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