Faith and emotional manipulation


We are all a product of our experiences. Two people can react to the same experience in very different ways, but nonetheless they are both formed by what they felt at a particular time. At times I’ve been accused of being a “super-Catholic,” because I never really fell away. I’ve been pondering this lately, and I think I know why.

My freshman year of high school, a non-denominational organization called Youth For Christ rocketed into prominence. I thought that meant it was for all Christians, and indeed, it seemed to cross boundaries. The most popular kids in school and plenty of the invisible majority walked the hallways wearing snappy black T shirts that proclaimed, “Jesus loves U2. Jesus: if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.”

One night they brought in a high-powered speaker. They filled up a large room with teenagers: in folding chairs, standing at the edges and the back. I don’t remember much about the talk itself, except that it scared me. It was about “almosters,” people who are almost good enough for Heaven, but not quite, and who thus will burn in fiery damnation for all eternity.

I started thinking of my faults, of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and what would happen if I forgot to confess something. I got more and more scared…but alongside the terror grew another, quieter sense of discomfort, one I couldn’t put words to.

Then came The Altar Call. You know: “If you want to profess Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, get up and go to the back, where we have people waiting to speak with you.” And suddenly, the shuffling chairs, the whispers and sniffles and scraping sneakers all around me, made me realize something that cut the legs from beneath the fear.

We were being manipulated. Manipulated, in the name of religion.

That moment of clarity changed everything. I sat in my hard folding chair with my eyes closed, my arms folded, and prayed. Prayed that I wasn’t imposing my will on God’s. That if this was truly from God, that I would be open to it, even if it felt wrong. I kept praying as the speaker backed off his altar call: if you feel like you want to make the profession, but you need help to do it…if you feel moved, but need more information…if you simply want to ask questions…

At this point, I felt a stab of disgust. I realized he wasn’t going to be satisfied until the room was empty, until every person had gone to get “saved.” And I knew, with absolute certainty, that this wasn’t how God worked.

I sneaked a peek. The holdouts were me and one other girl—also Catholic. At this last, shameless call, she gave in.

I did not.

When it was all over, the last holdout and I went to the leaders to express our displeasure with how non-inclusive this experience was, and asked if we could bring in somebody to offer another perspective on being not quite good enough for Heaven. Oh, no, they said, we’re not going to get into doctrines of individual denominations. That’s how you tear groups like this apart. I hadn’t really expected a Protestant to buy in to the idea of Purgatory, but still, it irked. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized why: their entire presentation represented a sliver of Christianity, and not the whole.

I never went back.

It’s tempting to impose the more mature faith of my thirties on my fourteen-year-old self. Of course I didn’t have it worked out then like I do now, just as I’ll have it worked out better when I’m sixty than I do today. But I do believe that experience sensitized me to emotional manipulation in the name of God. Maybe that’s why my TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) two years later fell so flat, and made me so suspicious of retreats in general: that entire weekend felt like a giant emotional manipulation.

I know that many people have found their faith bolstered by such experiences. No doubt true conversions have happened off of altar calls employing fear tactics. God can use any circumstance to achieve His purposes.

But mostly, I think it harms Christianity. Because when you get back out into the real world, that amazing little thing called intellect kicks in, and you start to see the flaws. You realize that you’ve been manipulated. And then what? What saves a fledgling faith when it realizes it is based on manipulation?

True faith is based on love, not fear. True faith is not contrary to reason, but incorporates it. True faith recognizes that God doesn’t take sides, that He exists in the middle, above, and all around every point of view in our petty human concerns.

This is the basis for my faith. What experiences have shaped yours?

22 thoughts on “Faith and emotional manipulation

  1. I think I’m at least a little impressed that your Catholic faith was strong enough that you were a “holdout”. I think I might have been one of those manipulated in that situation because I know that I’m easily manipulated, more than anything.

    Of course, NOW, I probably wouldn’t even entertain the gathering at all…but in high school? Yeah, sure.

    My faith has been shaped by my upbringing, but moreso, my experience as an adult. It is experiences like these that make me grateful that I was kind of “lost” as a kid and found my own way back because if I would have ever had the experience you relay here, then realized I’d been manipulated, it might have turned me away from God altogether (knowing my personality).

  2. I attended Catholic schools from 5th grade through university, so I would not have had your experience. The approach to faith that was taught was very rational. The affective part came through prayer, modeled by my father and also in church settings. Emotional manipulation was, if present at all, very gentle. That combination was enough to keep me Catholic.

  3. The thing that has always gotten me about those altar call things is that idea of not being saved one minute and being saved the next, and the great emotional high of being saved. As one baptized in the delivery room, the non-Christian portion of my life was very short, yet I wonder if I am missing something by never having a moment where I changed from out to in — and yet the fact that I am still here is a choice too–something that some people refuse to recognize.

  4. I agree with RAnn about the idea of “being saved vs not being saved”… and what irritated me about altar calls were the repetitive pressurings by clergymen for people to “get saved” over and over and over….

    So, if you were saved last week, last month, or last year, do you step forward again for another Jesus “fix”? ROFL

    But in all seriousness, I think the public spectacles of altar calls disgusted me most. My former church practically begged people to come forward to release their burdens, so that elders could pray with them. In full view of the entire congregation.
    If you were really lucky, your sufferings might even be shared with other church leaders so they could pray more effectively (as a group). O_o

    I view my personal burdens and sins as something akin to my medical history. If there is an issue, I would pray to God directly, search the Bible, and take my concern to a trusted religious leader for guidance.

    I’ve never practiced Catholicism, but I like the idea of Confession for its confidentiality. Something which is lacking in many Protestant churches, where public displays of guilt and redemption are encouraged every Sunday. 😛

    • I will say I think there’s a certain value in public confession–at least in theory; not sure how well it would play out in reality. If there is a weakness to the sacrament of Reconciliation, it is that it’s so easy. Maybe the other Catholics commenting can weigh in; I often feel let down, as if I’ve been let off the hook too easily–what spiritual benefit does a penance of two hail mary’s do, anyway?

      In reality, though, I’m afraid that public confession would simply lead to the confess-ee being judged and spurned. That seems to be how we react as human beings.

  5. Hi there! I was raised as Catholic as they come, but have since left the Church for my own reasons (I call myself a lapsed Catholic/sometime Episcopalian!) I’ve never embraced the evangelical “you must be saved” mentality. I had a similar experience to yours my freshman year in college when I attended a fundamentalist church w/my boyfriends family. The minister terrified me. I can still here him. “He’s coming for YOU. Are YOU ready? YOU BETTER GET READY! Now come up here and witness.”

    Very different from my somber, sacred Catholic services…and just not for me. Still not for me!

  6. Kate, you hit on a subject near to my heart as well. I came to realize the same thing after being a part of that culture for a while. Even while I was in the Christian rock band, and we also did the “altar call”, I realized that many who did this were manipulating and coercing those to whom they were supposed to be ministering.

    I came to feel the same disgust you felt. Many who respond to these types of “calls” are doing so for the very reasons you articulated, because they feel pressured, and that is a sad. Perhaps they could make the experience more genuine by encouraging those who don’t truly feel called to keep their seats. I know there are many who do experience “true” conversions as well, but I feel broken-hearted for those who simply gave in to the manipulation because I know they may very well fall hard at some point and may never recover.

    Faith cannot be forced, it must be discovered, and the relationship with God accepted, on a very private, personal level. It must burn into one’s heart and psyche before they can experience the joy and sense of fulfillment that true faith brings.

    Uncle Matt

  7. Andrea

    When I was a Junior in hIgh school, I was infatuated with this college freshman who was studying to be a preacher. He was interested in me, too, but qt the end of our first date, he told me we weren’t going to see each other any more because it would never suit for a preacher to have a Catholic wife. I spent a lot of time studying our Catechism, with the help of Scott Hahn, and then meeting this young man on Saturday mornings to debate religion. (wow, I had it bad!) I really learned a lot, stuff I never learned in religion class. Anyway, something that I *think* came from listening to Scott Hahn was this: Catholics have a way different perspective on salvation from those who ask “Have you been saved?” the Catholic answer to it is”YES, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved!” Essentially, on the day of my Baptism I became a child of God, so past tense saved. but we are called daily to be Christ to others, and in living our faith was are saved present tense. But it won’t be until my death when I face God, and I must believe that on that day I will be saved.

    I’m a little fuzzy on that last part, so someone (perhaps one of your ordained readers???) may want to clarify that for me.

    Anyway, I learned a lot, and although I didn’t marry that particular young man, I did ultimately marry a Protestant, so I use a lot of what I learned back when I was 16. It was quite a “confirmation” process for me, and although in collegeand just after I had my time away from the Church, it was more due to laziness than questioning the validity of Catholicism

    • Tamara had a guy she was having discussions with, too, for a while. I wonder if Cecelia did, too, or if I’m the only one who only fell for guys who had no interest in religion? LOL

  8. Because of Life Teen, in High School I never had the desire to seek out other religions. College changed all that for me. Though I never attended private school, and never felt like the weekly religious education classes made a lasting impact, I was suddenly surrounded by people of strong faiths that were not the same as mine and I was curious. I did not fall in line with the Catholic church at my school, and I started going to other churches with friends.

    My best friend is Baptist. I have learned more about my own faith and Catholicism from my conversations with her than I think I learned in all the retreats and classes I attended. I remember trying out some Baptist churches and had a similar experience at one in particular where they wanted us all to go to the front and “be saved”. We both felt uncomfortable and we left! We just walked out…maybe slinked out, but regardless, we did not stay.

    My roommate attended Church of Christ and she was always pushing us to go with her to church, and we did a couple of times. But to me, everything was so contradictory and did not make sense. I came back to Catholicism not because it’s perfect or the only “right” way, but because it fits for me. I guess it’s no surprise that I married a non-Catholic.

  9. evanscove

    I grew up attending charismatic evangelical churches, where emotionally charged services with “altar calls” at the end were standard fare. So I’m all too familiar with the kind of scenes you describe in your post.

    I have to agree with you that there’s always the danger of resorting to stage antics, emotionalism, or even outright manipulation to get people to walk down the aisle to the altar to “get saved.” In addition, another huge problem is that people who respond to such “altar calls” typically don’t make a lasting commitment to living a Christian life. Even many evangelicals have come to realize that the these methods yield very little fruit. Evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry has acknowledged that “90% of the people who have ‘made a decision for Christ’ at a crusade are not praying, reading their bibles, attending church, or living any differently one year later. But if you ask them if they are saved, many of them will say, ‘Oh yes. I went forward at the Billy Graham crusade and made a decision for Christ.’”

    The bottom line is that not only are the evangelistic methods you discuss in your blog post very questionable regarding their ethical soundness, they are definitely not very effective at producing lasting conversions to Christ. Some have dubbed these tactics as “decisionism.” Here are a couple of articles that show that it’s not just Catholics who find fault with these things:

    Anyway, I’m sure the evangelicals you encountered at that Youth for Christ meeting had perfectly good intentions and were genuinely concerned about people’s salvation. The problem is that they were going about it the wrong way.


    • Evan, yes to everything you have said. I do believe their intentions were “honorable.”

      In college I worked at Sears with a lovely girl, a devoted Southern Baptist. She and I talked a lot on faith matters, very cordially I might add, because I never felt that I was being targeted for conversion. I remember her saying she’d gone forward to be “saved” more than once, but it was only real the last time, and she remembered everything about it–she said you would always remember when it was real.

      I don’t have a moment like that, a moment I can point to in which I can say of my faith life, “everything was different after this.” Maybe that’s not true. There was a moment in the spring of 1995 after I had broken up with my fiance, and tears were pouring down my face at Mass, and I made an inner decision at that moment to get involved in music ministry again, come fall semester. That seems off-topic, but it was the external symbol of recommitment. Generally, though, I see conversion as a lifelong process.

      • evanscove

        Your last statement pretty much says it all. In the Catholic Church, conversion is seen as an ongoing process, rather than a once-for-all event. But evangelicals tend to see it as the latter. They emphasize having that one special moment when you “get saved” or “make a decision for Christ.” While I don’t know that it does any harm to couch things in such terms, I think they tend to place too much emphasis on having such an experience. Many Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) simply grew up believing in Christ, absorbing the faith as they were taught it. They didn’t necessarily have a special experience in which they prayed a “sinner’s prayer” and “asked Jesus into their hearts” (neither of which are taught in the New Testament, I might add).
        But I think perhaps the biggest problem with the type of meetings you describe in your post is that people (especially the young) can be caught up in the emotionalism generated by the ambiance at the meeting, but when they get back to everyday living, they can easily revert to acting just as they always did. So the bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter so much whether a person has a tearful experience of “getting saved” at an evangelistic rally but that they remain faithful to Christ and His Church for the long haul–and as you said, that’s a lifelong process.

  10. What you described leads too many people to believe that they are not holy or close to God unless they are feeling emotional about it. A priest cautioned me once, telling me that what we feel is not important. It’s what we will with the rational part of our being. Understanding that has gotten me though the times when I didn’t feel like praying or didn’t feel close to God. I just went ahead and did it anyway. Mother Teresa is a great example of someone who didn’t feel God and yet she went ahead and did His will.

    The emotional manipulation approach is contrary to free will and will eventually lead to discouragement in practicing our faith. Nothing is wrong with a person who feels nothing but commits to Christ with a clear intellect and will. God works differently in each soul and at times allows us what is called in spiritual direction “consolations.” But every good spiritual director will caution the directee on becoming dependent on these consolations because God can withdraw them at any time to do other work in the soul.

    I don’t believe in these “altar calls” because they impose on everyone present the definition the preacher attaches to it. Repentance based on sentiment is not lasting unless a true change of heart accompanies the sentiment. Only God knows about that and maybe it is because I was raised in the Catholic Church, but I believe it is private between me and God and not something to be put on display in front of a crowd.

    • This is an interesting reflection, Barb. I like the idea that faith is an act of will and intellect, independent of emotion. That strikes me as very valid. OTOH, we have to be careful not to discount emotion altogether; it is part of the human experience, part of the way God created us, and as such it has a place in the faith journey, too. Sometimes people act as if any expression of emotion is inappropriate in worship, in faith, which I think takes the truth you articulated and twists it.

  11. Have wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed this post and am now enjoying the discussion! Esp. regarding retreats: I had one or two good (Catholic) retreat experiences in high school, but I can now see how someone could see them, like the altar call, as emotionally manipulative. Interesting. I have a post of my own brewing on a similar topic, I think.

  12. Lindsey

    I’m Protestant and don’t agree with the emotional altar calls either. For a time I attended a charismatic church, and dreaded every one of them. I’ve never approached the front either – I only need to be saved once, and was as a child. That doesn’t mean I’m not “converting” my life to life for Jesus every day, but if I need to ask questions or confess, I know where to find my pastor when it’s not Sunday morning.

  13. When it’s phrased in the terms of “are you really sure” about almost anything, much less as something as all-encompassing as loving God, any honest answer almost always has to be no. Much of the time, we aren’t “sure” we really love God, even if we’re sure we want to love God. That’s why this particular form of emotional manipulation tends to be effective — especially with teens, who often aren’t “sure” of much of anything. I was pretty angry a year ago when I found out a speaker had done that to my youngest (then starting 8th grade). She was left questioning her own faith and she’s never known a time when she didn’t love God! (Her quiet and tender faith has often amazed me over the years.) It’s about “showing results” and not about any real concern for those so targeted.

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