Church Services and Emotional Priming

This video did not resemble the (fairly traditionally-formatted, liberal mainline) church services I remember from my childhood. It did however give disturbing echoes of what I saw of my brother’s Pentecostal church, that I observed from attending his funeral service there late last year.

Would members with a background in psychology and related fields care to comment? @Faizal_Ali? @Frank_robert?


Hi @Tim, thanks for the video. It does expose several aspects of religion that we nornally would not consider. Like you, my background was not evangelical but the one thing that stands fondly in my mind from my early church going is the music which at the time was still Latin and Gregorian Chants. I remember being totally engrossed perhaps hypnotized.

Our Skeptic brought out several areas of how religious music is linked to psychology but I don’t want to go off on a tangent so can you expand a bit on what you experrienced as “disturbing echoes?”

Yes, I can see that in Gregorian Chants, but cannot help but think that their hypnotic quality directs you inwards, like a form of meditation, rather than outwards putting one to be in an externally suggestible state.

It was a funeral service, so necessarily diverged somewhat from the formula given in the video. But there were elements in it that I could see could be pulled into a similar format in a more normal service. If I had to describe my impression of the musical worship style it would be intrusive and over-produced – it was clear that they worked hard at it, arguably too hard. It felt as though I was being spoon-fed, rather than being a co-equal participant in the singing.

At the time it felt simply a bit odd, a bit jarring, and a bit alien. After watching the video, I’m a tad more suspicious, but not entirely certain that there was anything untoward. But as I’m unlikely ever to go there again, it probably doesn’t really matter (other than as an explanation as to why this video caught my attention).

That makes sense because the description of the service in the video is definitely being manipulated which brings up the question, is it ethical, which may be what you find disturbing. Your feeling of my experience with Gregorian chants was being meditative as contrasted to you how you felt spoon fed at your uncle’s funeral is applicable here.

The narrator describes a ritualistic buildup, first by establishing a safe environment with friends, family, soft music, group singing, etc, that create a sense of belonging then enjoining the participants to give all to God. The approach resembles “Neuro Linquistic Programing” (NLP) techniques of pacing and leading (spoon feeding) the participants.

Your disturbing echoes are not misplaced. It is likely that the large mega churches knowingly use these and similar techniques to generate generous donations and that smaller churches may duplicate them because they are successful.

This is an interesting discussion. I don’t have any psychological training and I am also biased in favor of traditional liturgical church services. I try and accept that some people might get something out of a style of religious service that I don’t like, and vice-versa.

However, I have thought that what I call “rock concert church services” seem manipulative, where people have sensory overload forced on them. At least I would feel almost forced-upon in such an environment. But I am probably more sensitive to such things than most people so… But I don’t feel put-upon at a traditional church service - it does seem meditative and it is a change of pace.

Now, at a generic evangelical church service the emphasis is getting people ready to “make a decision for Christ” and this is a different focus than, say, a Catholic service.


That is how I see it also. NLP has negative reputation with some psychologists because it is manipulative, yet when used appropriately the results are a benefit for the patient and is what the patient contracted for. That appears ethical. The video is questioning the ethics of using music as a manipulative approach to achieve a religious purpose while the participants are unaware of the manipulation.


I would say that the only reason anyone thinks any of that is unusual is that for some reason people miss out on a basic reality: churches are simply businesses. They need customers and revenue. They render services which are sought after by their customers; while entertainment is not the only one of these services, it is one of the principal services. And this means that they are engaged in marketing and showmanship just like any other entertainment business.

But reverence for what churches do clouds this. People treat it as though churches serve some higher purpose or have some non-commercial motive, and then they are puzzled when churches work to acquire and retain customers using ordinary commercial methods. But even if one thought that the supernatural propositions of Christianity were true, that wouldn’t convert the operation of a church from being simply a business proposition.


I think that this can also be applied to controversial topics as many churches apply the poisoned well and other such strategies in order to lead the discussion in a certain manner.

When an outcome must be predetermined to be true, victory at all costs becomes certain. In my first church after becoming a Christian, leading up to an election, the pastor would lead carefully crafted services and sermons to isolate specific issues with a Conservative approach (ranging from evolution to global warming to LGBTQ+ rights) and leaderships would support candidates or positions informally to enforce hegemony.

As for the video in question, I am not sure that it is consistent ethically or aligned with 2 Cor 9:7 (Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver).


@Puck_Mendelssohn, not all churches operate as a business. But “operating like a business” is a sad fact for many churches, especially in the U.S. Some churches, in my experience, are able to keep teaching, community building and meeting people’s needs as their top priorities, manage their money in ethical ways and avoid the temptation to focus on getting big and rich.

I participated in house churches for 20 years. Folks gave money to support ministry, but we gave all that money either to missionaries or other folks who devoted their lives to ministry and had no official means of support, or to folks that had financial need.

It was a fun and simple way to do church. It was a bit novel when we started, but it’s more popular now, especially in the global south where the number of small house churches is growing relatively quickly.

So fortunately, not all churches are simply businesses.


Fair enough…that’s more of a cooperative or club type of organization, and I confess I wasn’t thinking of such things when posting above – I was thinking more of the kinds of establishments that have been parked in big buildings in my neighborhood for decades. But “church” is a very broad term and, of course, encompasses more than just those, as you point out.


True, that. The home church genre is a tiny portion of the Christian church in the U.S. But that model is currently having an interesting and not insignificant impact in other countries, which I think is cool.

There are church movements in some places that aren’t copying the models found in the U.S., which is a great thing, imo. Maybe the more the “big and rich” motivation can be avoided by emerging church movements, the more expressions like what @Tim observed can be avoided.

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While the big churches get a lot of visibility, at least in Canada, they don’t really represent the bulk of churches or church goers.

Some very quickly googling gives me the following

  • Roughly 2M Canadian’s attend church weekly
  • About 120K attend the largest 40 or so churches in Canada.
  • After those top 40 you quickly tail off to a lot of fairly small churches

As per @Chad_the_Layman comment. Most churches are not operating in any way as a business. They bring in enough to pay for the building and couple of not particularly well paid pastors, and that’s about it.

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Well, I know plenty of businesses that bring in enough to pay for the building and to pay a couple of not particularly well paid proprietors. The point of saying it’s a business isn’t to say it’s lucrative, but to say that like any organization which is sustained by customers, it will engage in behavior to foster customer relations.


I suspect that, although the more manipulative techniques may have been crafted by larger churches (though this is speculation, as I do not know the precise history of this format in church services), they are likely to be emulated (likely without their problematical aspects being realised) by many smaller churches. A few cheap musical instruments, a half-way decent AV system and a volunteer music director would probably be all it needs. The result would likely not be as polished as the megachurch experience, but would probably get the job done.

Unfortunately, so is the megachurch phenomenon. The controversial Hillsong Church franchise (which contributed the final, and most jarring, hymn to my brother’s funeral service) is Australian-based.

It could be argued that both of these wildly different church formats (home churches and megachurches) were exported successfully because they are both effective formats, just effective in two entirely different (and arguably antithetical) ways.

To some extent @Puck_Mendelssohn’s church-as-business model is an inevitable consequence of scale (from an economic standpoint). The larger the church, the larger the costs that need to be covered, so the more conscious effort they needed to put into their finances. This is probably why medieval abbeys tended to be hives of cottage industry (being often widely known for their brewing and distilling, for example), because they had to support a large monastic community, and maintain large buildings. This does not need to be a bad thing, but can easily develop into one when empire-building and/or personal luxury becomes an increasing focus of the leadership.

Addendum: I suspect that the propensity to spend church resources on non-necessities may be related to how remote the decision-makers are from those who bear the financial burden. An abbot whose abbey relies solely for its income on the work of his fellow monks, who he sees every day, and sits with for meals, would I suspect have been less likely to be profligate than one whose abbey is a large landowner, and can cast the financial burden onto the rents and tithes paid by tenant farmers. Likewise a megachurch senior preacher, who has a large staff as a buffer between him and his flock, who he likely sees mostly as largely anonymous ecstatic faces at services, will find it easier to overspend. This is, of course, not exclusive to religion, as the isolation from the masses, and resultant excesses, that led to the French and Russian Revolutions, and the Highland Clearances, attest.

I’m impressed with your stroke of the broad brush. :smile:

Though I’m sure that influencing gatherings using oratory, poetry, song, dance to excite and inflame the emotions has universal and deep roots in human culture.

Ummm … :confused:

You do know that when I was talking about …

… I was not talking about …

… don’t you?

I was talking about profligate spending (be it on empire-building or personal luxury).

My brush was broader. How easily the herd is led; for gain — be that monetary, power, or pathology.

ETA Oxford comma

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