Three small boys in a poverty section of town are standing in front of a grocery store talking vigorously, gesticulating with their arms. Then all three enter the grocery.
One goes to one side of the store and the other two go to the other side of the store. A few minutes elapse, then a loud noise of people fighting arises from the side of the store where the two boys went. The manager and security guards race to the scene.
In the meantime, the boy who went to the other side of the store — away from the commotion — saunters out with enough food under his jacket to feed all three boys. Shortly afterward the security guards and the manager escort the two boys to the door and “throw them out.” After all they had not done anything but get into a fight in the store! The three boys unite down the street and, when completely out of sight, begin eating the food.
That is manipulation. No one can approve stealing; even those who are very hungry, although they disapprove stealing, still do it. They do so in order to survive.
Consider another story. A sixteen-year-old girl is afraid of her mother, or a sixteen-year-old boy of his father. In either case, the young person knows that the parents are constantly at war with each other. When one or the other parent “gets on the case” of the young person, subtly he or she shifts the argument to the uninvolved parent and gets the parents fighting with each other. The end result is that they leave him or her alone.
These are cases about the roots of manipulation. When survival is all important, you become intensely clever at manipulating other people. Yet as you grow older, and survival is already accomplished, what energizes manipulation as an adult in you?
Cleverness and the love of power keep manipulation as a way of life alive. This way of life may persist even after you have entered the ministry. You need not have been raised in poverty or had parents who were continually fighting. You may have had heroes or heroines in your education who “schooled” you in the politics of manipulating congregations (or denominations or local power figures) into doing what you wanted them to do whether they really wanted to do so or not. As a result this became a “second nature” lifestyle of your ministry.
Then, too, survival may still be an issue. Lay persons in your congregations may have sworn “neither to eat or to drink until they have your resignation.” It is you or them! The ethical question facing you is how to combine the wisdom of the serpents with the harmlessness of the doves without relying on subterfuge, clever manipulation, and deception. How do you maintain authenticity in your person and preaching in the face of the clever manipulation and deviousness all around you?
Clever Manipulation in the Preaching Event
At this point it is important to explore some ways in which clever manipulation easily becomes a part of the preaching event and ways to eliminate it. Manipulation and cleverness are inherently deceptive. This is the very antithesis of the authenticity of the preacher of the Gospel. As the Apostle Paul said, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).
Clever manipulation is a form of “underhandedness” in the preaching situation. To examine ourselves for this quite conscious behavior and to renounce it assures that we shall enter into the temple of the Lord with clean hands and a pure heart, with a soul that has not lifted itself up to vanity nor sworn deceitfully. To come to terms with the vanity, the arrogance, and the grinning sense of power over the “mere mortals” to whom we preach is a serious exercise in spiritual growth.
Consider some concrete examples of the presence of clever manipulation and ways to move our sermons to authenticity.
You have a clique of people in the church playing a power game with you. (A “game” is a structured form of cleverness and manipulation. Read Eric Berne’s little book, The Games People Play. Church is an uneven playing field for such games.)
One way you are tempted to join into such a game is to use your sermon as a way of “answering” or “getting back” at the handful of critics. When you do this, ninety percent of the audience look nonplussed, because they ordinarily do not know what on earth you are talking about.
The other ten percent are the inner circle of the church leadership that are “in the know” as to the power game being played. Their reaction is usually to silently yell “Foul” because you have caught them in a situation where they cannot talk back. You have indeed played unfair for that very reason, although most of them are irrational enough that they do not make the distinction.
When you are tempted to do this, “just say no.” Move your message to a higher plane. This does not mean that these critics should go unanswered. The way to do this is to follow the injunctions of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 and see if you can get them to listen. Always bear in mind Paul’s guidance in Galatians 6:1-5, with the objective of restoring them gently, looking to yourself lest you be tempted.
If you are a pastor of a church with a congregational form of government, I would suggest that Jesus’ words “tell it to the church” be done first with the official board of the church with a specific reference to these passages. Only as the last resort should this become a matter for congregation-wide discussion.
In such last ditch attempts to solve the problem, it seems to me imperative that you do so outside the preaching situation and under circumstances in which people have an opportunity to dialogue and talk back. Many of them are at peace after they have “had their say.” The preaching situation should not be used for dealing with such conflict resolution. It does not resolve it; it exacerbates it.
This example makes it obvious that members of your congregation in considerable numbers are manipulators also. Whereas you will set an example by not “throwing bricks” at them from the congregation, nevertheless, when the heat is off any burning issue that tempts you to misuse the pulpit, the issue of manipulation and cleverness needs to be addressed in a sermon.
You could do this by choosing a topic such as “Gently Getting People to Listen.” You can use as a text Matthew 19:15-20 and Galatians 6:1. Three times in the Matthean account, Jesus states the purpose of face-to-face encounter of people against whom we have a cause as “if he listens.” In Galatians, Paul urges that we do this gently with the goal of restoring them. He underscores the temptation that we may be suffering at the time. We may be projecting upon them the fault that we ourselves are being tempted with at the time!
Another occasion for manipulation and cleverness — and the loss of authenticity — is just the opposite of the example above. In this case, you are an agreed-upon hero or heroine of the congregation. They tell you; you know it.
In the preaching event, you are caught up in this realization. Therefore, you can lose authenicity by charming your audience. The preaching event deteriorates into a mutual admiration society!
Preachers can set themselves to fascinate and allure their audience, as if by a spell, to love and to submit to them, to “wrap them around their finger” with a subtle seduction. This becomes a clever manipulation. A fine line of distinction runs between forthright, honest persuasion, such as Paul and Barnabas used in the first place, and clever manipulation of a spellbound audience.
However, the obverse of this is the authenticity of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. After they preached, the people of Lystra said: “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.” Paul’s and Barnabas’ reaction was not to bask in this adulation. Rather “when they heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude, crying, ‘Men, why are you doing this? We are also men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the earth and the sea and all that is in them'” (Acts 14:11, 15).
They cut through the self-deception of the people of Lystra with a candor and simplicity, pointing away from themselves to the living God. To preach authentically is to do this. To resort to manipulation and cleverness is to wallow in the idolatry of the people and use them for one’s own gratification.
In crafting sermons to address this, many ministers do not have themselves and their congregations in mind. They have their most recent predecessors as an example! You will be the rare, authentic pastor who preaches such a sermon when you are being idolized.
You can choose a topic such as “The Hazards of Preacher Worship.” You could identify yourself as a fellow struggler with temptation, as a fellow sufferer of the slings and arrows of ill fortune, as a fellow student with them under the lordship of Christ and the tutelage of the Holy Spirit.
The major hazard of preacher worship is that when they find you have clay feet, they will desecrate you and start looking for another perfect preacher who does not exist. When they find that person, they may be sure that he or she is a figment of their imagination and not real.
Yet another temptation to clever manipulation is the money factor in religious life. The massive real estate investment of many churches forces some pastors to the wall to pay the bills for congregational decisions to construct buildings. This kind of “living beyond our means” often calls for the kind of pastor who can lure and allure money out of people. It is overshadowed by the excesses of recent expose’s of television preachers. Nevertheless, in a quieter and less visible way, the pressure is on many parish pastors to manipulate their congregations through their sermons to pay and pay and pay.
I remember vividly the antithesis of this in a sermon Robert Mckracken preached at Riverside Church in New York. His sermon was entitled: “Love is a Spendthrift.” His text was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
He spoke of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the lavish, uninhibited giving of God that we might live in His light, life, and love. At the end of his sermon, as almost a footnote, he said that today was the year of the annual pledging to the budget to fulfill the ministries of the church.
Of course he had the freedom to do just that. The elaborate cathedral in which he was preaching was already paid for and its maintenance endowed by John D. Rockefeller. The generosity of this wealthy man made it possible for the pastor of that church to face his people with the gospel uncluttered by manipulation of the congregation for money. The rest of us, however, without such generosity, are called upon to insist that we live within our means, letting each generation build what it really needs without being held captive to enormous debt that limits our ministry to people.
The obverse side of this “push for money” is the ancient virtue of austerity. This begins in our own way of life and continues in the authenticity of our message from the pulpit.
It is easy for ministers to be beguiled by the gifts that people give. Simplicity and austerity are forgotten as they live lives of “entitlement.” How much better for a minister to direct unusual gifts to the church itself rather than to take them, to live a style of life of simplicity that does not call attention to itself.
Then you could choose a sermon entitled: “Austerity: In His Steps.” You could choose as a text the Apostle Paul’s witness in Philippians 4:11-14. For materials you might turn to Richard Foster’s books Freedom of Simplicity and Celebration of Discipline.
In these affluent days of false prosperity, the wisdom of a deacon farmer in my student parish would be well heeded. As we retired for the night in his home, he said: “Anything you see and need is yours; if you can’t find what you need, call us and we’ll help you look for it. If we can’t find it, we’ll teach you how to get along without it!” What authenticity and freedom from deceit!
May you and I be authentic, forthright, and loving in our living and preaching.

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