Do You Criticize the Way Other People Worship?

Do You Criticize the Way Other People Worship? April 14, 2022

Worship, renewal, and revivals are not without controversies. Ever since the Great Awakening, and likely way before then, people have reacted with strange behavior when experiencing the Spirit of God.

I recall taking a course at Fuller Theological Seminary where my professor juxtaposed wars and revivals in American history. He pointed out a pattern that repeated itself—roughly every 20 years either war or revival breaks out in America.

The last arguable “revival” or renewal we have seen in North America was the Toronto Blessing in the mid-1990’s, but it was not without controversy. This was due in no small part to the unusual phenomena “laughing in the Spirit,” and animal noises uttered by people who claimed to be touched by the Holy Spirit.[1] The last war we experienced just recently ended, the War in Afghanistan, which dragged on for two decades. The longevity of this war seems to mess up the repetitive cycle of revivals and war in the U.S. All the same, America seems to be due for another revival soon.

Sean Feucht’s Let Us Worship ministry aspires to be on the forefront of the coming revival; this ministry attracts Millennials and the younger generation for Christ. If you attend one of these gatherings, you probably will see many people lifting their hands in worship, radical commitments to Jesus being made in front of the stage, and prayer for various types of healings taking place.

I am all for revivals and renewals, especially among younger adults who have never seen or experienced such things. I also realize that in virtually every great revival of the past, the Spirit, the flesh, and perhaps the devil all make appearances (Jonathan Edwards, if I recall correctly, said something similar). My concern is that, if revival were to come to the States, are we as believers prepared for it? Will it turn out to be the case once again that fellow believers would be on the front lines criticizing it due to what they might consider unusual worship, sermons, healings, and spiritual phenomena?

If worship and ministry is not what we might expect it to be, that does not necessarily mean that the Spirit is not moving in that ministry, let alone that that ministry is deceptive or of the devil. Here is perhaps what we can learn from an observer of past revivals:

William Sprague and the Second Great Awakening

In the twilight years of the Second Great Awakening, revival specialist William Sprague wrote that divisions and censorship were a lamentable evil arising out of revivals. He admonished ministers to correct those in error:

“But this is something quite different from that censorious, denouncing spirit, to which I here refer; which, though it be exercised in reference to religion,  is nothing better than  the spirit of the world.”[2] He continues pointing out two types of Christians. One type is zealous but overtly critical of others; the second type is critical of others who do not share this person’s formal worship:

“It is not  uncommon to find  this  spirit  marking  the  conduct of private Christians toward each other. There are some who will condemn their  brethren as cold Christians, or perhaps even  no Christians at all, because with less constitutional ardor than themselves, and possibly more prudence,  they are not prepared to concur at once in every measure that may be suggested for the advancement of a revival; or because they talk less of their own feelings than some others; or because they attend fewer public religious exercises than  could  be desired;  or because  from extreme constitutional diffidence they may, either properly or improperly, decline taking part in such exercises.”

“On the other hand, it is not to be questioned that men of a cautious habit, who are constitutionally afraid of excitement, sometimes  unjustly accuse  their  more  zealous  brethren  of rashness,  and  impute  to spiritual  pride what really ought  to be set to the account  of an honest devotedness  to Christ. Especially, if real and great abuses actually exist, they may be so much afraid of coming within the confines of disorder, that they may rush to the opposite  extreme of formality; and from that cold region they may look off upon the Christian who evinces  nothing more than  a consistent and enlightened zeal, and hail him as if he were burning to death in the very torrid zone of enthusiasm.”[3]

Divisions among Believers

What Sprague communicates seems to be common enough phenomenon even in our day—the critical Christian condemns the undiscerning Christian instead of lovingly attempting to stir him or her in more discerning ways. And the undiscerning Christian mocks and takes an air of elitism over the “dead” critical Christian. Such attitudes affect not  just individuals,  but churches and denominations as well. Sprague adds:

“The same spirit which discovers itself in private Christians toward each other, is also frequently manifest in respect to different churches…. where a church differs from another  in its views of the economy  of revivals, it may denounce  that other  as chilled with the frost of apathy  on the one hand,  or scorched  with the fires of fanaticism  on the other  … Any church,  whether  it be distinguished  by its zeal or its want of zeal, that takes the responsibility of dealing out violent censures  upon  its sister churches, especially if they are walking in the faith and order of the gospel, certainly assumes a degree of responsibility which it can ill afford to bear; and it will have no just ground for surprise, if it should meet a painful retribution,  not only in bringing back upon itself the censures  of men, but in bringing down upon  itself the dis­ pleasure of God.”[4]

Have you ever been there? It is almost as though we think we have God all figured out—the Holy Spirit can  move only in ways we approve  of. The sovereignty  of the Spirit is surrendered to the sovereignty  of humans, in service of their prejudices and packaged preconceptions of what  the  Spirit should  or should  not  do in their church services.

When our relationship with God is reduced to a mere science of phenomena, the spiritually dynamic reduces to the spiritually static. And so we might tend to cast anathemas on anything that  violates our God-in-a-box perception, apparently forgetting that Christ’s miracles didn’t “fit” the religious leaders’ agenda of his own time. May we be open to humility and embracing our fellow brothers and sisters who worship and express their devotion to God differently than we do.


[1] See my book A Time to Laugh:  The Holy Laughter Phenomenon Examined (Peabody: Hendrickson 1995).

[2] William B. Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959) 13-23, 230.

[3] Sprague, 232-33.

[4] Sprague, 233-34.

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