When Motivation Becomes Manipulation

There is a line somewhere between manipulation and motivation in preaching. That line is not always evident, though most of us know it when we’ve crossed it.

We all want to be motivating and inspirational in our preaching. A big part of the preacher’s task is helping people get past the natural inertia that keeps them locked into unhealthy and unhelpful patterns of life. Our calling is to encourage meaningful responses to the Word of God that result in positive changes in keeping with the things God expects of us. It helps if we can be compelling.

That said, it’s not hard to move from a motivating tone to one that’s more coercive. Perhaps we swell the music or just slightly dim the lights. We might push the point a little harder than what seems natural or fitting. None of it is wrong exactly or definitively out of bounds. But taken together, it can leave the listener little choice as to his or response.

And that’s where we’ve crossed the line. Motivation becomes manipulation when we’ve limited the listener’s capacity to choose how she or he will answer to what it is they are hearing. When the mood or the message is constructed such that the listener is left without option, we have become manipulative.

Preachers manipulate by magnifying guilt, pressing fear, or hyping an idea beyond what it was built to bear. In each case, the listener is emotively pushed beyond what would be reasonable or what the listener would normally choose for him or herself.

Let me be clear: the end does not justify the manipulative means. Preachers are accountable to God, for what they have to say and for how they have to say it, more than for the results that they produce. I would rather stand before God’s judgment on a record of faithful communication than on the basis of great numbers of manipulated responses. That is a line I never want to cross.

2 thoughts on “When Motivation Becomes Manipulation

  1. My thoughts on manipulation:
    I spend about six to seven years in a Chinese church somewhere around 2001 to 2008. The pastoral couple preached to the congregation (especially youth) that they have to love the church, love the pastors, obey the pastors, and don’t listen to parents when the parents don’t agree with pastors. Most of the youths listened to them, and anyone who doesn’t listen to them or against their will is labelled as rebellious and dividing. They crossed so many lines in those years. Eventually their ministry went down in flames because the husband was found had an affair with the excuse that his wife’s family was too manipulative and controlling. Many youths felt betrayed and left the church, some of my friends haven’t come back since.
    There is also a pastor in the church that I am attending has this issue. Few weeks ago during a training program he preached the senior reverend should be like God to the congregation, and the congregation must always listen and obey the senior reverend. The good news was… he was immediately rebuked by the reverend couple.

  2. Great thoughts here. I strongly agree that we must be careful to not allow guilt and fear to become tools that we use to play upon the heart strings of people. At the same time we need to certain that we bring people to a place of decision because if we do not come to that spot we have not helped our listeners to exact any life change.

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