Did he really just say what I thought he said? I couldn't believe my ears. Here I was sitting in chapel at my Conservative Christian College. It was a Friday "praise chapel" which was all praise and worship rather than a speaker. The student who was leading the worship that day was talking about how easy it can be to go through the motions. He said "I'm sure we all know of the worship format of 2:3:2. Two slow songs to draw everyone in, three upbeat songs to pump them up, and two slower emotional songs to prepare them for the message." My ears perked up immediately. No, I didn't know that. I had no clue that there was a recognized formula for achieving the proper emotional response to your message. As much as I understand the need for leaders to be intentional about structuring a worship service, I couldn't help but feel a little manipulated. (Joel Wentz wrote a great article for Relevant about this very issue that I would highly recommend you read.)
During my time as an American Evangelical, I spent a few years within the more charismatic circles of the movement. A number of my close friends and roommates were involved with such movements, so it started when I began tagging along with them to various events. But there were two very distinct moments that opened my eyes to the issue of emotional manipulation within the church. I'd like to share those stories with you.
I had been attending a pentecostal church with my roommate for a while. It was different than I was used to, but everyone seemed so spiritually alive and the music was enjoyable. However, one Sunday made me question my experiences there and reevaluate what was actually going on. That particular Sunday they had a guest evangelist that came to preach. There was something about him that really bothered me. He followed the tried and true formula of using catchy rhyming phrases and riding a vocal roller coaster of emotions as he spoke. Think of the stereotypical southern tent evangelist tone and rhythm of speaking. It really got people worked up. They were clapping and hollering "Amen!" at every turn as he kept preaching. I listened intently and grew increasingly confused by the reaction around me. This confusion was rooted in the fact that the more I listened, the more I realized he wasn't saying anything at all. Underneath all the catchphrases and "Hallelujah!"s was nothing more than a shallow, undefined, vaguely spiritual term.
His sermon was about the "fire of God" and the need to keep it in your life. It was loosely based on 2 Chronicles 7:1 where fire comes down from Heaven to consume the sacrifices after Solomon dedicates the temple. That was the verse he read - no context, no historical information, nothing other than that single verse. He than proceeded to tell everyone that they needed the fire of God in their lives and that we all needed to get rid of the sin that was keeping that fire away. He listed a number of sins and many things that aren't sins at all, such as HIV/AIDS. After that he once again revved up his appeal for people to live their lives with the fire of God inside them. When he had finished preaching, he invited people up to the altar to pray for the "fire of God" to come inside them. Not once during his sermon had he defined the term. Yet, at that altar call, around 2/3 of the congregation (many of them openly weeping) made their way up front to pray. Not only was I shocked, I was furious!
The reason for my outrage is that these people had no idea what they were praying for. I watched them in a point of complete emotional breakdown. My heart broke. I'd been that person at times myself. You hear a pastor say something that sounds good, you feel an emotional pull towards it, you accept the call and pray for it, and by the end of the week, your emotions have faded and you realize that little has changed. I imagined that as the week went on, there emotions would fade and the majority of these people would still be struggling. At that point, the evangelist (and his "love offering") would be long gone. What a let down!
After leaving church, I allowed my own emotions to cool down. I decided I shouldn't be so rash and simply jump to conclusions. He at least deserved the benefit of the doubt. After all, everyone else seemed to really enjoy his preaching. So I broke open my Bible and decided to research the "fire of God." I never found it. The only references to fire in the Bible seemed to deal with refinement (which isn't permanent), destruction (I can't imagine people would accept an invitation to pray to be destroyed), and sacrifices being made (as in literal fire). None of these uses seemed to fit the way he used the term in his sermon. There is the passage in Hebrews 12:29 and Deuteronomy 4:24 about God being a consuming fire, but this isn't a warm, fuzzy, holy feeling in your chest. These passages talk of a jealous God that will consume those things that He detests. So, that really couldn't be it. In the end I concluded that it was a purely emotional concept designed to engage people, but had little substance to back it up. There was one person I had seen at that altar that stood out in my mind. I still think of him when remembering that day. He seemed to be praying the most fervently of everyone is his quest to obtain "God's fire." I wasn't aware at the time that this is a young man who is gay. I often wonder if that was one of the many episodes before coming out in which he was seeking desperately to pray for a change in his sexual orientation. I wonder how he responded later when those emotions faded and his sexuality remained the same.
I left that church shortly after that. I couldn't stand to see such blatant emotional manipulation. But I was still intrigued by the charismatic movements and desperate for the type of joy and reassurance that they seemed to embody in their services, so I hadn't given up on them just yet. I had a good friend that was heavily involved in the 24/7 prayer movements. She invited me to a number of conferences and meetings. I went to a few. I had a very similar experience. In the midst of all those people, the emotions ran high, but there was usually a let down when returning to daily life. It never seemed to last. (Maybe that's why it became 24/7?? ;) I kid, I kid.) But the moment that helped to sever my ties with such movements came at a large conference that I attended with her. Initially, I really enjoyed he conference. It's always encouraging to see people excited about their faith and to be reminded that God is ever present in your life. But something happened at the end that snapped me out of my emotional hypnosis and made me reconsider my involvement.
The worship had followed cycles of upbeat praise and slower emotionally engaging numbers, not unlike most church services. But on the final day, they pulled everything way down and held what they called a "solemn assembly" which was an extremely emotional time of prayer in which people cried and called out to God for hours. (No, that is not an exaggeration. It literally went on for hours.) Throughout this time of prayer, various leaders would take the microphone and offer up prayers of their own about a topic that people could then focus on. Oddly, none of this concerned me at that moment. I saw nothing wrong with people praying and crying out to God. Why would I? At it's core, it seems like a good thing. What concerned me was that this time was such an emotionally broken time for the majority of the people there. All of their defenses were down. And as they were in such a weak state, one of the leaders took to the microphone and spoke of the need to set up houses of prayer in the areas of our political leaders. I had no objection to this. Leading the country is a hard job. I'd want prayer if it were me. But then he started listing off the leaders who were in need of such prayer - that they follow God's will. As I listened, I noticed a common thread between everyone he listed. They were all Democrats. Not a single Republican was listed as needing prayer to know God's will. The only time I heard him mention Republicans was when giving thanks for their godly leadership. I was hurt, really hurt. Not just because I'm a Democrat who does not believe that any political party has a monopoly on morality. I was hurt because as this leader saw thousands of people around him at their most vulnerable, he used that moment to further his own political agenda. How sad.
Those are the two moments that stand out in my mind as the points when I became aware of the aspect of emotional manipulation and how it is abused within various faith communities. Many people I know who left American Evangelical Culture often cite that they just felt emotionally manipulated. I agree. I often felt that way myself. That is one of the major reasons I decided to return to a liturgical church. It engages you, but does not rely so heavily on emotional appeals. I had to be sure my faith would still stand without that manipulation. I had been so immersed in it and (for years) oblivious to it, that I didn't know what part of my faith was real and what was established via an intricate pulling of spiritual puppet strings. It's not to say that our emotions will not play a role in all aspects of our lives. We are emotional beings. There is no helping that. But I think that it's important to take a step back and reevaluate if you realize that a person/group is consistently primarily appealing only to your emotions.