Let’s talk about how you manipulate people with religion! (I know… it just got weird. Bear with me!)
My first vocational ministry job was as a youth pastor. There was a local summer camp the church attended every year, so my first year on staff at that Church, I took my teens to the summer camp. As a youth minister at summer camp, you spend a lot of time hanging out behind the scenes, so it wasn’t terribly surprising that I overheard a conversation that made me a little sick to my stomach.
It was probably halfway through the week, and one of the adult volunteers was talking with the worship leader for the week. Apparently, he didn’t think the week was going very well because he said,
“This week hasn’t been very spiritual so far. I think tonight we should do an altar call, to really punch it up.”
If you never attended an Evangelical summer camp and aren’t familiar with the ‘altar call’ phenomenon there, let me explain it to you:
You play some music, usually at the end of a long worship service. Often the message has been particularly emotional. The pastor will invite people to come forward to make decisions – for salvation, calls to ministry, life changes, etc.
I want to be careful not to denigrate all altar call experiences. Having a particular moment to mark an important faith decision is invaluable – I received my own call to ministry in an altar call experience, and I know many wonderful people who can point to an altar experience as when they said Yes to Jesus’ invitation to faith.
But altar calls can also be incredibly manipulative, as that summer camp experience demonstrates.
I’ve also met plenty of pastors and leaders who use the high emotion of the altar call moment to manipulate people into making decisions they’re not ready for or haven’t considered fully.
In fact, the altar call experience is a pretty good microcosm of the problems with religion in general: there’s something good, beautiful and true about religion that welcomes the outsider, lifts up the downtrodden, gives voice to the silenced.
There’s a reason Karl Marx described religion as the ‘opiate of the masses’ – too often religion becomes a tool of oppression, supporting those in power and silencing those who dare oppose them.
Let’s talk about religious leaders and how we can learn to spot the rotten ones. About what seeking that beautiful religion looks like. Because we’ll see that Jesus is actually much closer to us than we ever imagined, inviting us to follow him into new life right where we are.