Ecstatic experiences can be addictive. The world is full of thrill-seekers and daredevils hunting for that next rush of fear and adrenaline. The same is true for men and women who get hooked on the emotional highs of religious fervor. Soon the same old routines aren’t enough; their search for a greater spiritual high leads them to increasingly outlandish emotional experiences.
A classic example of this trend was the much-publicized “laughing revival” that broke out in early 1994. It was the subject of widespread attention in both the secular and Christian press. Time magazine described the scene in a formerly staid Anglican church:
The youthful throng buzzes with anticipation more common at a rock concert or rugby match. After the usual Scripture readings, prayers and singing, the chairs are cleared away. [The curate] prays that the Holy Spirit will come upon the congregation. Soon a woman begins laughing. Others gradually join her with hearty belly laughs. A young worshiper falls to the floor, hands twitching. Another falls, then another and another. Within half an hour there are bodies everywhere as supplicants sob, shake, roar like lions and, strangest of all, laugh uncontrollably.
This is pure mysticism, rooted in feeling but devoid of any cognitive element. The worshiper sees the mystical “emotive event” divorced from any objective truth as an encounter with God.
The “laughing revival” was birthed at Toronto’s Airport Vineyard church in January of 1994. That fellowship quickly became a Mecca for seekers of mystical experiences, with thousands making pilgrimages to witness the phenomenon firsthand. Crowds in excess of a thousand people gathered nightly for meetings where paroxysms of laughter constituted the order of service.
An article in Charisma reported, “On a typical evening, dozens of people can be found lying or rolling around on the floor, many of them laughing uncontrollably.” One pastor associated with the movement “described it as a ‘party with the Lord’ because he often has to preach to people who are rolling on the floor and laughing hysterically. The meetings often extend until 3 a.m.”
From Toronto the “holy laughter” has been carried around the world.
The Charisma article included an account that perfectly illustrates reckless faith at work. It describes the spiritual journey of Randy Clark, a Vineyard pastor from St. Louis, who was one of the men instrumental in starting the movement:
Clark, a former Baptist minister, was a candidate for renewal six months ago because he was so discouraged. “I felt empty, powerless and so little anointed,” he told Charisma. “Emotionally, spiritually and physically I knew I was burning out.”
Last summer, however, hope was rekindled after he talked with an associate who had just returned from a conference led by South African evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne. Clark’s friend talked to him for hours about how he had been spiritually revived during the meeting.
“What my friend was describing — people shaking, falling, laughing — was what I’d seen many years earlier in the Vineyard revivals,” Clark said. “I knew this was what I needed.”
To Clark’s disappointment, he learned that Howard-Browne’s next meetings were to be held at Kenneth Hagin, Jr.’s Rhema Bible Church in Tulsa, Okla. — a church Clark opposed because of theological differences. Then Clark sensed the Lord was reproving him for his smug attitude.
Said Clark: “The Lord spoke to me immediately, and said, ‘You have a denominational spirit. How badly do you want to be touched afresh?’”
Clark attended the meetings at Rhema Church and received prayer for a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit. When he returned to St. Louis, unusual things began to happen in his church services.
One person, he said, fell on the floor after being overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. “That had never happened in my church,” he noted.
As similar manifestations continued, Clark began to desire reconciliation with Rhema Church leaders and leaders of other churches he had opposed. “I still didn’t agree with some of what they taught, but I saw how sacrificially they worked at their college, and I saw their love for Jesus,” he said. “The Lord said to me, ‘Look how much they love me.’”
It is important to understand that Rhema Bible Church in Tulsa is the flagship church of the Word Faith movement, and Kenneth Hagin, Sr. was its spiritual father. The errors of this movement are far more serious than denominational preferences; they are fallacies that corrupt the very heart of the gospel and mangle the doctrine of Christ. These errors are well documented — and even many charismatic leaders regard them as serious heresy. So the “theological differences” Randy Clark was willing to overlook for the sake of the experience he sought are no mere trifles.
Note that it was not a rational understanding of any truth, but the phenomena — “people shaking, falling, laughing” — that convinced Clark “this was what [he] needed.” Clark’s own testimony indicates that he purposefully closed his mind to rational truth in order to receive the “blessing” he sought. So hungry was he for the mystical experience that he became willing to lay aside legitimate, fundamental, theological concerns. In fact, he was actually convinced that the Lord was requiring him to close his mind to these doctrinal objections before He would touch him afresh.
Clark even stated that he still did not agree with Word Faith doctrine, but evidently concluded that such doctrinal differences were unimportant. Shared experiences, positive feelings, and spectacular phenomena became more important to him than unity in truth. He rationalized his new perspective by noting that Word Faith teachers labor sacrificially and seem to love Jesus. Of course, many cults whose doctrine is far worse than the Word Faith movement also work sacrificially and profess to love Christ. “Loving Jesus” means nothing if one’s Christology is seriously perverted — and that is precisely the issue with Word Faith doctrine.
But the laughing revival simply wasn’t concerned with doctrinal issues. It crossed all denominational boundaries from the most formal high-church Anglicanism to the most outlandish charismatic sects. And it did so precisely because it had nothing whatever to do with objective truth. It was all about sensation, emotion, and feeling good. Thousands have concluded that something that feels so good cannot possibly be wrong.
Hysterical laughter totally divorced from any rational thinking may, in fact, be the most profound religious experience pure mysticism can produce.
It would seem fair to question the validity of a movement whose most visible fruits were meetings marked by hysterical laughter, and a tendency to downplay sound doctrine. But advocates of the laughing revival usually condemned any such attempts at discernment as censorious and pharisaical.
A Christian newspaper in New Zealand ran a front-page piece on the “holy laughter,” and a couple of readers wrote into the paper to suggest that the phenomena sounded suspicious. In the next issue, at least two-thirds of the letters to the editor were about the laughing revival. Every one of them chided readers who dared question whether the laughter was a work of God. Here are some excerpts:
Christians who have written … expressing adverse comments about the record of the happenings in Toronto and England need to take warning as they may be grieving the Holy Spirit.
In New Zealand we have not known revival on any great scale; therefore [critics] need to take warning unless we stop what God wishes to do.
Be careful please of judging. It’s dangerous ground to walk on. Is it honestly possible to use our carnal minds to try and understand things of the Spirit of God?
Too many judge from the written word rather than from personal witnessing. … May God soften the readers’ hearts to respond to His reviving in whatever form it comes.
Presumably the reader who complained that too many people “judge from the written word” was referring to people who evaluate things on the basis of newspaper accounts instead of what they have personally witnessed. We can only hope she was not suggesting that people rely too much on Scripture rather than personal experience.
But notice the thrust of all of those letters. They appeal to readers not to be discerning on the basis of fear: “Be careful … of judging. It’s dangerous ground to walk on.” When Paul commanded the Thessalonians to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), this is precisely the kind of judgment he was ordering them to exercise. Far from being “dangerous ground,” such discernment is the only safe ground for true Christians.
Is there really a risk that being overly discerning might grieve the Holy Spirit? Scripture never indicates that the Holy Spirit wants us to close our minds to objective truth and blindly accept sensational phenomena as proof that He is at work. Quite the opposite is true — we’re commanded to examine such things with extreme care. Failure to do so is the essence of a reckless faith.
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