Christian Charismatic: Debunking Experiences with God

People "Slain in the Spirit" at a Pentecostal church service - one of many Christian Charismatic movements

People “Slain in the Spirit” at a Pentecostal church service – one of many Christian Charismatic movements

There seems to be a modern resurgence of the Christian charismatic movement that is focused largely on evangelizing young people, hyper-emotional worship services, and “experiences” with the “Holy Spirit”. The kids these new ministries are reaching out for are largely between the ages of 10 and 18 and tend to take on a very “Jesus Camp” like atmosphere.  Some of the trends I’ve seen in these groups I find rather disturbing because of my own past experience with similar groups.

When I was little (between 6 and 10 if my memory serves correctly),  I attended a Charismatic Pentecostal church – of the  Church of God denomination. There was always the typical fire-breathing and fear mongering but with that was coupled this amazing experience….what I was told to believe was the result of God’s “Holy Spirit”, the third person of the Hypostatic Union – or Trinity that identifies the currently “orthodox” Christian deity.  The experience was amazing, for lack of a better word. I remember this feeling of euphoria as I begged God to bless me with his physical presence – a heat would overwhelm my body,  I shook uncontrollably, cried tears of joy, and sometimes when the pastor or evangelist would pray with me directly lost the ability to stay on my two feet – a phenomena called being “Slain in the Spirit“.  These experiences were magnified when I would attend a yearly summer camp – it was like a week long Christian charismatic church service – kinda like the one in this video except with mostly kids under the age of 12 and in a dark room with a full light show like at a rock concert:

 

*Watch this whole video, an excerpt from Jesus camp – it’s something important for people to see.

These experiences, for many many years, solidified my belief in god – they were physical evidences of spiritual truths that my god had gifted me with the ability to experience.  I still remember them strongly and I still feel that immense “heart tug” when I hear the sort of worship music that was present during those times…if ever an atmosphere was ripe for manipulation of young minds it was this one and I was it’s victim.

Today I’m not really writing to tell my story – I’m writing to try to explain the dangers of experiences like these pose to young people and how some of these youth will ultimately be let down by these experiences and why they, as great as they may seem, are the result of psychosomatic responses to emotional over-stimulation.

 

At this point in our understanding of human psychology and development we know that young people are more susceptible to manipulation of all sorts, more often that not those that remain in Christian charismatic churches and uphold charismatic beliefs are those that are either born into the movement or are young when they get into it….it appeals to that lack of emotional maturity that so many young people have as well as the overwhelming lack of critical thinking skill that make them the perfect candidates for this newly emergent version of Christianity.

For me, these experiences eventually turned into a pursuit for more of god…almost like a better fix on your drug of choice, it becomes insatiable.  This pursuit consumed me and had me on my face seeking “him” often – this pursuit and the eventual let down it became made me into the the atheist I am today. Yes, seeking god’s presence ultimately brought me to this place the moment I realized just how easily my emotions and emotional ineptitude could have lead up to the experiences I had already had and brought me ultimately to question the weight of experiences in determining truth.  I had to reject those experiences, something many can never do because of the crippling fear instilled in them from an early age,  in order to reject the god I had.  That fear, coupled with this incredibly emotionally subjective experience are  a cruel way of gaining converts.

So why do these experiences seem so very real?

The answer is quite simple, but somewhat complex to truly understand – the art of Hypnosis and Suggestion as originally coined by Franz Mesmer, is the ability to suggest to an individual or group under the right conditions as to what will occur and to have that prophecy of sorts come true. It can be complex or simple, intentional and completely accidental, but it is very very possible. For instance:

Let’s say you are at one of these emotionally thick worship services for the first time, the lights are very dim, the music is emotionally charged, and you are convinced that “god’s holy spirit” is bound to show up- and you want him too…you are a Christian already, but you’ve never had an experience with god.  The music fades, though the band keeps playing lightly and slowly, the minister takes the floor. He talks about how he’s a sinner and completely unworthy of all the goodness that his god gives him, he talks about how god loves us despite our near constant failings and imperfections, and eventually he’ll talk about how he can feel god there now in the room with you…and you feel it too – it’s this pressure around your heart and your lungs, the hair on your arms and neck stands up.

The minister makes an altar call and a few of the people around you walk up and you can see them have what seems to be an incredible experience. The minister is laying hands on them and praying, they are falling on the floor, crying,  their skin red with heat, some of them are talking in strange languages and you can’t wait any longer…you’ve got to have this.

Another minister walks up to you, he asks you if you want to experience god and you know that you want nothing more so you say “yes”, already crying, anticipating what you’ve already seen. He asks god to touch you and lays his hands on your head and your knees buckle and you fall straight  back, luckily someone is already there to catch you and lay you down gently – you saw them move behind you out of the corner of your eye as soon as the minister walked up to you but you didn’t care then and you really don’t care now….all you can think about is god,  Jesus, and how much he loves you and how much you want to give everything up just to follow him.

Who knows how long you stay there, an hour or maybe two. The heat you feel leaves your shirt soaking wet with your sweat, and when you open your eyes the lights are on, there are a few other bodies on the floor but for the most part the music has stopped, there are a few people your age talking in one of the corners and the minister is talking to another group across the way. You can’t really explain what just happened, but you liked it, you want it to happen again and if you can you want to help others feel it too… this is better than any drug.

 

What have you just experienced? It certainly feels real – I know this from experience, and essentially it is real, but is it what you thought it was? Did you just encounter the almighty? I’m afraid not, what you’ve just experienced is a carefully designed set of suggestions that resulted in your being convinced in what was going to happen and your mind submitting itself to those suggestions in a process called Hypnotic Suggestion and it works because not only are you made open to suggestion by the music, mood, and lighting of the service but those things are amplified by your willingness to experience god in a tangible way.  For an outsider looking in that knows what to look for the suggestions don’t seem very subtle at all…the minister will use words like “fire” to describe the “Holy Spirit”, speak in tongues at random times, and often times describe what it is that you “should” feel because of the presence of god.

The suggestions become more blatant during the altar call as you begin to see the more seasoned charismatics go up to the altar and react to the suggestions being made or that were made at previous services like this. When you see them fall or speak in tongues you’ve just been victim to the suggestion that this is normal, this is to be expected – if you love god you will experience this.  Most people will and the only reason they do is because they are convinced that they will.

Derren Brown is a British illusionist and atheist that  has two amazing videos on this very subject entitled: “Instant Conversion” Part 1 and Part 2. In the videos you can see him perform some of these same examples of suggestion in a much more sterile environment, keep in mind that there is no mood lighting or music involved with the subjects in these video’s which are a very big half of the whole equation of the New Christian Charismatic resurgence – also remember that he is an atheist, using these suggestions to cause individuals that don’t believe in god to have a physical and emotional reaction that convinces many of them that a god does exist.

From one extreme of religion to the more subtle and quiet conversion, techniques like this are used to render people too emotionally inept to respond to suggestions with reason.  Therefore even in the quietest churches making the suggestion that god is pulling on your hearts strings can be all that it takes for one to feel what you will perceive as god and to respond to any further suggestion from the minister in the same way – this is the stuff conversion experiences are made of and they exist in nearly all religions following the very same formula, they can range from the very simple and subtle to the complex and over the top.

One thing I don’t want to convey here is that all of the ministers that do this sort of thing are necessarily doing this intentionally. I’ve been involved in many roles in these sort of services, from the guy playing the music, to the person rushing to catch the soon to fall, and even as the minister laying hands and praying on someone thirsty for a taste of god and I can say with 100% certainty that I never, at any time, intentionally mislead anyone or suggested anything to anyone. Despite the fact that I was following a formula that has been used for hundreds of years in the Christian Charismatic movement to the T, I had no idea that this was anything other than god’s “anointing” on my life that I had experienced hundreds of times.

The suggestions I made were unintentional, they were the result of my experience with the same formula and it had just become second nature to me because it was what worked.  When I would lay hands on the head of some young person that I new was wanting nothing more than to experience god I truly believed that god’s “holy spirit” was running from my hands to their head and through their body.   It wasn’t. It was their brain playing tricks on them through a combination of their desires and my actions.  I believe that most ministers that perform this sort of ministry  have no clue that they are manipulating minds in times of weakness, then again some do know very well exactly what they are doing.

If you’ve ever fallen prey to something like this, if you’ve been to a service where you felt emotionally insecure or inordinately open to suggestion then I hope that you will take this opportunity to examine how real this experience actually was. I hope that you will question what actually occurred and that you will guard in the future from any attempt to subvert your mind. If you are a minister and this is part of what you do…just think about it.   Now you’ve got all that you need to determine how true the words on this page are…do you care enough to research?  Do you care enough to stop?

This was another of a long list of things that I had to be willing to question before I could be free from the Christian faith.

Question. Everything.

  • Sarah

    This is a very powerful post. I thought about so many things while reading it. I remember those camps and how emotionally charged the music, lighting and speaking were. In fact, a lot of the camps took place in concert type arenas. One of the most memorable experiences was YEC (the Youth Evangelism Conference) that I went to in 2000. There was a lot of scary stuff going on with the fear that the world was going to go crazy when the computers all switched from 1999 to 2000. The media hype about this combined with the speakers reminding us about it for those 3 or 4 days we were there kept everyone fearful. I remember sitting in this stadium with a huge concert stage, worship music was being played (Rebecca St. James and others came to play live.) We had the New Years Eve countdown and right before it there was this desperate prayer that everything would be okay. We were anticipating this disaster and when the clock struck 12:00 a.m. on January 1st 2000, and nothing happened, the screens lit up with messages about how Jesus had squashed the Y2K bug and the auditorium erupted with cheers. I remember sobbing hysterically about everything turning out okay. I called my grandmother crying from a payphone in the hall and told her Jesus saved us all from the Y2K bug.

    There were many, many experiences like that. Like when our youth minister had us meet for a devotional (we met weekly at his house), but this time he talked to us about sin. For an hour, and then he gave us a sheet of paper to write our sins on. Then we drug a wooden cross into his living room and laid it on the floor. We each passed around a hammer and nail to nail our sin to the cross. We all cried and felt as if a burden had been lifted off of our backs as we drove that nail into the cross, leaving our 'sin' (the paper) on the cross.

    Sorry to ramble. I remember you bringing up the emotionally charged atmospheres and how that played a role in our 'god' experience. Now it all makes sense. It's easier to let go knowing that this is how the human brain works. I remember telling my husband that I feel so relieved and so much happier now that I've been shedding the idea of a Christian god. Finding your blog has really been a huge step in the right direction for me.

    • Thank you Sarah,

      I think I went to YEC once, but there were so many I can't remember which one's I've been to anymore…I do remember SuperWOW, which is Southern Baptist and of course the pentecostal camp I went to (it was in Tifton, I don't remember it's catchy name)…it seems like most of the budget for these sorts of things is actually focused on building the right atmosphere.

      I remember so so many times that I would make myself open to these suggestions that are now so obvious – that's the difference between a good evangelist and a bad one is the ability to leave certain words to linger in the mind and weight heavy with the audience…I didn't do much public ministry, but in private ministry I had it mastered…and I had no idea how seriously I was manipulating people….and I don't know if I will ever regret anything as much as I do that. Convincing people that the lies I believed were true by rendering them incapable of rational thought….I don't know if there is a greater sin against humanity.

      Thank you for sharing, and I'm glad it helped.

  • Dave

    Man, thanks for this post. I came across it from Reddit. I spent almost 20 years (from age 13 to early 30's) in several Assembly of God Pentecostal churches, and like you am now an atheist. But these experiences were hard for me to rectify but your explanations help a ton. I knew there had to be a logical reason but it always eluded me.

    Reading your post and the comment from Sarah it is apparent we all carry burdens from these experiences, a trauma of sorts. It is a testament to how complete the church's brainwashing really is and how hard it is for anyone to break free, particularly if you attended from those early formative years as a child.

    • Hi Dave, thanks for stopping by.

      There were lots of mountains I had to climb in order to achieve freedom from the faith, this was one of many, and probably the most strongly rooted. Admitting to myself that everything I felt, knew, and loved was self delusion was a mindfuck beyond explanation.

      Trauma is precisely the right word and yes, many people carry burdens they will never be able to get beyond…that's why I'm working on creating some sort of new approach for people leaving the faith, in order to help them deal with the trauma, the depression, and the suicidal tendencies that often accompany doubt…there are millions of people hurting around the world because of what the faith has done to them…I think it's time we began to address it.

      • I too think this is something that needs to be addressed. I managed to be spared the Pentecostal experience during my years as a Christian, thanks for filling me in on what I missed out on 🙂

        It took several factors before I was able to leave the faith behind, part of it was losing that existential fear of unbelief, while I was still a believer. Once I'd truly left it was many years before I was ready to really think about these things, and I suspect that is true of a lot of people. It is a major life change as you obviously know, and there must be many who have difficulties as a result of going through this.

        Mike

  • Naphtali Aikens

    God bless you Matt, and everyone else who reads this. 1st things 1st! Christ and I love you, and always will. No matter what anyone says, Matt, you've been hurt. You can say that you havent or you might agree. But its time to forgive. Have you ever thought that you were in the wrong ministry? I saw you write that sometimes a Pastor will come out and say this "He talks about how he’s a sinner and completely unworthy of all the goodness that his god gives him" Anyyyyy Pastor comes out and says that He isn't worthy and that he is a sinner, IM RUNNING FOR MY LIFE!!! Because the Bible says in 2 Corinth 5:21 "For He made Him [to BE] sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus". So that Pastor gave you another message! What, he's gonna live his life telling other believers that he is a sinner? Nooooooo, heavens no! CHRIST BECAME BECAME BECAME sin for us! Because He knew we couldnt do right in this world. So what i take from that scripture is that, I AM RIGHTEOUS!! Dont allow what you experienced to twist your faith because of someone twisting The Word. At Christ Embassy, we have a unique, practical and revelation knowledge message for everyone. And as far as someone falling under the annointing, i have a few friends, drug addicts that have met my Pastor on the STREET, who didnt need any music nor dimmed light to fall under the annointing when my Pastor layed hands on them. Some were hardcore 100% muslims and jews that knew nothing about falling under the annointing. So how would you explain that, if they never seen it happen before. Life is spiritual. And if you were Born Again before, you'll come back by any means. Because He will never leave His own.

    • thanks for commenting Naphtali,

      The convenient thing about the Bible, The Word as you call it, is that it doesn't really have to be twisted…it fits into whatever a person wants it to fit into, it can be used to bring about any result one likes really…it's very convenient for massive ego's to use the Bible to support themselves and their own philosophies.

      Of course you know that I must reject this personal testimony and anecdote on the grounds that it is just that…but I should let you know that the music and dimmed lights are just aids to the process, they aren't necessary…there are hundreds of different ways to magnetize people and to leave suggestions in their minds.

      You don't have to admit it Naphtali, but I'm giving you the tools you need to wake up from your slumber….you are a good man regardless and I respect you because of that. Your faith doesn't define you but you can be free from it if you ever value truth over theology.

  • Kristin

    I completely agree it is brainwashing. I went to one of these services as a teenager with a friend (we both went to a Christian high school at the time). I really think it was after the service that I began to doubt God. It was extreme enough to seem ridiculous to me, and then I came to realize it was just an extreme form of the "watered down" Christianity I was immersed in every day.

    • I wish I had been smart enough to face my doubts after these extreme services, they only served to solidify what I already had though…I had to do a lot of research on the subconscious before I recognized the frailty of such experiences.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Good stuff, Matt, and I have similar feelings about the matter, though I was not a charismatic, I was actually totally against it, because, even then I could see the manipulation.

  • Chari$matic$ are heretics? LOL That is hard to believe…

  • Dillon

    I got lucky, i devoted myself to Sagan before the bible, im just glad i didnt stay in church long enough to be taken in… it puzzled the hell out of my parents when i started refusing to go maybe at age eight, Physics saved me from the bible. the only time i openly refused to do something my parents tried to make me do, was go to church.

  • Tyler

    Holly and I watched Jesus Camp on Netflix (Well I started to watch and then got so pissed off at the adults that I stopped watching and let Holly fill me in afterwards). Needless to say that we do not agree with those zealous conventions of narrow minded teaching. "Harry Potter is the devil"? Really? That reminds me of how I was constantly told by church members growing up that by playing DND and reading Anne Rice novels that I was letting the Devil take charge of my life. Hmm, so why was I still an outstanding kid that didn't get into trouble? I never went to the camps myself though, I didn't find them interesting enough to warrant wasting time on them (and the fact that I hate large gatherings of people).

  • jose

    I liked reading your blog so much because my life also revolved around this holy spirit thing. I was raised in a Pentecostal style church which i didn’t leave until I was 18 and became and atheist.

    Unlike you, and many here, I remember that in services and retreats were people would get the holy ghost, I would always feel very award and isolated because I never felt a thing. I thought something was really wrong with me, because even the other kids at church who were bullys and such would be able to feel it and I couldnt.

    Later on I became an atheist once i started thinking critically about the bible, and the beliefs christians promote, but I always wondered what was behind the so called holy ghost because like you, i knew many people involved in that were genuine about what they felt. This shines more like into similar conclusions i had, but without the deeper investigation you have made.

    so thank you!

  • Alan

    I got so involved with seeking God, listening loud screaming preachers and believing absolutely everything I saw or heard was true, that when I found out that most of it was fraudulent and full of money hungry crooks like Benny Hinn, I became mentally unhinged and went into many years of hating myself because of guilt.

    Before I became religious I was most likely an disinterested agnostic, not really worried about God or the afterlife. I enjoyed life to the full, was a bodybuilder and athlete and proud of my looks and physical appearance.

    After I was “saved” I lost interest in all that, and I think because I could not measure up the expected spiritual perfection expected of me by the Bible, “Be ye perfect like God is perfect” I slowly began to descend in manic depressive psychoses.

    Alan

  • jeffreylreid

    I LOVED Charismatic praise and worship services, and I used to spend hours daily praying and worshiping. Seeking god was my favorite thing in the world to do! The emotional highs were incredible and intense and I sought them daily. Now, I understand that those emotional highs were driven by the incredible power of belief, and now that the belief isn’t there anymore, neither are the emotional highs.

  • Sammy

    Wow. I was raised in Pentecostal church. How do you get over it? How do you get over God? Please help.

  • Gay Christian

    I grew up in a charismatic church. I started speaking in tongues around 8 years old however, I would probably be freaked out if I went to a charismatic service today as it tends to attract very strange people not to mention their anti-gay stance. I will say I did have an experience one time after a church service. There was a traveling minister who had the young kids (probably 10-13 years old) gather in a half circle. He started to lay hands on them and every kid was falling to the ground. I remember as he was approaching me I had my hands lifted up but I said to myself “im not going to fall”. When he came to me I felt the power of the Holy Spirit so strong I immediately fell to the ground. I hit the ground hard and the fall hurt. lol. but I was ok. I have never experienced the Holy Spirit that strongly again but I do feel it during worship and prayer services but I have not been what they call “slain in the spirit” since then. I will also say that there wasn’t any music being played and the preacher man wasn’t even saying anything so I was not in any hypnotic state of mind. This man was just anointed. There is alot of deception in some of these charismatic churches and people get weird but my experience was not staged nor drummed up. It was real and I will never forget it. It has also helped me to carry on with my faith in Jesus.

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