Is Manipulation Ever Loving?

manipulationWhen thinking back about evangelistic efforts from my past, I must admit that manipulation was a welcomed friend. It wasn’t broadcast as such, but instead rationalized under the guise that “the ends always justify the means” when salvation is on the line. I can remember back in my youth group days when my pastor distributed copies of Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people” as a means to evangelize our local high school. For those of you not familiar with this work, it could be summarized as a business tool for advancing your personal agenda through being courteous, listening and investing into those who have the power to advance you. It basically encourages the reader to put off the present trivial selfish desires to focus on the big-picture selfish goals of their future. A more realistic title would be “How to manipulate those to be able to eventually get what you want.”

The problem with giving this book to the youth as an evangelizing tool is that it teaches children that not only is it possible to manipulate someone to faith (it is not), but that it was OK to do so (it is not). These two lies stand in stark contrast to how God draws, gifts faith and causes us to serve our neighbor. The implication that coercion to faith in Christ is possible, effective and God honoring is dastardly to say the least. I bring it to light today because the catalyst in Carnegie’s classic business tool is the same catalyst in the movements that define the prominent modern church growth strategies and ministries; both past and present. It’s no coincidence that whenever a new “movement” takes hold in the church, manipulation tends to be the fuel that propels it.

Saddleback, Willow Creek, Mars Hill, and now FiveTwo each are different sides of the same square. They each have their own facade through their denominational confessions, but at the core, they function precisely the same. Biblical ecclesiology is scrapped in an effort to “start new to reach new.” Marketing teams are hired to coin new slogans and catch phrases because relevance is the most desired commodity. As the movement grows, attendance and financial liquidity are used to quench the fires of dissent all while completely ignoring the internal struggle between the movement’s persona and church’s true identity. The persona propagated through marketing magic, culturally relevant worship services and innovative ecclesiological interpretations are supposed evidences that this latest new movement takes the great commission seriously and cares for the lost far more than those old curmudgeonly congregations that are stuck in the 16th century do. Hats are hung on a perceived ability to lure the lost through comfort, entertainment and felt needs. Once there, they’ll find community with their peers, plug in to a life group and BLAM-O, what once was lost has now been found…and are now leading their own life group!

The problem is, the identity of the church is not found in any of these things, and in fact, stands in direct opposition to them. Even though the motivation of the church worker is probably just, their biblical ignorance of soteriology and ecclesiology makes the work they are doing futile. I’m a firm believer that ones ecclesiology will always expose their soteriology even if their mission statement says otherwise. This is especially true for FiveTwo. We Lutherans are monergists. There is only one actor in salvation and that is God. There are two methods for making disciples; baptism and hearing the word (Matthew 28:19 and Romans 10:17). When the church lifts its skirt in an attempt to be edgy and gain cultural relevance, it’s acting as though it has a say in who the Father draws and functionally adopts Pellagius’ error. The leadership team can scream monergism from the top of its non-threatening multi-purpose facility, but as soon as cultural relevance is viewed as outreach and the divine service is transformed into the mission field, the soteriological jig is up. This is readily seen in those who employ church growth methodology by importing secular culture into the realm of the sacred and divine. The down hill consequences of this methodology is that it destroys the doctrine of vocation. I’m aware that we Lutherans can use “vocation” as a means to be lazy, however, this is most often rooted in a lack of properly teaching the doctrine of vocation to our congregations, not a negative side effect thereof. When God monergistically draws us to repentance, we are given a new nature. This nature, strengthened through word and sacrament, desires to serve Christ by serving our neighbor. God acts, we respond. This is the paradigm. Thus when divine service is altered to attempt to draw those in it wasn’t instituted to draw, the paradigm is reversed. Now we are acting to manipulate our neighbor to come to church through supposedly relevant means such as rock styled worship services, relevant life application sermons with a focus on felt needs over the eternal. This reversed paradigm casts the unbelievers as the stars of the show, the believers as the production team and God as the films MacGuffin. When the stars arrive, the production team goes into action as their children are swept away to someplace they won’t be a distraction, quickly handed a cappuccino and taken to their seat as cruise-ship-styled entertainment ensues. Once the curtains draw, the mediocre top 40 covers and CoWo hits blast from the stage followed by a motivational pep talk all the while Jesus has been relegated to supreme life coach that maybe gets wheeled out on Christmas and Easter. Even if the well meaning pastor does preach the gospel, it is still manipulative at the core because of the methodology employed to draw the unbelievers into the service. The fact is, unbelievers don’t want to hear about Jesus, they want to be entertained. So the trend over time, present in each of these movements, is that the gospel is continually pushed aside while adding more topical, relevant teachings with a focus on social justice directives. When the methodology is built upon manipulation and cultural assimilation instead of embracing our biblical and historical counter-cultural status rooted in the teaching of Christ for you, the movement, no matter how well-intentioned, will lead to syncretism.

So back to my initial question. Is manipulation ever loving?

The ends can never justify manipulative means because manipulation is rooted in selfishness not love. It allows the person to formulate the outcomes they want by means of deception as it removes naked truth from the equation and replaces it with smooth talk and flattery, keying in on the selfish desires present in others. In the modern church, smooth talk and flattery take the form of cultural draws and comforts. It’s the bait of the bait and switch. Even if the switch is a true gospel presentation, it doesn’t negate the fact that the service is being altered into a manipulative means to grow the church through human innovation and methodology. If we are truly honest with ourselves and those we desire to evangelize, then we wouldn’t attempt innovation after innovation, instead we would rest in biblical ecclesiology as our divine service does what it was established to do; deliver word and sacrament to believers as a means of grace to strengthen their faith and equip them to serve their neighbors in Christ. We’d understand that playing “Happy” by Pharrell in place of the invocation (or anywhere in service) is disgraceful, trite and cliche. We’d prepare ourselves to receive Christ himself instead of preparing to be entertained by the latest sitcom styled masleration. Simply put, our focus would be dead set on Christ and his work instead of looking to culture to see how we could coax our co-workers into attending church with us. We could rest our wearied souls and take a break from the intrusive culture that demands 24/7 attention. We could actually be real with our friends and neighbors as we tell them that we don’t have a marketing team developing well crafted catch phrases, a middle aged cover band taking a stab at the latest Katy Perry song, or a hipster pastor that wants to meet you where you are by giving you 5 tips to be a better lover. We could simply invite them to a church that’s not trying to be anything other than it has been called to be.

No bait.

No switch.

No manipulation.

Only Christ, in word and sacrament, given for you, and for them.


RodebaughAssociate Editor’s Note:  With this post we welcome Jonathan Rodebaugh to our regular writers here at the Brothers of John the Steadfast.  Here is what Jonathan has to say about himself…

I’m rather new to the Lutheran church. After 34 years in various brands of American Evangelicalism and 5 years of serious personal study, I made the jump to confessional Lutheranism as found in the LCMS and currently serve as an elder at Trinity Lutheran Church in Toledo, Ohio. Aside from my love of theology, I enjoy writing music, playing tennis, being outdoors and spending time with my family.


Is Manipulation Ever Loving? — 23 Comments

  1. Jonathon, welcome! You young guys are such an inspiration to this old soul. Your article is spot on. I look forward to more from you!

  2. I don’t know what the “Our Daily Bread” and Portals of Prayer folks are going to do with all the long words. I’ll have to look up a couple myself and I haven’t seen P of P in years!

    Carry on! 🙂

  3. Yes! What a great understanding! And so well said! I can accomplish a great many things via manipulation but it simply is not right — well, and the socalled changes will not last, and the so-called changes may even cause eventual resentment! This is precisely the concern which I also have with some of our evangelistic efforts. It might be well intended but it is not right. The Lord calls us to confess Him before a dying world. It truly is my daily prayer to humbly confess Him in my daily life. It is also my daily prayer that the Holy Spirit will bring some to believe!

  4. Brilliant piece.

    Thank you Jonathan. Welcome aboard.

    My only question now is how will the LCMS will continue its faithful confession without dealing with this threat from within.

  5. Jonathan, thank you for taking the time to write this. This post gets right to the heart of the matter. My husband and I couldn’t clearly see the manipulation methods used on us and our fellow “church family” members until we were freed from it. A church that uses manipulation to get folks in the door, continues in that same vein. Sad, they never do get around to Christ for you.

  6. @Pastor Tim Rossow #6

    I have the same question Pastor Tim. What’s the next step? I think it is good to continue to sound the alarm, but at some point, the Synod must take responsibility and force action. Disciplining those sounding the alarm or generally ignoring the situation is not the answer we need from our leadership. This needs to be dealt with from the top and I am not sure exactly how to make that happen.

  7. @John Rixe #11

    “Sitcom-Styled” refers to this article ( from FiveTwo that says pastors should be forming their sermons in a sitcom-styled fashion.

    “Masleration” is a word coined by Christ Rosebrough. It combines the principles behind “Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs” with “oration.” In short, it’s a psychological pep-talk centered on self actualization and rightly describes many of the Christ-less sermons dominating American Evangelicalism.

    So putting it all together, it means is a “Humorous, entertaining pep talk that is centered on being the best you that you could possibly be.”

  8. @Jonathan Rodebaugh #12
    “Masleration” is a word coined by Christ Rosebrough. It combines the principles behind “Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs” with “oration.” In short, it’s a psychological pep-talk centered on self actualization and rightly describes many of the Christ-less sermons dominating American Evangelicalism.

    I am glad that I didn’t get around to the OED for that one yet!
    [I think I can handle the rest of these.] 😉

    Thanks! 🙂

  9. Ha, No problem! I really liked that word when Chris promoted it and want to get it some exposure. If they (the FiveTwo people) can promote made up words, why can’t we?

  10. I’m struggling with what Jonathan is saying as a lifelong Lutheran who has worshipped at Saddleback, Willow Creek, watching ‘5000’ praise God. Now I worship at a small struggling Lutheran Church in the Chicago area with maybe 50 people and many empty pews. The church is mostly empty during the week when at Willow I went to support groups many nights during the week. Please comment considering Christ’s words ‘go to all nations…’

  11. Numeric outcome and activity participation are not indicators of Biblical and confessional faithfulness.

  12. Is ‘Biblical and confessional faithfulness’ more important than being saved by faith in Jesus Christ? What I am lifting up is Jonathan’s words seem, to me, more about being saved by actions people perform versus the grace God gives us. If that is true, these words are influencing people who read this away from the true message of the Christian faith. I am researching Paul’s message about what he said at Mars Hill as it relates to Lutheran beliefs. What I am beginning to believe is there are influential church leaders who put the church as an organization before what Jesus Christ taught. Most certainly the 5000 who were at the Sermon on the Mount were more like those who attend Willowcreek and Saddleback than those who are faithful to Lutheran doctrine. Jesus Christ did not ‘manipulate’ them to attend His Mount message. For many who attended it was a ‘beginning’ for them.

  13. @John Melby, I’m curious to see your definition on how someone is “saved by faith in Jesus?”

    Having listened to my fair share of Rick Warren sermons (as well as many others he taught like Perry Noble and Craig Groschel) I am rather confident that those in attendance at Saddleback are not hearing proper law/gospel preaching nor are they receiving the sacraments. All they are hearing is LAW, LAW, LAW and DO, DO, DO. That is not the gospel and thus will not lead one to being “saved by faith in Jesus.” That being said, God could certainly work through the clutter to call a lost sheep home, however, that doesn’t mean the method is prescriptive or should ever be normative. I know a guy who was saved at a crack house. Should we build crack houses in order to meet the crack users where they are?

    Why does Saddleback exist? Warren’s story is that he was burnt out on standard church and went door to door to ask people what they liked and disliked about church. He then sought to build his church around those parameters. The key in that last sentence is that Warren build “his” church. Scripture gives us a rather detailed description of what the church should look like. Warren said phooey on that, I’m doing it my way. Warren is attempting to grow the kingdom by duping people into spiritual fire insurance with an emphasis on works while trying to obliterate any talk of doctrine or historic faith. So you have many comfortable people who think they are “good” because of Warren’s terrible ecclesiology and out of context preaching which leads them to find assurance in what they have done or are doing instead of the merits of Christ alone. He’s sold them this bill of goods to grow his church and make converts…the old bait and switch (manipulation). The problem is, with Warren and many, many others, the switch never happens…because if it did, the numbers would fall off and his kingdom would begin to crumble and the deception would be exposed.

  14. Saved by faith, to me, is defined by John 3:16. I also believe that I am on a journey in my Christian faith that is incomplete. My mission on that journey is to walk humbly, prayerfully, sharing with others, and immerse my whole heart in Christ’s love for me and my love given to anyone in my life. On that journey is a requirement that includes others looking for ways to agree and never to point fingers at those who are walking with me. Respectfully, to me, the ‘manipulation’ piece is a example of one reason why those outside of the Christian faith ignore it—they see division caused by lines being drawn by Christians that seek first to distinguish themselves that ‘their way is the only way.’ I think the cause of Steadfast Lutherans is to steadfastly hold up a set of standards by pointing fingers. That is what will help erode and crumble the growth of Christianity…people within the faith who self love their beliefs to the point of dispareging others who are walking the Christian road with them. Another point is reading Bill Hybel’s sermons, for example, is one input. Attending Willow Creek services and activities are required in order to deliver a credible opinion. When you are at the conference in January, please consider attending some of what WCCC has to offer. All of my comments are in Christian love.

  15. @John Melby #20
    Hi John,

    Thank you for visiting this site of confessional Lutheranism. Since you live in the Chicago area, may I ask why aren’t you a member of the Willow Creek Community Church? You say you are a ‘life-long Lutheran’. If you admire and appreciation the type of worship experience that Willow Creek offers, I don’t understand why you stay Lutheran?

    In Christ,

  16. Hi Diane,
    Thank you for your response.
    Life changes have moved me from one church to another. I also have traveled and lived in several locations and have worshipped from Jerusalem to South Africa, airport services, and many places in between. My roots are in an Augustana Lutheran Church in the far West suburbs of Chicago. Am a member of Willow Creek, a Baptist church with a Swedish history, and now worship in the South Chicago suburbs at an ELCA church that has a lady assistant pastor of African descent. One of the most rich services I have attended is a South suburbs of Chicago community service (with 34 years of history) that included 11 local church leaders at a Thanksgiving service…Jewish, Protestant and Catholic with a local high school choir singing. The point is, my faith ‘admiration’ is in Jesus Christ and what he taught. I have been blessed with rich experiences and people who are followers beyond me. I have volunteered many church and Habitat for Humanity hours, days and weeks. All of this has lead me away from pointing to differences in people in the Christian faith and finding the richness of the diversity in the many ways to worship Christ. Criticism of the way fellow Christians worship is so sad to me. Focusing on what I need to do better is so powerful to me. I realize I am critical of a fellow Christian’s critisizing so I’m no better than anyone…just trying to reach out in my own small way for peace in our Christian community.

  17. @John Melby #22
    Thanks for sharing some of your life experiences with BJS. It is sad that Christians have such profound differences that unity with each other seems impossible. However, this has been the case since Jesus was here on earth. As Matthew describes the eleven disciples in chapter 28:16ff ‘And when they saw him they worshiped him, BUT SOME DOUBTED’. Even after the disciples had lived with him, saw him suffer, die and rise from the dead, Scripture says some doubted!

    Please continue to stop in from time to time here at BJS. There’s always something interesting being discussed. Sometimes it’s contentious (as the commercial says) but one can learn a whole lot about the Christian faith and life in Christ right here.

    God bless you,

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