And All God’s People Said?

Magician Card TrickOf all the things that are wrong with The Sermon, and there are many, one in particular gets under my skin.  That thing is the crowd manipulation.  I grew up listening to sermons full of crowd manipulation techniques.  As a child, I thought they were normal.  As a somewhat repressed teen with a rebellious streak starting to kick in, I found them insulting and demeaning, so I rejected them; but I suffered through them, because I thought they were an unfortunate but unavoidable irritant that must be tolerated in order to fulfill one’s religious obligations.  As an adult that can’t tolerate wasted time or disingenuous persuasive techniques, I have come to despise them, having seen the damage they do to intellectual honesty and spiritual health.

My experience is that most preachers in evangelical denominations (even the currently popular denomination of non-denominationalism) use these techniques.  I’m guessing that preachers from the more liturgical denominations with their heavily scripted services don’t use some of these techniques, as their hierarchical authority is already fairly well established.  But in the more congregational denominations, the preacher doesn’t have quite as much denominational weight behind his clerical position, and the congregation has the ability to vote him out of office.  So he must establish not just credibility, but authority in order to solidify his position.

In this endeavor, preachers use quite a few crowd manipulation techniques.  Here are a few glaring examples.  Those who have a bit of experience with religious institutions will likely think of other examples.

“And all God’s people said?”

“And all God’s people said…?” demands the preacher.  Sometimes, he comes right out and says, “Can I get an amen!”

“Amen!” says the crowd in unison.  If the crowd doesn’t play along and the response is insufficiently convincing, what does the preacher do?  Does he pause and rethink the point that he just made and question his premise, wondering why so many people had reservations about agreeing with him?  Of course not!  He is an ordained minister.  A man of God!  And he must preserve his authority so that he can rightly divide the word of truth to the lay people.  

So he doubles down and with a smile of course, says something to the effect of, “Come on, you can do better than that!” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

And the crowd, needled by the subtle reprimand, says louder, “Amen!”  A nervous titter ripples across the audience, now feeling guilty about not responding appropriately to the Man of God, or perhaps about not being astute enough or spiritually in tune enough to be properly enthusiastic about whatever point the preacher is making.  And no one questions the implication that if you don’t say “amen” in agreement with whatever the preacher was saying, then you are not one of the people of God.

“Say it with me: _______.” / “Say it again!”

This one usually goes along with a scripture reading.  So if the sermon is on defending the faith, the coercive bit might go something like this:

PREACHER:  “Turn with me to Jude chapter one, verse three.  “…you should earnestly—say it with me—”

EVERYONE:  Contend for the faith.”

PREACHER:  “Say it again.”

EVERYONE:  Contend for the faith.”

And the preacher goes on to make his point about contending for the faith.  This is a double-edged (and very effective) psychological manipulation that grooms the audience to accept a premise without question.  Rather than objectively evaluating the preacher’s proposition, the audience has already surrendered its intellectual freedom by doing two things.  First, they’ve tacitly acknowledged the preacher’s authority by following his direction.  Second, they’ve voluntarily submitted, in response to a manipulative technique, to participation in a group action.  The crowd dynamic produces intense psychological pressure to accept the preacher’s proposition—because ostensibly, everyone else has accepted it.

“Turn to your neighbor and say…”

Now this one’s a bit more benign, as it’s usually, but not always, used as an ice breaker and not as a persuasive technique.  “Turn to the person next to you and tell them you’re glad they’re here.” Everybody turns to the person next to them and sheepishly mumbles the prescribed greeting.  Fairly benign.  No big deal, right?  But like the above example, it generates an aura of authority around the cleric.  Police officers use techniques such as this when dealing with what they ironically and unfortunately refer to as “subjects.”  Get the subject to make a small, meaningless concession, and it reinforces the officer’s authority, thus increasing the likelihood that the subject will concede to other, more significant demands by the officer.

“The Bible Says…”

This one really deserves it’s own discussion, because it is so prevalent and so insidious.  This is not just used by preachers but also by most Christians that are trying to argue for why a particular dogma or practice is the correct one.

When someone makes a proposition and as an argument ender, states, “The Bible says…,” they are using a disingenuous argument to make their case.  Here’s why it is disingenuous.

The bible is not a single book.  It is a collection of books.  Different groups have arbitrarily decided which books may (and may not) be included in the canon of Scripture.  The 66 books of the Protestant canon were written by probably more than 40 people.  Now, if you referenced the book of Jude and stated “Jude says… ,” that would be an honest, forthright approach to the book of Jude, because presumably, the author, the intended audience, and the context may be clearly discerned.  However, if one is making an argument and as support for that argument, states, “The Bible says…,” that is disingenuous.

It is disingenuous because it presumes to treat the 66(+) books of the bible as a single book, with a single audience (everyone), a single author (God), and a fluid context.  It gives every line of every one of the 66 books the exact same moral validity, regardless of whether certain passages contradict others. Thus, the argument is a fraudulent appeal to God’s authority—it makes it sound like God is backing your position.  Here’s why it’s manipulative.  This personification of the bible automatically undercuts any counter-arguments because it implies that if you disagree, you are arguing against God Himself. Therefore, you have no right to disagree.

There are other techniques that preachers use to groom the audience for intellectual compliance, such as telling the audience when to stand, when to kneel, and when to sit.  You may have seen other techniques that are more or less subtle.  But the common trait in all these techniques is psychological manipulation.

The truth stands on its own.  So why do preachers need to turn a persuasive argument into intellectual obfuscation and psychological manipulation?  I’m not generally opposed to a passionately delivered speech or lecture or opinion monologue.  But if what you’re pitching requires mind games, manipulation, or subterfuge in order to get people to buy into it, then what you’re offering is not the truth.

In the realms of theology and morality, there are a multitude of ideas.  Some of these ideas seem pretty farfetched.  Some seem pretty credible.  We would be better served by a dialogue where the merits or faults of these ideas are discussed openly and honestly.  When our religion is characterized by a one-way flow of ideas and psychological manipulation designed to produce unquestioning compliance, then it’s time to start asking what the manipulators are hiding, and it’s time to start looking for a better way.

4 thoughts on “And All God’s People Said?

  1. So I gotta ask- what brought you to this place? I went back to your first posts looking for something that might tell a little of your story. Personally, I spent 12 years in an abusive church and after leaving, started seeing how the entire church setup is just asking for abusive leaders to rise to the surface. You just confirm my belief that the whole system lends itself to abuse to one degree or another. My jaw dropped when I read the list of manipulative techniques you list, stuff I’ve seen in all the churches I’ve been in over the years. Yes, it is indeed manipulative, though I never thought of it that way before. You don’t challenge the Man/Woman of God, you don’t question what he/she says, and you do all you can do to feed the beast- keep the institution alive. And you certainly check your brain at the door!! After all, we’re just dumb sheep! You illustrate beautifully that abusive churches are just the extreme manifestation of what’s in every church out there already. Frightening, isn’t it?

    I see a list of people/websites you follow. Do you have a recommended reading list by any chance?


    • I’ve never published my story. Perhaps I should in a future post. Basically, I was raised in very conservative churches. Some of the people were the most decent human beings imaginable. Some were abusive. Some were exploitative. I took a job that required me to relocate frequently. Every time I moved, I looked for a church to join, but every church I went to had something really off-putting about it. After being out of the church for about a decade, I finally decided to join a church. I now had an opportunity to evaluate church with an outsider’s perspective. I became extremely frustrated by all of the religious Stuff that seemed to eclipse everything else. Over time, and with a little help, it became apparent that religion is a barrier to relationships between people and God, and between people and other people. I eventually found a group of believers that met in each others’ homes and shared life together. It was a unique and refreshing experience, unlike any church I’ve ever been to.

      I’ve got quite a few books I recommend reading. I’ll publish that in my next post so it will be available to others and easier to read. In the meantime, the book that really opened my eyes and got me started on my spiritual journey was “The Pilgrim Church” by E. H. Broadbent. It essentially traces groups of believers throughout history that met organically and shared life together without imposing religious requirements on each other.

      Thank you for sharing your story. I completely agree. The System lends itself to abuse. And even when it’s not abusive, it’s a hindrance to spiritual growth. Frightening indeed. I’m glad you’ve found your way out, and I look forward to future dialogue with you.


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