Q: “I read an online article called ‘The Battle for Your Mind: Brainwashing Techniques Being Used On The Public‘ by Dick Sutphen. It really concerns me. Is it true that the Church uses brainwashing techniques to manipulate people into converting?” - Mitch S.
A: For those not familiar with the article, the author uses his expertise in hypnosis and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) to make the claim that Christian churches use brainwashing techniques which cause people to convert. He talks about other organizations who use it as well, but the focus is mainly on Christian churches and “revivalist preachers”. This article is in desperate need of a rebuttal from someone who shares his expertise. So, I’m giving one here.
I’m not going to link to his article because I don’t want to drive traffic to it. But, if you google the title of the article you should find it easily.
For starters, there is no such thing as actual brainwashing. If there were, our military would be using it. It doesn’t take much research online and through credible publications to discover that brainwashing is a myth. The military in the past has done a significant amount of research into this, and it simply isn’t real. That’s why they use water boarding.
The closest thing to brain washing is what the Chinese and North Koreans did back during the Korean War. But it required imprisonment, torture, extreme conditions, sleep deprivation, it only worked on a small percentage of POW’s, and those whom it did work on reverted back to a normal state once they were rescued from the prison.
Our human mind is created in a way that makes us vulnerable to many manipulations, but those manipulations are all around us every day, and most of them involve our brain manipulating itself as a type of defense. Salespeople utilize them all time. We all use them every day and don’t even realize it. Because of this, it would be impossible to do anything without technically using some kind of persuasion. But, as for Christian churches using some kind of extreme form of manipulation to trick people into “conversions”, that is simply not true.
Dick claims that many people who have been told they are going to hell are so upset that they commit suicide. This doesn’t make any logical sense. Suicide is a horribly tragic act, and I do not mean to make light of it. But, if any of these people committed suicide, they obviously did not believe the “hellfire” message. If they believed it, they would respond by doing everything they could to make sure they didn’t die!
If someone believed they were going to go to hell when they die, why would they kill themselves so they could go to hell quicker? If they really believed it, they would “convert”! That, according to the message of the “hellfire” preachers, is the only way to avoid going to hell.
3. Negativity turns people away
I don’t mean to attack Dick at all, but if he truly has the expertise that he does then he should know that people do not respond positively to negative messages. The natural human response to a negative message is to ignore it. I’ve been a part of the church my entire life and I’m very familiar with the church growth movements. The truth is, the more negative a church is, the fewer people who attend.
When people hear a negative message, many leave. In fact, part of the “Purpose Driven Church” movement instructs churches to not teach anything negative in order to grow the church. Look at Joel Osteen’s massive church! He’s little more than a motivational speaker. And the personal development and self-business seminars and “cults” that Dick mentions so often in his article teach the attendees to avoid all negativity and keep coming back for motivational messages. They grow because of the attraction to positive messages. Negative messages turn people away.
4. Revivals are for believers
Dick keeps accusing revivalist services as using brainwashing tactics to create converts. Now, it’s true that there are certain faith healers, televangelists, and prosperity gospel preachers who definitely use trickery and manipulative tactics to get money from well-meaning people. These people are despicable and will receive the harshest judgment from God when the time comes.
But, true revivals are for believers. That’s why they are called RE-vivals! The purpose is to bring life back to believers who have gotten complacent. So, yeah, they use music and exciting preachers to bring an energy back to the church goers who need it. They are not meant to be primarily evangelistic.
Hell-fire messages at revivals result in a positive response because it reminds the saved what they’ve been saved from. But, revivals always end with a positive message. That’s the point. Revival preachers are like motivational speakers for Christians.
Now, there have been revival movements in history. I won’t get into the history, but in these cases, the revivals spread like wildfire and attracted many new Christians because of the joy exhibited, not the negativity. We are likely to see it happen again in the not too distant future because when people are suffering and they see others celebrating with joy, that makes a strong impact! The ability to have joy in the midst of suffering is very attractive.
5. Services don’t convert people
I almost laughed when I read Dick’s article, because not only do churches not use brainwashing to convert people, churches are horribly ineffective at converting people! Go to any church who uses any of these “tactics” and ask the pastor what percentage of their normal attenders are outside converts (members who weren’t raised Christian or were Christians before they started attending). The pastor will hang his head and give you a tiny number.
Go throughout the congregation after the service and ask around. See if you can find one person who is an outside convert. It won’t be easy and likely you won’t find a single person. If you do find someone, ask them how they came to know the Lord and almost certainly they will tell you it was because of a relationship they had with someone who was a Christian.
Church services are horrible at converting people. There are a few mega-churches who do it well, but other than that, the numbers are awful.
6. Converts are usually temporary
Just like the POW’s in the Korean War, those who do get saved because they got swept up in an emotional service usually backslide later on. Only those who made the decision because of the pulling of the holy spirit and are willing to make a complete life change and give control of their life over to God last.
It’s not like God is asking for a subscription to a magazine. He’s asking for Lordship! You don’t give up complete control of your life because you get caught up in the music and emotion of a service. That’s a sacrifice you have to remake every single day, even when it’s really hard.
7. Who exactly is he talking about?
In this article Dick mixes up “revivalist churches” (whatever that is), faith healers, regular churches, televangelists, charismatic churches, cults, motivational self-help groups, and pyramid scheme type companies. He seems to lump them all in together, so it’s very difficult to know who he’s talking about. The truth is that they are all very different.
I’m assuming he hasn’t been to many “normal” churches. His view of churches is based on faith healers and similar types of manipulative services as well as the occasional charismatic church. I’ve been in church all my life and I don’t remember seeing any of the stuff he’s talking about in any of the churches I’ve attended (and I’ve been to a bunch).
Some of what he says regarding Charismatic churches I can agree with. Many of the reactions in those services are based on hypnotic/suggestion principles. But, saying talking in tongues is based on suggestion is a lot different than claiming people are brainwashed into becoming “converts”. These aren’t the churches who are growing. The growing churches are modern with contemporary music and look/sound significantly different than traditional churches.
8. Cults only get people desperate to belong
The vast majority of people will not be tempted to join cults. Only the most suggestible people and those desperate to belong get sucked into these types of groups. The majority of people either see right through it or at least get a very uncomfortable feeling around them.
I’m sure the church gets some of the same types of people that cults do, but most of the people who attend churches are normal, everyday people. It’s been my observation that really suggestible people tend to be drawn more to the charismatic end of the spectrum. I don’t have any research to back that up or anything, it’s just an observation.
It’s true of any group that the members self-manipulate to reassure themselves that they are in the right group. It’s true of sports fans, state residents, political parties, and any other group you can think of. It’s human nature. Members of all religions (including atheism) suffer from it. So, while I can’t say that Christians don’t self-manipulate I can say that they don’t do it any more than any other group.
9. NLP doesn’t work!
The rest of the article goes into detail about how NLP is used by churches to brainwash people. There’s only one problem. NLP is bogus. It doesn’t work. Trust me, I know.
I’ve been on the inside. I’ve been behind the curtain. I’ve twice been published in two of the most respected books in mentalism. NLP is a ruse. I know it doesn’t work because if it worked we’d be using it. Instead, mentalists use completely different techniques to get amazing results and pretend they used NLP to do it.
Dick may believe in NLP and he may have studied it in depth. But, he doesn’t use it. I know he doesn’t use it, because it doesn’t work. If you don’t believe me, read some beginner’s NLP techniques online and go try them out. The only thing that NLP is good for is making the connection between eye movement and lying. Everything else is a pipe dream.
As for hypnotism, Dick should know that hypnotism only works on those who believe it will work. The secret behind hypnotism is that it isn’t real. Well, at least it’s not real the way it’s presented. It’s real if people believe it’s real, because it’s their suggestibility that causes hypnotism to work. They believe they will go into hypnotic trance where their conscious mind is asleep but their subconscious mind is listening, so that’s exactly what happens.
You can’t hypnotize someone without their knowledge, and you can’t hypnotize someone who doesn’t want to be hypnotized. Period. That comes from the mouth of some of the most respected and well-known hypnotists.
This is my field of expertise and I’m speaking to you the direct truth. Persuasion, brain-washing, etc. just does not exist the way the author of this article presents it.
Dick, if you happen to read this, I hope to be able to share with you the truth about Christianity someday. It’s a lot different than you think. I promise you!