember the emotions I felt as a kid as the choir would begin to sing one of our standard invitational hymns like Softly and Tenderly, Have Thine Own Way, Lord, or our favorite, Just As I Am. Before I walked the aisle to receive Christ, I would grip the back of the pew in front of me with white knuckles, determined not to move. This wasn’t out of rebellion against God or because of depravity or original sin. I was just scared to go up there and talk to the pastor, especially in front of a building full of people.
Then came the day when I’d made a private decision to trust Jesus as my Savior and I was ready to make it known publicly. I don’t remember which verse of Just As I Am we were singing, but I’m guessing it was verse three judging by the words.
Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
I stepped out and found that, just as the pastor had said, the first step really was the hardest part. We prayed in the altar and a week later I was baptized.
That’s a beautiful memory for me. I’ve heard so many stories over the years similar to mine from others who “walked the aisle” to commit their lives to Christ or to make their personal faith known to the congregation, and I think they’re all beautiful stories.
For me, that moment was significant in my life of faith. I was expressing an understanding of who Jesus was and is and I was declaring before other people that I would place my full trust in him. The emotions and the atmosphere in the room were so strong that the moment is forever etched into my mind like a marker or a monument. And monuments can be important. Markers matter, forms make a difference, and rituals can be powerful in very positive ways.
I can also recognize that much of what we did back then in that little rural church setting was culturally influenced. Altar calls weren’t really a thing until Charles G. Finney and others who used them during America’s Second Great Awakening. In most of the churches I’ve attended in the last decade and a half, the altar call has been replaced by something else – the signing of a card, approaching a leader after the service, or even sending a text to a certain phone number – and the process of follow-up begins, which usually leads to baptism, membership, or some other kind of step of commitment.
As a pastor for twenty-five years, I can testify that absolutely nothing was more meaningful to me than the outward indication that someone had made a significant inward, spiritual change. However you want to describe it – giving one’s life to Jesus, crossing the line of faith, getting saved, etc. – there is something powerful about witnessing a person’s response to the preached word by making an internal change, especially when it results in externally changed behaviors and patterns that align with the character of Christ.
All of this is good. It’s why we preach. We preach for change. We present the gospel so that people might embrace it, believe it, personally receive it, and begin to model their lives after the life of Jesus. I’m still convinced that there are few more powerful change agents on earth than preaching. And I applaud and support leaders who preach each week with a burning passion for seeing people’s lives changed forever by the good news of Christ.
In fact, it’s because this burning passion burns so brightly that we must be all the more careful not to cross the line between influence and manipulation. And if we’re honest, a lot of manipulation takes place in the name of influence.
In my coursework in the area of communications, I recently studied the work of rhetorical researchers Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin. They argue that traditional rhetoric (which would include most approaches to Christian preaching) can place so much emphasis on persuasion that it creates an unfair power dynamic in which the speaker’s authority is overblown and the autonomy of the listener is subjugated. It isn’t that free will is suspended. It is that our wills can be bent by factors other than the still, small voice of God.
While acknowledging that persuasion is often necessary, overcoming resistance should never be the primary goal of the speaker, especially if it leads us to blur the ethical lines in how we appeal to the emotion and intellect of our listeners. Foss and Griffin lay out three particular values of what they call “Invitational Rhetoric.”
Value #1: Equality.
That is, rhetoric must recognize that there should be intimacy and equality in value between speaker and audience rather than dominance and hierarchy.
Value #2: Immanent Value.
This is the recognition that all people, including both the speaker and the listener, possess infinite value and worth and are to be appreciated. That doesn’t mean all opinions and ideas are equally valuable, but people are to be valued regardless of their opinions and ideas.
Value #3: Self-Determination.
This value reminds us that people should be the authority over their own decisions, even if we deem those decisions as incorrect. It’s a matter of respecting the free agency of others, something even God’s Spirit seems quite careful about.
It is entirely possible to influence people toward positive change without manipulating them, but we must enter every speaking opportunity with an ethical framework that respects the difference.
Influence is a matter of presenting ideas in a compelling albeit not coercive way and then trusting the person to do with our ideas what they personally believe to be the best course of action for themselves. Being eloquent is great. Speaking with passion is powerful. Sharing stories, using humor, and making strong points are all valuable ways of increasing our influence.
Manipulation, on the other hand, happens when we exploit a person’s emotions, remove all other options, and apply pressure using the fear of exclusion or judgment to motivate listeners to fully commit to an idea in a moment that may not represent their ongoing belief system and value set beyond that single point in time.
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line? Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell, especially in the short term. What I know is that often preachers have the very best of intentions and still manage to manipulate listeners. We want so badly for people to enter the joy of following Jesus and avoid the pain and suffering of judgment and separation from God that we push a little harder, plead a little more emotively, and promise more than we probably should in order to move someone to the point of a decision.
We all possess the tendency to manipulate instead of influence. Why? Because we’re human. We want to win. We want the best for people. We are absolutely convinced we are right. We sense a calling to lead others to these decisions. We desire the sense of adulation that comes from witnessing real life change. And we might even look forward to the praise we’ll receive as more and more people make commitments under the sound of our preaching.
And because of all of this, we must be all the more careful to limit our ability to manipulate and stay safely on the side if influencing. What does that look like? Here are some reminders we must keep in mind.
1. The gospel is a beautiful, saving story that is good news for all people all on its own. We don’t have to embellish it with promises of a problem-free, prosperous future. Truthfully, embracing the gospel might actually multiply our problems in some ways rather than solving them all.
2. If the gospel is true, we don’t have to manipulate anyone into believing it. I fear that the apologetics movement has, intentionally or not, caused us to bend evidence from history, science, and reason in favor of our message. We sometimes re-share “evidence” that is essentially rumor when it isn’t necessary to do so.
3. The Holy Spirit is always present and working. And God’s Spirit will always do a better job of convicting, convincing, and converting than you or I could ever do.
4. The gospel itself produces change. It’s powerful. It brings the spiritually dead back to life again. When God’s Spirit accompanies God’s Word, God’s messenger (the preacher) is merely a conduit. We don’t have to make anything happen.
5. Everyone possesses free agency. Love and control are opposites. Love shares the good news and hopes it is received. God, who IS love, respects the free agency of his own creatures rather than forcing us to believe in and follow him like robots.
God loves people, even when they don’t believe in him. Jesus loved people long before they’d ever met him. And everyone who listens to the words of a sermon is already deeply loved and wholly valued.
If they choose to reject the message, leave the meeting, and give no further hearing to the gospel story, does God stop loving them? Of course not. But one of the modern church’s greatest mistakes is offering the promise of unconditional love and welcome for all while at the same time excluding from our loving embrace those who, after some unwritten measure of time, still haven’t said yes to our invitation.
One of the quickest ways to know that you’re really issuing an invitation and not an ultimatum is to ask yourself, Will I still love, value, and appreciate this person just as much as I claim to do so right now even if they reject my message repeatedly?
I love it when pastors and preachers exert positive influence. When they present truth in a compelling way. When they put their love for people on display. When they authentically and transparently share their own journey. And when they skillfully give people clear next steps for taking action in response to the message.
Real influence is more about allowing our lives and our words to create an effect in the lives of others rather than making something happen in our own power.
And remember, once we have crossed the line into manipulation, it’s all the more likely people who eventually walk away will reflect on their experience with resentment. And so, so many aren’t coming back.
Thankfully, the fruit of the gospel rightly presented and wholeheartedly embraced by enthusiastic listeners is all around us! So take hope and preach your heart out this weekend, believing that God’s Spirit can use God’s message to accomplish God’s purposes in willing hearts.
Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash.