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Friday Discussion: Is Fear an Appropriate Motivator for the Church?

Is fear an appropriate tool for motivation?

We see it in many segments of society.

Rental car companies use it to sell extras to a rental contract. The skilled agent can make me doubt my insurance. The risk isn’t any larger than when I normally drive, but I sure feel that way after their spill.

We do it to help people lose weight or live healthier. When I see the effects of obesity on the body I’m more inclined to want to stay in shape.

We use fear to get people to wear seat belts, slow down and to deter drinking and driving. The crash dummy has been made famous saving lives by inducing fear.

So, I have a fair question:

Is fear an appropriate motivation tactic for the church?

I would love your thoughts and opinions. I’m a proponent of the “kindness of God leads to repentance” approach to witnessing, but if fear is such a great motivator should we literally be scaring the Hell out of people?

I love a good discussion…so what do you think?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 66 Comments

  • Bruce Carden says:

    Personally, I don't think it is a good idea for the church to preach fear. When we as Christians preach fear, non-Christians, in reality, wind up fearing the church and Christians. I think it is much better to preach God's truth. If we do that, then knowing the truth people will know what to fear, who to fear, and what to stay away from. The good news is that they will also know the truth, who to believe in, who to turn to in all things, and know they they have hope and can be forgiven for their sins. So if we preach and teach people the truth, fear will take care of itself as people learn Christian values.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thank you for adding to the discussion. I like your last sentence.."preach and teach people truth". I agree doing that takes care of all else!

  • ronedmondson says:

    Thanks Lou. It's interesting to hear your take…especially the "confession of faith many times" part.

  • Kevin says:

    Interesting thoughts. I know it's not Friday, it's Saturday but I would like to contribute.

    I have been involved with ministries that used fear subtly. Fear for not evangelizing or watching poor movies or failing in some way. My observation is that it only led to fear and condemnation and questioning if God really loved them.

    I think if we go by how to bring disciples, we should follow Jesus and I would think we would agree. Two examples that come to mind was Peter and the Samaritan women. In both of the cases, and I think in all cases, Jesus promised them that they would be better then they are now. Not richer, or have a bigger house. But something inside that would change. I feel if we uses that model, I think we can see lasting impact.

    As for hell, or the absence of God, something important to remember is that Jesus came to be a presence in a place that had an absence. The religious and the rulers were more important in how people were failing, and quite enjoyed reminding them. Jesus created a presence or a way for them to move forward. He never used Hell as a threat or a noose.

  • stephanie says:

    i believe in discipling the "hell" out of people, but not scaring the "hell" out of them. i remember growing up in a church that leaned more heavily towards scaring then discipling. i got "saved" every week so i wouldn't burn in hell. my real relationship with christ that wasn't based out of fear was when my youth pastor and good friend now, gently pushed me closer to christ by believing in me, challenging me, and constantly showing me what life lived for God out genuine love for him looked like. Faith based on the scare tactic of "hell" never really duplicated true lovers of Christ, it produced a guilt ridden, works based faith. that's my experience anyway. I do think we need to talk about the reality of hell because there is a consequence for choosing life outside of Christ, but never use it as a motivator to become a christian.

    • ronedmondson says:

      I love the line "discipling the 'hell' out of people". Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

  • Alicia Broadus says:

    I don't feel like fear tactics are the best way to share God with people who don't know him. I know how "fearful" my life is with Christ. I can only imagine how "fearful" life is without him. I don't think those that our living without faith needs more fear in their life. When I'm in desperate situation I cling to the mercy, compassion and forgiveness of our God and not to the fear of doing the wrong thing and burning in hell for it.

    P.S. I am always blessed by your blog Ron! You and the staff at grace are always included in my prayers!

  • Lou says:

    I made confessions of faith many times out of selfish fear, then one day I had a life most people would love, money, family, etc. but God convicted me I was not right with Him. It was no pastor, no TV show, etc. it was God who convicted me. How often do we try to do Gods job of convicting people?
    For years I went on visitation every week with church, never seeing any changed lives, yet many neighbors have come to me to ask about God and made confessions of faith.
    For the people who say someone might go to hell if we do not get them saved, is our God not a very merciful just God, if I do not tell that person, God will use someone else or He will convict them like He did me.
    We do not need to become like the world to get people. God and His word has worked for years!

  • Mike says:

    Goes both way. Balance is healthy and people are different. Jesus said repent or perish. Sounds like fear to me. Personally fear of hell brought me to repentance, but I tend to go the route that Jesus loves you and died for you. At any rate in other areas like marriage we mention the consequences of adultery. That’s fear. Alcohol consumption, too much. That’s fear. Etc.
    I think the problem is when we overdo one way. Afterall we can’t ignore hell and we certainly can’t minimize the love of God. Great topic. Thanks for the conversation. Good way to end the evening on my iPhone.

  • Mason Stanley says:

    : if you use fear once you will be inclined to use it again. When we as humans see results that the Spirit has produced through us using fear we begin to see fear as a readily available tool in the box for us to use whenever we see fit. Possible consequences with negative connotations are used to express a dyer need for change, this envokes fear, fear envokes change in action. This is where we need to be most cautious. We could be content with a persons change in actions, however it is more advantageous to use this time of changed actions to work on helping the heart to fully follow. Fear under the Holy Spirits guidance is not only beneficial but also neccesary. Until the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of change, true heart change will likely not occur.

  • Linda Jackson says:

    Recently, I passed a cemetery that seemed out of place with the development that surrounded it and was reminded me of a fear that I had as a child. Strange, I had not thought of this for a very long time.

    I was less than five years old and the minister at the church that I was attending said that the at the Rapture the dead would rise and walk among us. Those who were not saved would not survive. I envisioned flashes of light, zombies, and my parents who did not attend church with me being swallowed by the earth.

    I was scared and my parents immediately took me out of that church. I've always remembered the reason, but had never had the occasion so vividly replayed in my mind until seeing that particular cemetery. More than 40 years later, it still frightens me. For me, fear is not appropriate in a world that promotes a loving and caring God. Fear is not the faith that I embrace.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Linda for joining the conversation. Your image from a real life situation is very helpful in the discussion. Thanks.

  • Mike says:

    I too was a young man scared into looking for "fire insurance" and only years later actually "heard" the love of God in my heart. Once you come to love God, you will fear for the alternative and fear it for others. The only healthy fear for a child of God is fearing that we don't share his message of love to enough people before we leave this earth.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thank you Mike. I totally agree with you…and this is my approach. We are not a scare tactic church at all. My question though…if you're willing to add more to the discussion…is did the tactic work. In other words, were you actually saved from death to life by fear or just scared to death? Make sense?

      • Mike says:

        Initially I think I was scared to "not be saved". But later left the church and forgot about God because the guilt of not being able to live this holy life, which kept me from hell, was too much. Only later was I not only told about God's amazing capacity to love me "as I was" and that he would "always" love me, did I realize that the fear I felt was the fear that I would fail, And I interpreted that as God hates me if I can't live up to his standard. Later in my life, God called me to ministry and at the time I felt like to only way to minister was to preach. So as a full time evangelist for about a year, I realized that while I could scare impressionable people, especially young people and perhaps get an immediate result, I (or rather God through me) was much more effective if I told this amazing story of redemption and then let them know the truth of the real HELL I had escaped. This healthy "fear" of what God has promised is the only fear that is effective. But again, I think it is only effective hand-in-hand with a story of redemption.

        Sorry for the length of the reply. I start talking about what God has done in my life and I can't seem to stop.

  • ronedmondson says:

    Thanks Kevin. Love your heart!

  • Kevin Riner says:

    Deep question and plenty of people have thoughts. So my thoughts is this. Sure fear is ok.
    Psalm 9:10 and Psalm 111:10 both say "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". Most people don't come to the saving knowledge of God because they love Him. How can you love someone before you know who they are. But to fear His greatness and His wrath is much easier.
    Should we use fear to motivate folks to give their life to Christ. Whatever means it takes I say.There are those that are hardheaded and need to fear the Lord to be moved. There are those who easily love and don't need to be motivated by fear. One of you other commentators said its a both/and situation. I agree.

  • @mykalRsmith says:

    I love that this debate is happening, thanks for posing the question Ron.

    I think I'm with a large number of posters here. Simply reading scriptures that bring to light the reality of heaven vs. hell should create a sense of fear in all of us. Knowing that we serve such an incredible and powerful God should inspire awe in all of us, but Christ did not die to bring fear or judgement.

    "God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. -John 3:17"

    The natural reaction of fear at the reality of Hell and God's power is completely healthy. Sharing the truth of Hell with a potential believer is completely different than using the truth of hell to manipulate that person's emotions so they will choose Christ, and we can score the "win." I'd much rather share the truth of a loving God with no hidden intent to manipulate and allow the Holy Spirit do the rest.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thank you for being part of the discussion. Good thoughts… We can't ignore the truth of Scripture for sure.

  • herbhalstead says:

    In Revelation 1:17-18, we see the Awesome Powerful God, bend down and comfort John who was in fear. I think this passage describes well the tension between fear and peace that is indicative of our faith walk. Understanding the power that held at bay because of love is life-changing.

  • Lloyd Sexton says:

    I normally don't weigh in on questions such as this. But I have to. the Bible is very clear:

    Reverential awe, or fear, of the Lord is encouraged. This is not the same as the fear which we feel when we worry about things or feel anxiety. THAT fear is discouraged. In fact the body is supposed to edify and encourage one another. Fear does neither. It judges and tears down. Fear is never a motivator. Now, hope on the other hand….

  • Jodi Planck says:

    I did not take the time to read every-bodies comments, b/c I am at work. But I do want to say that fear is not a successful motivator to serve God. If we do not serve Him out of LOVE, then we become religious, and fear and religion are sisters. The true fear of God is not the same kind of fear we are discussing here. The fear that keeps one from parking their car in the middle of a busy freeway, and going for a stroll, is not really the same kind of fear that causes one to cower from the criticisms of man. One is WISDOM and the other is demonic, self-centered, self-preserving fear, that is not from God. The problem in the church is that we have called the later wisdom, while not possessing TRUE WISDOM. True wisdom is a gift from God, and one receives it by asking, and that asking must be in faith {not fear}, or we are double minded, and can expect to receive nothing from God. If have much more to say, but not enough time to say it in, but I am sure you are getting the drift of my message. God Bless, Jodi Planck

  • Kevin says:

    I have to work, but will be contributing to this.

  • Adam_S says:

    I have been thinking a lot about fear recently because I see so much fear in the church and in society.

    I think we are limited in our language to use the same word for "fearing God" and all other types of "fear".

    The positives of fear should only be that it should drive us to prayer. Any other response to fear other than prayer, is most likely sin. If we fear loosing our job or that Muslims will invade the US or that our child will be negatively influenced at school, most of the time it is because we do not trust God to do what he has told us he will do. Much of the rest of the time we fear because we have not done what God has told us to do.

    So if we fear our child will be negatively influenced at school, but we have not prayed for them, have not had bible study with them, have not helped them find a positive set of friends then our fear is not doing anything beneficial, it is just paralyzing us. Paralyzing fear is sin. The church needs to start addressing this fear as sin. Instead, I see churches encouraging this type of fear regularly. They tell their people to take their kids out of school because public schools are evil. Or they condemn one set of politics or another by asking us to fear the potential result of the other side's politics. Or we are told it is OK to fear the other (whether it be Muslim or Gay or Scientist, etc.) instead of doing what God has repeatedly told us to do (pray for them, ofter them a cup of water in Jesus name, serve them in love, etc.)

    • ronedmondson says:

      There is certainly a lot of fear in society. Times of war…economy…etc…have made us very afraid. Thanks!

      • Adam_S says:

        I am not so concerned about the fear in society as I am the fear that is in the church. I think this is really what Craig Groeschel is talking about as Christian Athiests. We talk about God, we tell others that they need him, but when it comes to actually depending on him we fear. Why should others come to God if we as a church are more fearful than they as a non-Christian are. There is nothing attractive about a person that is paranoid. There is nothing attractive about a faith that is paranoid that everyone is out to get it.

        I think some pastors think that by encouraging their people to fear they are helping them depend on God. But I think it is the opposite. People get paralyzed by fear (sin) and stop depending on God.

  • There are so many reasons not to use fear to draw people to Church, or more accurately to God and Christ. The Bible teaches us that God is Love and that God is perfect, and that Perfect Love cast out fear. Here is what the scripture says exactly…1 John 4:18- "Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love."
    That says enough there, people who are brought to Christ because of fear of punishment in hell start off with a wrong foundational understanding of God and a twisted experience of him.
    Love changes people, fear only perverts things and magnifies what you fear to be larger than the solution. Jesus said that if he is lifted up he will draw all men unto him, not if you scare people enough they will be drawn to me.
    We need to embrace and believe God for a greater revelation of the supernatural in our everyday lives. God loves us and desires to see us made whole and be in peace, if you want to see a person drawn to God then let them see his love manifested in healing and deliverance and freedom, that will draw people because that is Christ in us being lifted up.

  • Malcolm says:

    Steve- I agree to a point… But I think that for to bring the whole Gospel… It has to be a both/ and.

    You have to talk about BOTH the fact that God loves us and he sent his son to die for our sins AND the fact that there is a judgment that is real. A judgment that will have a consequence of hell.

    Now that I follow Christ… I am more afraid or fearful that God will tell me I didn't do enough to tell people about him… Than I ever was of not believing at all.

  • When fear is used as a bludgeon, then no, I don't think it is appropriate. However, consider this analogy. If someone is running with their eyes closed towards a 500 foot cliff, isn't a warning of "Open your eyes, you're about to run over a cliff!" appropriate? Yes, it may give a bit of fear to the runner, but a little healthy fear is helpful to protect you from harm. I mean, really, that's what fear does. Fear tells us when there is something that may harm us and motivates us to do something about it. When it becomes all consuming and the ONLY thing that motivates you, then you have a problem. That's what's called a "phobia".

    I think, in the church, we can use that healthy fear as a motivation at times. We need to be careful, though, that we don't create a phobic atmosphere, that when presented with the thing that can cause fear, we also present with the thing that brings hope. "Open your eyes…" has to be part of the equation. We can't just keep on yelling about the cliff.

  • Paddy says:

    More people change because they feel the heat than see the light.

  • Jon says:

    I agree with many of the other posts. We need to fear Hell and we need to fear the Lord. And some people will not come to Him just because He is a loving savior; for some it may take fear of the other outcome. But preaching fear, I think, is the wrong thing. The facts need to be presented in a loving manner and the consequences need to be laid out in plain black and white without any sugar-coating. However, I don't think that screaming from the pulpit that you will go to Hell if you don't accept Christ wins many or wins them truly. I grew up in a church that didn't scream Hell and damnation, but one that mixed doing what was right for His sake with guilt about what would happen if you didn't. I found this to be an ineffective tactic. I grew up loving God, but wanting to rebel against the infrastructure which tainted my early interactions with God.

    Bottom line is that I think that preaching fear is wrong; preaching Truth is right and however the hearer deals with it is between them and God.

  • Chris Jones says:

    How many choose Christianity because they dont want hell not that they love Jesus? I have talked to many who seem that they would be perfectly happy in heaven even if Jesus isnt there. How many are running away from something and not to something?

    It would be wrong not to mention what will happen to those who choose not to turn to God. But God's character will ravish them if they can see Him for who He truly is.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Chris. I like the part "wrong not to mention". I certainly agree in telling the "whole truth".

  • Kurt says:

    Ron, great question. From the comments I hear, absolutely not. It (fear & guilt) does not reflect the love of Christ. It keeps many away. The Word is a hospital to the soul. Dispense peace, not fear.

  • Mike says:

    I don't think fear should be our tool of choice. Certainly being confronted with Biblical truth may bring about feelings of fear in the heart of an unsaved person. But to focus that message with the intent of producing fear I think runs contrary to the way Jesus operated. Too often we present the Gospel as a standard of living that ends up just replacing the Law, rather than the life of freedom that it actually is. That said, we should not shy away from preaching the reality of an eternity apart from God. The issue lies with why we do it. If the motivating factor is to get people to make a choice that basically acts (as a previous commenter said) as "fire insurance", then the resulting life can hardly be the abundant one that Christ came to give us.

  • Kelly says:

    I think fear and guilt have a place in our spiritual lives when they are attached to specific acts or sins and an understanding of the consequences to ourselves and others, including our relationships with God. Confession, repentance, and the forgiveness of Christ are the solutions to this kind of fear and guilt. I think the thing that is damaging is a nameless, vague fear that isn't attached to anything specific and that isn't relieved by reaching out to God. The love of God is what touches hearts, and when people realize how eager God is to forgive them and relieve them of the burden of their guilt and shame, they know His love is real.

    Once, a friend of mine who struggled w/drugs and alcohol, sinned against me in one of the most painful, betraying ways possible. When I was told of her acts against me, even while still in the shock of the news, I felt God's Spirit speak this to me – When you forgive her for this and continue to love her in My name, she will know for certain that I love her. At the time, just moments into the pain, my reply to God went something like, "Yeah, well, I'm not ready yet." But soon, thanks to God, I was and we were reconciled.

    Fear and shame were a part of her restoration, in order for her to grasp God's love for her. Even recently, someone did to her what she had done to me, and she came to me in tears, and asked if the way she felt at the betrayal was the way I had felt when she had sinned against me. I said yes, but quickly reminded her of her position in Christ – forgiven and free. Feeling the horror of our sins helps us to understand God's unbelievable love for us.

    I do absolutely loath the way fear is being used by "Christian" political leaders/candidates/fans to win people to their side by creating hatred for their opponents or entire people groups. If you can get people to fear others, you can get them to hate them. That may be the way of the world, but it is not, not, not Christ's way!

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks! Good word and another personal story. When teaching children not to touch the hot stove, many parents place an appropriate fear in their child's mind about what could happen if they touch it… That's what your illustration reminded me of…

  • Malcolm says:

    When I was 15/ 16 I went to a church that preached fear… I did accept Christ out of “fire insurance”. I did not want to burn in hell.

    I also realized pretty quick that I could not live a perfect Christian life… So if I couldn’t be the perfect Christian, then I was going to be the best sinner I could be and I was for the next 13 years.

    Then out of a marriage crisis… I ended back in church. There for the FIRST time I learned that God actually did love me and sent his son to die for my sins. It was when I understood & experienced the love of God that I gave my life completely to Christ.

    I understand that feat is more of a reverence for a Holy God that is the creator of all things & he cares and loves me for who I am. The fear of turn & burn theology is actually repelling people instead of drawing people to Christ.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Malcolm for sharing a personal illustration. Always helpful to hear someone's story.

  • If God is love and the gospel is "good news", fear doesn't seem to fit in there very well. You can't have a very good relationship with something that you are afraid of.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Tony! I tend to agree. I wonder where the respect fear comes into this…such as small child may have with a loving father when they do wrong… Again, I love discussion.

      • I believe a reverent fear is healthy but it must be rooted in a love relationship. A child with an authoritarian father grows up terrified of disappointing him and tends to have a works-based mentality.

        Salvation is all about love (it is a free gift not of works, after all). It cannot be rooted in fear or the foundation is all wrong and we will have an incorrect perception of God. As a result of a relationship of love, a healthy reverent fear comes naturally. Just like I don't want to disappoint those that I love and I fear the consequences, I believe that translates in a relationship with the Lord. Plus, if you can talk someone into something by fear-mongering, they can always be talked out of it.

        Thanks for bringing this up today. It's got me thinking!

        • ronedmondson says:

          Thanks Tony. I totally agree with the authoritarian father illustration. I often see this type parenting lead to very rebellious children with no regards for the church.

  • Steve Keating says:

    Here's one thing I know for sure – I don't want to hear, on my judgment day, "that guy Bob, the one you worked next to everyday, is in hell because you didn't tell him about Me" Why not? At that point I don't think God is going to be interesting in any excuses about spreading fear.
    How's that for some serious fear 🙂

  • Steve Keating says:

    It depends on how the "fear" is presented. If the facts, as uncovered in Scrioture cause someone to be in fear of judgment then so be it. Truth can sometimes bring forth fear. But look at the alternative, by not sharing the truth we lead people right into hell. I have a great friend of mine who is fond of saying that most of the people in hell are really nice people who just didn't know the truth. They went to hell for no particular reason – maybe someone didn't want to look like someone spreading fear so they never told them about the only way to heaven. If the truth causes fear then so be it.
    But I've also seen, sadly, cases where fear was used as a weapon to motivate people for a Pastor's purpose, not God's. For instance. "If we don't raise 500K for a new sound system we will dishonor God and risk bringing hell upon ourselves." Nice don't you think?

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Steve. So many things are more about the how than the what when it comes to presentation.