Managing Manipulation

October 3rd, 2009

We all have a favorite manipulative story, and mine is that of the drawbridge operator and his son. The man sits in his little box and lifts the bridge when a boat comes by and lowers it for the passing trains.

One day after lifting the bridge for a boat, he goes to lower it again for a coming train and notices his son (his only son) playing in the gears. The son is too far away for the father to warn him, and the father must make the horrific choice: allow the unsuspecting passengers on the train to die, or kill his son. He chooses to kill his son so that the people on the train will live. This is then compared to what God did in sending Jesus to die for us so that we might live. We'll never know just how many thousands of people have made decisions for Christ as a result of hearing this heart-rending story.

No doubt God has used this story to bring people to the Kingdom. My problem is that it relies on an emotionally manipulative tug that doesn't quite mirror a biblical view of God or of the Gospel. In essence, the listeners are drawn in by pity for this poor father who had to make this tragic choice on our behalf. Certainly, in both this story and the biblical one, both parents had sons who died so others might live. But in the biblical account, Jesus chooses to die; he isn't an unwilling victim. Likewise, God wasn't forced into the decision to offer a child against God's will. Isaiah 53:10 says, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.” It was a purposeful act, not done out of desperation. God doesn't need our pity; God deserves our devotion.

Discipleship, not Manipulation

So whether it's this story or the one where the father must allow his son's body to be drained of all its blood to fight a nationwide epidemic or any of the others out there, we must be careful how we use them to call students to faith. We're bound to get momentary, guilt-induced decisions that don't necessarily result in lifelong disciples. Some students will figure, I might as well cover my bases and pray this prayer. What harm could it do? The harm is contained in communicating to people that they're heaven-bound Christians when there's no evidence that this is the case.

John Wesley said that this is akin to sending people to hell with smiles on their faces. Certainly there's a place in each of our ministries for calling students to put their faith in Christ, but we must follow Jesus' example of a call to discipleship, not just an impulsive decision to pray a prayer. We're to make disciples, teaching them to obey Jesus—a crucial piece of the Great Commission that Dallas Willard has called the Great Omission.

We cannot call students to faith in Jesus without first encouraging them to count the cost, as Jesus did in Luke 14. Only a fool would start building a tower without determining whether it could be built to completion, Jesus warns. Likewise, it would be foolish to teach a student that she need only respond to an emotional plea and pray a simple prayer to be a Christian.

They Came to Christ…or Did They?

Early on in my youth ministry career, I ended my message one night with a compelling call for students to put their faith in Jesus. I asked the students to close their eyes, and I explained that if they wanted to know that God forgave them, they just had to pray the familiar Sinner's Prayer along with me. I then asked them, with all eyes closed, if anyone had prayed that prayer for the first time, to signal that to me by raising a hand. Two students raised their hands: a guy who had never been there before, and a girl for whom one of our student leaders had been praying for months.

In the days to come, as word spread that these students had “come to faith,” tears of joy were shed. But as the weeks wore on, and neither of these students returned regularly, it raised questions among our group. Were these students actually saved? What did their Sinner's Prayers mean? Were angels really rejoicing with us that night, and if so, how come they couldn't follow through and make sure they stuck with it? Most of us have probably had similar experiences (and questions) along the way.

I'm not suggesting that the answer is to swing to the other extreme and draw a line in the sand every week, daring students to step over it. A call to a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus should happen naturally in the context of the community of your group as students are drawn into fellowship and service with one another.

If all Jesus cared about from his disciples was a “decision for Christ,” they could've kept their day jobs. Rather, he asked them to follow him for three years and learn from him how to live a life of abundance in the service of the Kingdom of God. We cannot let manipulative stories be a substitute for a call to a lifestyle—one characterized by making a decision for Jesus not in a single, emotional moment, but by making that decision over and over again, every single day.


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