Spiritual seduction

I was just reading Erik Hanson's telling and well-told testimony of life as a disaffected child of the Covenant, "Bible Porn" (at KtB), and his description of the final altar call at the big ECCA youth conference pulled me up short. I've been there -- not at CHIC, but at equivalent events in other parts of the evangelical subculture -- I recognize the scene. Low lights, soft music, gentle urging that Jesus loves you, you should give yourself to him...

EW, EW, EW, EW, EW! A wave of nausea, like the one that I experienced upon translating the first book of Ovid's Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love," a manual of seduction), swept over me. There is no significant difference between the tactics that evangelical youth ministries often use to elicit a faith commitment from teenagers and the tactics that a sexual predator might use to elicit a sexual encounter! One of our most significant spiritual formation strategies amounts to a form of seduction!

Now, I'm a bit torn about what to make of this, because I don't think that emotional appeals have no place in evangelism. I think that faith and spirituality have everything to do with our affections, not only our intellectual commitments, and that spiritual formation needs to address the whole person and not only the intellect. I believe that the power of music to move the spirit in a way that transcends logical argumentation can be a valuable and appropriate tool for spiritual growth.

But I don't believe that the end justifies the means, that seduction for the sake of a faith commitment is good because a faith commitment is good and because Jesus really does love the you, but seduction for the sake of illicit sex is bad because illicit sex is bad and the seducer doesn't really love you. How are we to adjudicate the fine line between persuasion and manipulation? Is there any place for the hard-sell altar call anymore?

I am a conflicted conversionist. I still believe in the importance of conversion, if for no other reason than it is one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism and I am resolutely evangelical. Yet I grow more and more uncomfortable with a punctilliar notion of conversion as a dramatic emotional/spiritual experience at a distinct moment in time. I am more and more convinced that authentic conversion must be an on-going conversion of life, a leaving of the old self and putting on of the new, a way of life rather than a moment in history. I do not want to say that decisive moments cannot be an important part of a person's spiritual life, but abstracting such moments and elevating them as the Only Thing That Matters is not only insufficient, it is self-defeating. If there is a place for the altar call, the appeal for a decisive commitment (and I believe that there is), it must be in the context of the life of faith in the church.

But then, what does this mean for the task of forming teenagers in the faith?


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