As someone with a lifetime of experience revolving around charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, I have a wall of text to present:
I was raised in the Assemblies of God church; as a child, I was surrounded by the whole "speaking in tongues" thing. My mom used to do it a lot while praying over me and my brother as children. As a very young child, I remember being confused by it; I didn’t understand the jibber-jabber. Why pray if no one could understand you?
Of course, my mother was very firm in her conviction and very sure of her explanation, so I accepted it. At that age, you tend to accept what your parents know as being truth. I remember going through the whole “baptism of the Holy Spirit” thing around age 10. It was right after I was baptized into the AOG church. They had a whole class that revolved around understanding and then receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, primarily the gift of speaking in tongues. My parents, my younger brother and I all attended this class; at the end of it, the teacher had an altar call for anyone that wanted to be “slain in the Spirit” to receive the gifts.
My brother and I both went forward bravely; at age 9 and 10 respectively, we really didn’t have a concept of what was going on, but I thought it must be gravely important. I remember the preacher laying his hands on my forehead and another dude standing behind me ready to catch me when I fell to the ground. Eventually I did, but it wasn’t really out of anything that might have been called the Holy Spirit. More or less, I remember lying on the ground with my eyes closed, wondering if I was supposed to be feeling something. I was a bit confused, but eventually I stood up and went back to my seat and my parents seemed really proud of me.
There was another time as well, at a youth camp when I was a teenager in high school. I remember it being an incredibly emotional and moving worship service at the time. I had been going through a lot of personal turmoil, and this camp was the first time I’d ever really experienced any sort of powerful emotional release. I had dealt with suicidal ideation, an eating disorder, bullying, and all manner of other things throughout my adolescence, and most of the time the emotions I had were bottled. This camp was the first time I’d honestly released anything, and I finally felt joyful. This time, I didn’t have any ministers praying over me. I just remember standing to the side of the altar and praying fervently, and then I sort of collapsed. Maybe it was a genuine experience of God, maybe it was an emotional reaction, maybe it was the fact that I was very out of shape and standing in a hot and sweaty room in a cabin on top of a mountain and I was unaccustomed to the altitude.
After getting up that time, I felt sort of embarrassed. People had noticed, but most had left me to my own devices. I was invited by the youth pastor to share a testimony of what was happening to me, and I did. The people around me were very convinced that I had been “slain in the Spirit”. At the time, I felt that it had genuinely been an experience with God. Actually, at both times if you had asked me what had happened, I would have plainly stated, “It was God”.
Now, looking back, I can see that both of those experiences were somewhat… dubious. I don’t regret them, and I certainly don’t have any negative feelings about the people that led me into the experience either. When it occurred, I was practicing Christianity the best way that I knew how. It might have been wrong, but my heart was genuine and I was doing the best I could with what I had available.
I was speaking with a deacon the other day about this very thing. His opinion was that in doing these things, “You’re letting your worship be ruled by the passions.” I would tend to agree with this statement. Once again, at the time I was certainly practicing the best Christianity that I knew. That’s what I think about most of these folks, including the preachers and ministers that teach it. They’re (mostly) incredibly genuine about what they believe, and they truly believe that their experiences are genuine.
That being said, I don’t really think that the experiences of being “slain in the Spirit” and “speaking in tongues” as these people understand them are truly Godly. I don’t consider them satanic either; I think it’s very simply explained by people getting caught up in the emotion of it all and being swept off their feet by their own passions. From my own experience as a layman and as a protestant minister, charismatic Christianity becomes a game of chasing the emotional high. You’re not truly experiencing God if you’re not getting high, and it can become very addictive.
The unfortunate side of this is that much like doing hard drugs instead of eating real food, one quickly will become spiritually malnourished by this practice. All too often have I seen people that practice this sort of Christianity reach their peak and then blaze out, never to return to the church again. There are a myriad of reasons why this happens, but it all boils down to the same thing: Their worship is ruled by their passions, and it isn’t truly providing spiritual nourishment. That isn’t to say that this happens to everyone; my grandmother, one of the most devout Christians I’ve ever known, was incredibly driven by her charismatic beliefs. To the very day she died, she was always praying in tongues and having powerful experiences in her prayer. Were they genuinely the Holy Spirit, or was it just emotion? I don’t know; it’s not for me to say. I am very certain that she was genuine; I don’t think for a second that she would fake anything like that.
Essentially, what I think is this: Most of the people that you see practicing charismatic Christianity are genuine. They really do believe that what they’re doing is really real. They’re trying to practice Christianity the best that they can. Unfortunately, their version of Christianity frequently becomes a practice of chasing useless emotional highs instead of actual spiritual nourishment, and it results in far too many people going down in a blaze of glory, never to return to Christianity. I don’t really believe that the whole charismatic practice of being “slain in the Spirit” and “speaking in tongues” (a la Binny Hinn et al) is genuinely the Holy Spirit; I’m pretty convinced that it’s people being swept up in their emotions and allowing the passions to rule their worship. They aren’t doing it on purpose; they just don’t know what they’re missing.