Manipulative Preaching

In my last post, I suggested that offering poor content by means of dramatic delivery is a form of manipulation. The comment raises a bigger question about the nature of manipulation itself.  Most of us would want to avoid manipulation in our preaching, however, knowing the difference between manipulation and motivation can be challenging. We all want to motivate our listeners toward the things that God has in mind for us. Manipulation, I believe, is something different.

Manipulation, literally means that we are putting our hands on something to direct it in an unnatural way. In terms of preaching, I might suggest that we are manipulating people when we are leading them to an irresistible response. God has created us in his image, which means that we have dignity. God is sovereign, but he still gives us the right to our response – even if that response is to walk away from him. If we preach in such a way that listeners have been denied their own choice, then we have manipulated them. If we lead them so completely that they have not consented to their response, we are guilty of manipulation.

I’m often unsure what to make of decisions made during the 12th chorus of “Just as I am” with “every head bowed and every eye closed.” While I believe in the value of calling people to decision, I want them to own their decision in the cold light of day and not believe that they had been snookered, somehow, into an inauthentic response.

I said in a previous post that emotion and tone are a valuable part of the preaching process. I appreciate that there can be a fuzzy line between legitimate use of emotion and an illegitimate use of manipulation. I suspect that we will know when we have crossed that line, fuzzy as it is, by evaluating our own motivations. It is perhaps not so amazing to discover that temptations to manipulate are strongest when our motivation is more for ourselves than it is for our message.