photo credit Sophia Louise CC

Hype, Manipulation and Other Unseemly Ministry Tactics

Photo Credit Sophia Louise Creative Commons 

It was repeated several times in a church staff meeting, so it was nothing new this time. The pastor instructed us to essentially be his “amen corner” during the sermon and exuberant charismatics during the musical time of the service. Laugh, visibly take notes, and clearly “leading” the crowd around you to respond to the platform. Of course, if the staff were lazy slobs and sleeping during the sermon and eye-rolling at the worship leader I might expect a reprimand. But, it was clear the goal was to create a more charismatic response through manipulation rather than instruction. Might the congregation say amen if the sermon was better delivered? Might the church sing louder if they were invited rather than coaxed into it?

Authoritarianism Versus Egalitarianism

In 2015, a movie called The Experimenter told the story of famous social psychologist Stanley Milgram. His experiments on obedience are legendary. These were the ones, if you recall, where a subject was a “teacher” who zapped the person in the other room with ever-increasing voltage. The test responses if in error or silence were punished. Most participants went all the way to the end, where the man in the other room went from pleading, screaming, to silent non-responsiveness. The moral choice to fulfill the experimenter’s wishes outweighed the well-being of the man behind the wall. Of course, it was an experiment and no one was hurt. But the observed behavior revealed to us a crack in human nature’s armor. This sort of crack is how Nazi concentration camp workers were exploited. “I was just following orders.”

Candidly, I would have preferred to ask that former pastor of mine to prepare better sermons rather than hype the current fare. Also, if our people were taught why we sing and the communally spiritual significance of it, they just might decide to join in. But, we are tempted to use authority and manipulation. What appears to be spontaneous then just is an unseemly ploy to give the appearance of a spiritually lively congregation. What could be modeled with authenticity is instead cheapened. A pastor who only gives this type of instruction is not really a teacher or a leader. I mean, is there room to have a brain and conversation? If even the fellow pastors were not valued for their minds, how could a congregation then be shaped to discern real from false? Everything is a facade in this world then. And, we wonder why kids leave the church. What we sell is hype. And, it can work…for a while…then it doesn’t and

Mastering Crowd Manipulation

Dr. Milgram also did experiments where a set amount of individuals looked a point in the sky. Nothing was there, but soon a growing crowd of onlookers presented themselves–a majority now looking at a blank point in the sky. I have heard many pastors brag about their communication skill. There is nothing wrong with being effective as a speaker. However, what are we selling these hyped experiences as?

This can also play out with the use of social media. Yes, marketing is all about creating buzz. However, marketing is a tool rather than the core of what ministry is. It is becoming common for churches to require their staff to post specific information and photos on their social media accounts. Why is this a problem? The church employee is not doing this because he or she is excited about the information, brought into the message by sitting at the table, or coached to express shared ministry values. The brazen pragmatics simply see social media tools not as a dialogue but again as a monologue. Real, grass roots marketing is actually an egalitarian conversation, not a dictatorial broadcast.

Hype or Hope is the Choice

We do have a choice. And, it may not help to build your next education wing. But, it may build people. I prefer to count what lasts when measuring ministry. This is why I am puzzled by churches that tell their story in terms of attendance and buildings. If we are called to love God and others, then that is what we should measure. We surely have many stories of God’s work in the lives of people. These overshadow the buildings we raise, the sermons we deliver or the organization we develop. Our stories are what is real–both the past and present workings of God. It is in these that hope for what is next makes sense.

Hype is an addiction. Don’t call it leadership. Or, call it the move of the Spirit. We must be careful to not over-promise on something that is an under-delivered mirage. This is especially true in a day and age when people long for the real thing. Even the church with its messy people is a beautiful bride. This mystery is our strength. Let’s not hide this fact. And, let’s welcome people to learn to be discerners or truth and lovers of people. Hype seems to be contrary to both truth and love. And, what hope is there in something manufactured by us anyway?

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

6 comments

  1. I remember flipping the tv channels, one day and coming across a televised Barry Manilow concert. As the camera panned the front two rows of the audience, it was filled with young lone models, singing every word to every song and demonstrating an unlikely enthusiasm. They were clearly hired by a talent agency. I often wonder if it hasn’t happened yet, would a church hire a proper crowd of talent to help create an atmosphere they were trying to achieve in a weekend service.

    On a second note a friend of mine wrote his thesis paper on “Hypnosis in a worship service” it was fascinating, calling everything from lighting, and music and the pastors voice indluxations as tools to manipulate emotions and response. It did not call it right or wrong, it just explored the methods.

    1. We often call things something more when they are not. It’s like a CCM God-or-girlfriend song. It makes you feel something, but maybe not much. A religious experience changes you forever. Are we even able to program a religious experience? We can work up a crowd. But, where does real life-change happen? And, do we even want to go there?

  2. It both alarms and angers me to think pastors would attempt to lure people into a response via manipulation and steering. Manipulation is trying to get others to buy-in to whatever one is selling and is the basis of witchcraft. The Bible is very clear about true worshipers being those who worship in spirit and in TRUTH. When truth is taught and Holy Spirit is welcome to do HIS work (not what we think is His work) then people will experience God’s presence and will respond by worshiping HIM.

    1. Leah, thanks for your comment.

      It is indeed alarming. However, I would say motives we cannot pointedly judge. Many leaders are taught to think this way–that hype is how its done.

      Also, we do all the “right” things and still have many not follow. Transversely, we can use a hyped-up method and people will come to Christ and find his presence.

      My point is to allow us to have a conversation that hopefully leads to some rethinking.

  3. I agree with you, but have a few comments. Like all things in life, there must be a mature balance of all the elements. When I lead music in church, I act excited about it, and encourage others to be excited. Not because I am trying to fake anything though. I am excited because I truly believe what I am singing about, and because I know that those in the pews have usually had a hard week, and they need that little push to get their focus off of the daily numbing grind and to focus on worship. This is different, however, from a pastor wanting the focus to be on US (the organized church) instead of wanting the people to focus on GOD. It is like when Jesus talked about the people praying on street corners or wearing grotesque makeup when fasting – what are you doing it for? If it is to get people to focus on you, then it is for the wrong motives. I am totally against false or staged excitement. But I am for creating an environment where the members know they have the freedom and, yes, permission to worship freely.

    1. Yes, there is “communication” in leadership. The bigger issue is our programming to an emotion and calling that the Spirit, however. What are we intending with our leadership? Do we program experience OR do we invite people into a mystery that is way bigger than us as an individual leader??

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