Spiritual Manifestations: Why did my friend shake in church?

Okay this is a very controversial and often-misunderstood religious matter so I’m going to create a relatively detailed context before posing my question. I’ll try to briefly explain a little about both the church and my friend.

I was raised in a Pentecostal church. In high school that church started having a really crazy “revival” that involved “spiritual manifestations.” For those of you familiar with this issue, this revival was influenced by the similar one that occurred in Pensacola Florida. There was all sorts of different shaking and strange gyrating, falling over, “speaking in tongues” etc…lets just say that over the 3 years that I remained there during my high school years, I saw a lot of unbelievable behavior. I played an instrument in the orchestra for several years in this environment so I also saw a lot of the everyday behind-the-scenes thinking involved in the way this revival operated. However, I never experienced any of these manifestations myself (just as many did not). But, I was right in the center of it starting from the very beginning of its appearance in the church.

I found it very exciting and profound. Eventually I built up the courage to invite a female Christian friend from school to an evening worship service (yeah what a wild ladies man I was). If I were to describe my friend I would use words like attractive, popular, reserved and respectable. She was a sixteen-year-old girl who was very active in her own small church—a very conservative liturgical Methodist church. She was also very bright—a member of a debate team, a great musician, and one who eventually graduated 3rd out of 400+ in her class and went on to major in biology.

When she saw some people in my church moving and talking weird, it was like nothing she had ever seen before—she didn’t know what to think… I mean, could God (or anytone for that matter) seriously cause people do act so strangely? We just sort of sat in the back and observed since to witness such a sight for the first time (along with dancing and lively music) can be somewhat uncomfortable. The service itself consisted of a lot of music, dancing, praying, plus people periodically going up to the microphone and sharing something or other. There was never any Benny Hinn style healing up on the stage but people of course did report healings and such. Some people exhibited various physical manifestations (shaking, etc), but the majority did not. Although it all sounds weird, it actually was a pleasant and interesting experience for my friend.

We came back again the next Sunday evening and again sat away from the action in the shadow-covered balcony. This time though there was also a communion service. The music had slowed down and created a very quiet and meditative mood while people prayed and while the elements were passed around throughout the large church. We sat in our chairs, the lights were dim, soft music played, holding our little piece of bread and our little plastic cup of grape juice. Like most people, we sat and prayed silently to ourselves.

Then out of the blue, my friend’s leg starts to bounce up and down uncontrollably. It was truly bizarre, in fact I had to take her cup from her since she had already spilled half of it on herself. She was somewhat embarrassed and said she couldn’t stop. Not only would her leg shake but she also started to bow forward as if her stomach was being slowly clenched. It wasn’t spastic, more of a smooth rhythmic movement that appeared to be involuntary. She didn’t know what was happening because it had never happened before.

However, when we left the church, the shaking didn’t end. She shook as we walked through the parking lot on the way to the car. She did it in the car…Eventually it soon receded and just became periodic—going on and off irregularly for the rest of the night.

The next day, Monday morning, we show up at school. My friend is still periodically shaking. She was even standing in the lunch line in the middle of a crowded high school cafeteria when her leg suddenly began shaking. I remember eating lunch outside that day because she didn’t want to causes a scene. On Wednesday during her Methodist youth group she had to separate herself from the group because whatever was happening to her became disturbing and more violent. I spoke to the youth pastor of my church who in turn met with her and prayed with her. After praying with him she no longer shook in this way and to my knowledge never has since.

When it comes to seeing this type of thing on TV or reading about it in a book, it is easy to dismiss as bogus. Even when you stand in a church and see all these other people shaking and doing weird stuff, I know in my mind that even if it is real, I know that some of them are just playing along, trying to get attention or appear extra spiritual or whatever. Maybe there is some psychological explanation for the behavior. But when it happens to someone you know who has no motive for adapting the behavior and has not been socialized to exhibit it, all the sudden it becomes very difficult to so easily pretend to understand it or dismiss it.

I personally am totally as to why those things occurred. Maybe it was God, or demons or some other invisible force acting upon her. Perhaps it has a medical or psychological explanation—I simply don’t know and I can’t rule out the possibility that it was something external to her that caused her to shake. I don’t know.

What do you think caused her to shake?

The number of possible causes for the behavior observed is huge. Among them are Divine intervention, demonic possession, electrolyte imbalance, psychosomatic, or psychogenic physiological processes, emotionally induced neurological responses, seizure disorders, charlatan fakery, or just plain old lies by you, here in the forum. How much credence you give any one of them depends more on who is observing, or reading than on what really happened.

Many people report physical, and physiological changes attributed to religious experiences. Many others do not. It is the trembling of your soul that really matters, not the shaking of your body. Only you and the Lord will ever know the truth of about that, and it doesn’t really matter much what other people think about it.

I happen to think that it is impossible for a child to witness that intense a set of behaviors by respected adults without experiencing strong impulses to conform to the demonstrated pattern of the group. That same set of facts would be true whether the group was praying, or listening to Rock and Roll. Be sure to submit your own heart to the Lord in private, when no expectation of others can stifle your true self from meeting Him.

A small point of Biblical accuracy, by the way. “Speaking in tongues” doesn’t mean someone in Georgia sitting in church, and speaking Coptic, without ever having studied it. The miracle of tongues happens when you go from Georgia to a village in Nigeria, and testify about the Love of Christ in English, and all the people hear you in Ebo, except for the Ashanti speakers, who hear your voice speaking Ashanti. That is the miracle of tongues.


“RITUALISM, n. A Dutch Garden of God where He may walk in rectilinear freedom, keeping off the grass.” ~ Ambrose Bierce ~

What does your friend think?

Many unusual phenomena have occurred and been ascribed to the doing of the Holy Spirit. I make no formal judgment on the validity of any of them.

But it’s worth noting that Paul in discussing spiritual gifts, including the sorts of things that Pentecostal churches emphasize, says that they’re given for the purpose of “the building up of the Body of Christ” (i.e., the church).
He also encourages “testing the spirits” – if any such phenomenon as reported in the OP occurs, not only the rational skeptical response but also the Biblically-guided Christian one is to check it out as to whether it does others or the group in which it occurs any good.

Maybe the pastor is spiking the communion with something that blocks dopamine reception in order to cause this behavior. I’d grab a handful of those wafers and have them tested. Oh, gotta go, The X Files is coming on.

I shiver when I enter churches. Is it because I’m Wiccan and I don’t belong there? Possibly. The more likely explanation on my part is my mind knowing my dislike and distrust of the Christian and Catholic belief system, sends a signal to my body to shiver as a reaction to my feelings.
No idea if someone’s mind could be attributed to these things, just a suggestion.

Maybe it was the power of suggestion. She saw someone else doing it, she felt maybe it would happen, then perhaps, her leg was a little cramped, she moved it…and voila!

Who knows? Maybe psychosomatic. Maybe she has a physical problem, and should see a doctor. I would tend to be pretty skeptical on the God explanation. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: there is an all-powerful being who nonetheless chooses to refrain from using his power to control humans, since that would interfere with his gift of free-will. BUT, he occasionally decides to circumvent this self-imposed restriction, not to do some great thing that will benefit mankind, but to make people shake uncontrollably. Further, he only does this to people who already have a strong belief in him, and aren’t really in need of convincing.

And why is it that when a person exhibits odd behaviour in connection with strong religious belief, it is only claimed to be the work of God when it is to the advantage of the person making the claim? For example, if a cult leader convinces his followers to go out and commit murder, you never hear anyone say “that’s very unusual, God must have been behind it”.

I know exactly what you mean, I do believe. When I was in college, I was a member of a campus Christian fellowship, one of those rather muddled masses of conservatives who wanted to convert the campus, liberals who wanted to feed the homeless around the campus, and a paid staff worker who wanted to keep the freshmen from drinking themselves silly.

It was primarily pretty staid when it came to the charismatic elements of the faith, until my senior year, when some members came back from a study-abroad and made speaking in tongues a daily experience.

We used to organize a guys’ Saturday-morning breakfast once a month or so; it would include a short Bible study of sorts, nothing too intense. Well, one Saturday the charismatic crowd took the whole thing over during the group prayer time, and there was all sorts of speaking in tongues, rough laying of hands, etc. I was raised Greek Orthodox (how I ended up in a primarily evangelical fellowship is sort of mysterious, I must admit), so I had never seen anything like this; one of my closest friends throughout college, raised in a decidedly non-gifts Baptist church was sitting next to me. He had never really experienced this before either.

After about 10 minutes, the frenzy became quite palpable; it wasn’t only the tongues, it was the mere repetition in the prayers (“Yes, Lord. We thank you, Lord. Lord, yes. Bring it, Lord.”). All of a sudden, my friend started praying in tongues! Or something. He had absolutely no reason to do this, and for all I know he was speaking Arabic, or Cantonese, or Babblespeak. There was no “translator,” which made the whole thing strange.

I think it was a psychological effect. He was not predisposed religiously to such behavior, and he has never repeated it. I believe he was so swept up in the moment (as was I, really) that something inside him compelled him to conform to the behavior, as it was certainly pleasureable to the others in the room.

This isn’t to say that I necessarily deny the existence of demons (or angels) and the like, but I think the simplest explanation in my friend’s case was intense albeit implied peer pressure.

I had an experience similar to these but was alone. So how can the peer pressure theory hold up? I was also raised pretty conservative and had never experienced tongues or being “slain in the Spirit”.

Well, if you put any stock in the writtings of the early church leaders, keep in mind that Augustine said that the gifts of the spirit had ceased with the passing of the apostles. It was a tool to establish the early church and after that it passed away (as the NT said it would). IIRC, it was in response to the Montanist (sp?) heresy.

The Pentecostal movement is a fairly new one in church history, a little over a hundred years old, not exactly steeped in history. There isn’t much in the way of speaking in tongues and other such things in church history. This proliferation basically began in the later 1800s and is now the fastest growing denomination in Christianity.

As for the “slain in the Spirit” phenomenon mentioned, it isn’t very biblical (always a good way to present it to those coming out of the movement). People falling down by the power of God in the Bible was always in judgement and they always fell forward. The people you see now a days all fall backwards. Of course, those who are laying hands on them are taught to push them backwards after rocking them for a while to throw off their equilibrium slightly.

I’ve been there, done that. Spoke in tongues, fallen on the ground, laid hands on people, felt the shake, etc. I’ve put all that behind me now and look back with a bit more objectivity. I am of the firm belief it is an emotional reaction and nothing more. People expect a reaction, build up their emotional state, see and hear others and then follow suit. It shouldn’t be a surprise that singing emotion songs usually proceeds these instance, to get people in the right frame of mind.

It’s not much different then those screaming girls you see in Beatles news shots. Crying, shaking, passing out. The power of emotions and the power of suggestion are both very powerful.

BTW, other religions do experience people shaking and speaking in tongues and such. It’s not just a Christian thing.

Well, I don’t know. Care to relate how it happened after all?

For what it’s worth, like another poster said, the general concept doesn’t stop with Pentecostals/charismatics. I once met a Russian Orthodox ascetic who told me of an experience repeating the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner”) over and over, faster and faster, to the point of almost out-of-body ecstasy. I’m quite sure he was alone at the time; it wasn’t tongues or anything like that, but the effect was analogous.

But the OP wasn’t about a solitary experience, and if a “peer pressure” theory isn’t the one, certainly a “group action” theory seems reasonable to me.

I would guess it to be a product of group pressure, much as some above have said.

Although I believe in gifts of the Spirit, I worry about things like this. Polycarp mentioned a good test–is it uplifting and good? Does it confer light and understanding? If not, I don’t think that it’s of God. Pointless shaking and yelling are not uplifting and don’t teach anyone anything good; I don’t believe they are of God.

Try this sometime, if you’re interested in how much you can affect your body with your mind, even when aware of what you’re trying to do.

Go be alone at night somewhere in the house; it’s better if you’re alone at home, but it’s not necessary. Leave the lights off, and turn off anything making sounds so it’s quiet.

Then say to yourself about ten times “I’m not alone in here. There’s someone or something in here with me.”

When I did this, I felt completely freaked out. I felt cold; I trembled a bit; I breathed faster; I felt certain there was another presence nearby, even though I knew the house was empty, and that I had just caused myself to feel that way by telling myself it was true.

To calm back down, do the reverse: say “I’m alone here. There’s nobody and nothing else here with me.”

After doing that, I calmed back down.

I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in ghosts or UFOs or otherkin or anything like that. Pragmatically, I’m a total materialist. Yet, without convincing myself of an other-worldly presence, I felt that presence, then just as easily turned the sensation off again.

Having had that experience, it’s easy for me to believe that the OP’s friend mentally “gave in” to the idea that she could and was having a “shaker” reaction. Moreso than most, she was mentally prepared to accept what she would see as God’s power manifesting through her.

That cuts both ways, Hansel, in a sort of Ramachandran fashion. You can’t know whether your mind is conjuring the “presence” or whether the “presence” is responding to an open mind.

Yeah, I’m with you and Poly on this one. Though I would not want to definitively dismiss such an experience, But I have my doubts about this one. It seems “showy” and I don’t know what the point is. However, sometimes there’s a point that we are not aware of.

Hmmm…I just don’t know…

Is it just me or even if God did cause those leg spasms, wouldn’t that be a pretty lame “sign.” I mean wipe out world hunger or lower the murder or something. If all God is doing is making peoples leg shake then…

But really I would attribute it to something more natural, sometimes things like that just happen.

Epistemically, you’re correct: the experiment proves nothing about the source of the feeling, only the ability of the mind to direct the body to perceive.

However, Occam’s Razor suggests that one is imagining the presence.

“The miracle of tongues happens when you go from Georgia to a village in Nigeria, and testify about the Love of Christ in English, and all the people hear you in Ebo, except for the Ashanti speakers, who hear your voice speaking Ashanti. That is the miracle of tongues.”

—I’m sorry, but this stopped me in my tracks. Is there ANY evidence of this ever happening, anywhere?

You mean apart form the original???