Science in Christian Perspective



Behaviorism in the Sanctuary
Donald Ratcliff
Gallipolis Developmental Center
Gallipolis, Ohio 45631

From: JASA 34 March 1982): 47-49.

The "normal church service" cannot, of course, be universally described, let alone be psychologically analyzed. Services vary widely from church to church, even within a single doctrinal or denominational group. However, several practices can be analyzed which are quite widespread in various churches.

It is far too easy to overgeneralize the psychological implications of a particular practice. In some contexts an action can be beneficial and healthy, while in another context it may prove to be contrary to the basic goals of Christianity. Likewise, reinforcement may be found to vary widely-what reinforces one group may be seen as totally inappropriate and even punishment to another.

The individual should exercise caution in applying these concepts to one's own church or group, since what is described in this article may refer to extreme and unusual church behaviors. A particular action performed occasionally may be perfectly healthy, while that same action may become harmful if done repeatedly. As psychologists have known for years, unhealthy behavior is often normal behavior taken to an extreme or practiced in an inappropriate situation.

Pulpit Manipulation?

Most preachers desire a positive response to their preaching. Change is a crucial concern at this point-if the congregation members are not in some way different as they leave church, most pastors would concede that time and effort were wasted.

Some in the area of psychology have suggested that this desire for change has resulted in some preachers going so far as to use manipulation and even brainwashing techniques. In an early book, Search for Reality, Gary Collins wrote of the group pressure of some church services. In behavioral terms, the preacher rpight speak convincingly of potential punishments (hell or condemnation) for those who have not participated in certain behaviors (accepting Christ or coming forward). Combined with a highlycharged presentation using emotion-provoking stories during altar calls, persons may respond without being fully conscious of why they respond. They come forward, but for the wrong reason.

Collins has pointed out an area of real concern to those who believe that Christian ethics must go with Christian preaching. The right of people to make their decisions about Christ without coercion from the preacher or anyone else must be respected. Decisions can be influenced by a speaker, but the preacher should permit a decision contrary to his views. For a person to make a decision without real alternatives freely considered is manipulation, not real commitment.

Manipulation taken to an extreme is called brainwashing. While totalitarian brainwashing has been given a great deal of attention in the press, an overlooked aspect of brainwashing is that decisions are often temporary. When the person is allowed to leave the brainwashing environment with its punishments and reinforcers, beliefs often disappear within a fairly short time. This is primarily because such ideas are no longer socially reinforced. The return to conventional values is usually prompt and permanent. Similarly, many "converts" in religious services quickly backslide and lose interest in church functions and goals. Attendance may or may not continue, but attitudes become more like those before "conversion". (Collins, 1969)

We must be careful not to condemn all altar calls or persuasion techniques. Christians must influence others and reach our world effectively, but without compromising ethical matters. There comes a time in scriptural terms to shake the dust off of our feet and go elsewhere (Matthew 10: 14) rather than going to more and more extreme methods to get an outward response that might not be real conversion. Even in the spiritual realm, the end (the appearance of conversion by coming forward) does not justify the means (manipulative high pressure preaching). Such manipulation is characteristic of cults (see Enroth, 1977).

Influence without manipulation is possible and desired. We must be able to give a reasonable and effective defense for our beliefs (I Peter 3:15). But when the decision is not fully the result of responsible and conscious thinking of the convert, ethical concerns have been compromised, and the likelihood of long-term attitude change is diminished. Some are changed and truly converted under high pressure, but many others soon lose their beliefs or even lose respect for Christianity because of the manipulation involved. True Christian commitment is always voluntary, never forced.

While commitment is possible during highly emotional service, a negative by-product may be produced. Since initial commitment is paired with emotional response, the person may come to associate emotions with spirituality. Repeated emotional conversions further provide such associations in the forms of classical conditioning: emotional behavior is conditioned with spiritual attitudes and feelings. Testimonies may be given accompanied by emotional display, thereby further conditioning emotional behavior with spirituality. Eventually the person may come to believe himself or herself less spiritual or even not a Christian because of lags in emotional feelings. This tendency is too common to be ignored, and it can be directly traced to such conditioning in church services. Even though we may state that emotions are not needed, intense altar services and emotional testimonies communicate otherwise; people tend to be more affected by what they see than what they hear talked about.

Invitational hymns may also be classically conditioned with behavioral responses. I have personally experienced the situation where such songs as "Just as I Am" have resulted in a desire to go forward in a service. Yet, upon careful and open consideration of my spiritual condition, I realized there was no reason to go forward. This tendency. has been confirmed by others I have spoken with. The desire to go forward was most likely not prompted by the Holy Spirit, but rather was a classically conditioned response. Perhaps this helps explain why some people will repeatedly go forward at an invitation without a clear understanding of why they did so. This is particularly true with young children, but also occurs with others.

In some church services, the evangelist may say "if just one more person will come forward, we'll sing another verse." This may be placing a great deal of pressure upon those in attendance to come forward, and for the wrong reason-to be sure others won't miss heaven. The potential punishment implied, as well as the clear specification of desired behaviors and subsequent reinforcements (other persons becoming Christians) results in the behavior of coming forward. The thinking of potential reinforcers and punishments may occur on an unconscious level, sometimes referred to as coverence.

Unfortunate classical conditioning of children often takes place in church. Christianity Today, (Dobbins, 1975) states that children come to associate fear and pain with the church service. While a pastor might desire that fear and pain be associated with hell and sin, these emotional responses can easily generalize to the church surroundings and church-related persons (particularly the pastor). The writer of the Christianity Today article suggests that this may be a factor in the number of children who leave the church before adulthood. Do some extreme sermons on the last days and hell produce counterproductive long-term conditioning?

Too often children come to associate church with pain in other ways also. The limits of the child's attention span and need for visual aids clash with the typical sermon and many Sunday School situations. Children often are punished or scolded in church when they cannot meet the impossible demands of parents and teachers for prolonged attention. Such punishments come to be associated with the church and religion in general, and sermons specifically. Another common aversive for the child is teaching and curriculum that are developmentally inappropriate (see Ballard & Fleck, 1975).

In contrast to the above, the Christianity Today article states:

Centuries ago Solomon observed, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). The symbolic Hebrew language used in this passage pictures a mother cow helping her newborn calf survive by licking the calf's Bps with milk, thereby creating in the calf a taste for milk. The obvious implication is that if one is to help a child to have a healthy appreciation of spiritual matters when he is older, it is necessary to create in him a taste for spiritual things when he is young.
Positive reinforcement without coercion is a much better motivator for spiritual living than is punishment and threat of punishment, in nearly all cases.

Positive Functions of the Church Service
Having focused on a number of possible negatives in some churches, we must also give our attention to the positive values of
church services from a behavioral view. For example, people are often attracted by "friendly churches". But this generalized remark can be broken down in behavioral terms which can produce a more complete understanding of church effectiveness.

Reinforcement may be present in the form of peers who influence the individual outside of the church as well. Griffin in his book The Mind Changers relates this influence in his conversion. A youth group that was attractive and enthusiastic about spiritual matters influenced him more and more until on a retreat he gave his heart to Christ. Manipulation was not involved, but rather he came to identify with the young group and their influence finally helped him make the step. Reinforcing approximations of behavior is termed "shaping".

On the church level, this suggests that youth should have an active part in services if the church desires to reach and influence young people. Peer identification would be more likely, and the underlying peer group reinforcement would achieve increased attendance and participation. One church with which this writer is familiar regularly has their young people lead the evening service. The sermons are not profound, but they are enthusiastic and the church has large youth audiences.

This principle holds true not only for youth, but also for other segments of the church congregation. Participation by a variety of persons should produce more group reinforcement for spiritual acitivity. The myth that biblical churches are to be controlled by members of a "spiritual elite" is happily being dispelled, encouraged by such books as The Problem of Wineskins.

Other reinforcements for church attendance are common in "friendly churches". A handshake and friendly conversation can be reinforcing to the lonely person. Testimonies in services add to Froup cohesion and internalizing of beliefs. Reinforcements during and after testimonies-in the form of Amens and other responses-will tend to result in repetition of the testimony behavior.

Music can be a reinforcing form of behavior. The uniting of enthusiastic voices can be both exhilarating and provide a strong desire for repetition of the experience. This may, in part, explain the strong interest in lively songs in some churches.

Reinforcement among church members is a key to Christian fellowship. Behind the concern in the Scriptures for Christians meeting together, is the tendency for groups to verbally and nonverbally reinforce individual members. Because of the strong influence a group can have on individuals, the regular assembling results in a stronger doctrinal and behavioral consensus. In a Bible-oriented group, the group would therefore be more likely to conform to biblical ideals. This is focused upon in the verse, "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (renewal through individual and group study of the Word)-Rom. 12:2.

Several other portions of the Bible speak to the influences upon individuals through the fellowship of believers. Ephesians 4:32 emphasizes being kind and compassionate to fellow believers-strong reinforcers for group membership and participation. Reinforcement principles appear to be behind the thought in Hebrews 10:24-25: "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another. . . "

Churches also influence persons through modeling. in church, as well as in other areas of life, we learn best by example. While ultimately Christ must be our example, we are undoubtedly influenced by those in church also. Paul focused upon the need for adequate models by stating "In everything show them an example by doing what is good" (Titus 2:7), and even suggested his own life as a suitable model (I Thessalonians 1:6-7 and 11 Timothy 3:10). All too often, churches unknowingly model bickering or complacency instead of the kingdom of God.

An extremely important aspect of the influence in churches is that of reinforcing desired behavior. Giving Amens to false doctrines in a testimony may undercut a firm biblical base for the church. While the Bible states that those weak in some areas should be accepted rather than argued with (Romans 14:1, 14:19, 15: 1), reinforcement should be given which will best help move the person toward biblical views, perhaps through shaping techniques. Pastors should also beware of inadvertantly punishing in churches, such as asking for hands of those who did not invite others to church, punishing attendance and truth telling by embarrassment.

Pastors are not immune to the influences of reinforcement and punishment, of course. The congregation gives its approval or disapproval through eye contact and other forms of attention, as well as verbal reinforcement both during and after the service. The most direct form is the custom in some churches of saying such phrases as "Amen", "Hallelujah", and similar statements. While such expressions are probably considered by church people to be directed to God, they undoubtedly also have an effect on what the pastor or evangelist talks about. The icy stare, talking to others, or gazing out the window likewise has a punishing influence (or at least is not reinforcing).

From a behavioral view, positive feedback on a sermon or other pastoral activities encourages those behaviors. On the other hand, punishment may not be effective in causing change unless the pastor recognizes viable alternatives. Criticism of the sermon may not result in modification of that behavior unless the pastor becomes aware of other alternatives which he sees as worthwhile, for which he can be suitable reinforced.

Reinforcement certainly influences pastors in unconscious ways. The story is told of a teacher who was unknowingly shaped into lecturing without notes by his students. When the teacher spoke from notes, students looked out the window, never paid attention, and talked with one another. When the teacher gave side comments or told stories, students gave their full attention to his every word. Needless to say, this system of combined reinforcement and punishment quickly resulted in the teacher telling stories and giving side comments more and more, at least until he found out about the scheme! (Dobson, 1970)

Behavioral influences are just as real in the church as in the school classroom. Pastors, as well as Sunday school teachers and laymen, are influenced by contingencies regardless of whether anyone is aware of them. Hopefully, by being more aware of environmental influences, individuals can choose those influences which are most desireable in building the Kingdom of God.


Ballard, S. and Fleck, J. "The Teaching of Religious Concepts". Journal of Psychology and Theology, Summer, 1975.

Collins, Gary. Search for Reality: Psychology and the Christian. Santa Ana, Calif.: Vision House Pub., 1969.

Dobbins, Richard, "Too Much Too Soon". Christianity Today, Oct. 24, 1975.

Dobson, James. Dare to Discipline. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1970.

Enroth, Ronald. Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977.

Griffin, Em. The Mind Changers. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1976.

Oates, Wayne. The Psychology of Religion. Waco, Texas: Word Books 1973.

Synder, Howard. The Problem of Wineskins, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1975.