Science in Christian Perspective



Behaviorism and the New Worship Groups
Donald E. Ratcliff
Assistant Professor of Psychology and Sociology
Toccoa Falls College
Toccoa Falls, Georgia 30598

From: JASA 34 (September 1982): 169-171.

Recent years have brought new interest in the informal, often small worship group experience. Not unlike Wesley's class meetings, such groups emphasize spontaneous praise, exhuberant fellowship, and quest for greater spiritual depth. Some feel that these groups will function as a precursor to widespread revival, much as the pietists preceded the Wesleyan revival and the American Great Awakening.

Many behaviors found in the new worship groups are amenable to behavioral analysis. Behaviorism provides insight into the factors underlying much of the unusual behavior found in such groups. Relationships discovered by scientific analysis do not necessarily undercut or minimize the spiritual significance to participants, or negate the spiritual reality of the experience.

The Holy Spirit and behavioral psychology do not belong to separate worlds; at least sometimes they reflect different levels of explanation for the same event (Bufford, 198 1). Psychological factors cannot be excluded merely because the context of living has changed from private life to worship and fellowship. Not all that occurs in worship groups is supernatural, but rather can be subject to naturalistic study. Understanding behavioral influences aids both interested observers and participants in worship groups.


Collective prayer is of central importance in nearly all worship groups. Prayer is often loud and lengthy, sometimes with many voices speaking simultaneously. Often confusing to visitors, prayer fully involves those participating, seen in the intense expressions and tears on individuals' faces. During prayer words and phrases are repeated many times, while hands may be raised, or there may be laying on of hands and singing.

During prayer, group identification develops, behaviorally understood as social reinforcement for participation in specific behaviors. The unspoken communication may be that similarity in worship behaviors is a sign of spirituality, which results in acceptance by the group. While not always the case-some groups allow unusual variations in modes of prayer-many groups expect conformity, which is followed by reinforcement.

Several forms of reinforcement can be observed. Responses, such as "Amen" and other such expressions are common. Affectionate touching often occurs during or after prayer. New members, through covert shaping, eventually produce sanctioned prayer behaviors, while existing members are intermittently reinforced for their frequent (but not too frequent) prayers, the length of which is determined by group norms.

In contrast, the individual who uses unusual phrases and words is likely to find that few Amens accompany his prayers, and sometimes he or she prays in silence. Subsequently, those prayers become less frequent, being subject to extinction. There is plenty of opportunity for modeling others who pray more consistently with the worship group's norms. The non-conformist or newcomer is also less likely to be met with expressions of affection after the prayer or at the conclusion of the meeting.

While this process is not always problematic in itself, it can become dysfunctional to genuine spirituality if the group is less than fully scriptural in its teaching, particularly if some minor doctrine is elevated unreasonably. Too often, conformity to prayer behaviors can cloud the importance of essential beliefs and balance in doctrines taught. Interpretation of the Bible can be influenced by the strong esprit de corps, sometimes to the neglect of the intellect. This helps explain why many cultic groups influence young people.

Prayer is powerful, but accompanying activities and contingencies are also powerful. Biblical injunctions to private prayer and meditation, combined with statements regarding the need for discernment, are healthy correlates to the group prayer experience. The individual who is aware of such influences is less likely to be unknowingly influenced by noribiblical views. Conversely, the participant who is aware of those influences in prayer is more likely to use his or her responses to encourage more Christlike perspectives in other participants, while ignoring and thereby extinguishing undesirable statements regardless of accompanying mannerisms.

Feelings, Acceptance, Evangelism, and Elitism

Respondant conditioning also occurs in worship groups. Certain words and actions become associated with the pleasant feelings from group acceptance, while fears from ostracism are avoided. It may be that the raising of hands with palms upward, or a special tone of voice with positive feelings, are easily confused with spiritual experience.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with such behaviors, providing that the distinction between feelings and spirituality is maintained. Unfortunately, many individuals come to believe that such feelings are an expression of God's approval, regardless of the cognitive content of the experience or the meeting. Such feelings are as likely to be conditioned with non-Christian beliefs as with Christian beliefs, as a careful cross-cultural study of religions reveals.

Contingencies are often used to produce desirable consequences in groups, most notably acceptance of the individual. The focus upon "building up brothers and sisters" is often overlooked in the institutional church, and is an important contribution of the new worship groups. Acceptance and enthusiasm provide a cohesiveness not found elsewhere, and can contribute to the growth of Christians. Again, this may be contrasted with many churches where passiveness (i.e., sitting in pews) is reinforced.

Many of the new worship groups encourage personal evangelism by the membership. Those who witness are reinforced for sharing their faith by enthusiastic responses to testimonies, affirmation that increases the likelihood of similar behavior in the future. Such influences may be systematically used in a variety of contexts to encourage evangelism (Ratcliff, 1978, and Bufford, 1981). Associated skills, particularly assertiveness and use of the Bible, can also be learned by taking advantage of group contingencies.

A problem that sometimes develops in such groups is elitism among group members. This writer attended one group in which he noted one person who prayed louder and longer than others, with more accompanying physical behaviors than others. As was suspected, this individual was found to be the leader of the group. These extra actions may be understood to be dominance cues, implying hierarchical control. Such control is maintained by manipulating contingencies.

While the leader exerts an influence upon participants, the attender also influences the leader in many important ways. Vocal and behavior responses to statements are perhaps the most obvious form of influence, but also mere attendance (or non-attendance) is a contingency which influences the future behavior of the leader. Large numbers of persons attending a group reinforces the current behaviors of the leader (as well as the group), while non-attendance may help produce extinction. Ignoring or leaving may also help eliminate undesirable behavior. This also occurs in churches, where coming to special services may perpetuate and even increase the number of such services. Attending merely to "help others" is a poor rationale that can reinforce inferior preaching, which no one cares to hear.

Tongues and Healing

Two other behaviors are consistently found in many worship groups, which have components which can be understood through behavioral analysis. While not all speaking in tongues and healing may be the product of behavioral contingencies, many of these experiences can be thus described.

In many cases modeling is an important process in the development of tongues speaking. Individuals meet with others who believe in, teach, and practice tongues as a part of worship. Persons are nearly always acquainted with believers who speak in tongues, or at least read a book that mentions tongues, before they manifest the behavior. Through a systematic shaping procedure, speaking in tongues eventually occurs.

For example, the newcomer observes tongues followed by Amens and other forms of praise. These responses, although directed to God, also have a reinforcing effect upon the speaker. Modeling is thus enhanced through observation of such consequences. Praying and laying on hands become discriminative stimuli for such behavior to occur. The targeted individual ventures essentially random sounds (or sounds similar to what has been heard from others), which are reinforced socially. Gradually, more and more sounds are added to the behavior repertoire. Instructions to "let God come out" produce an unconscious vocalization, which is understood to be the gift of tongues.

In some cases, reports of healing are the consequence of behavioral influences, not unlike the contingencies producing speaking in tongues. Strong verbal reinforcement generally follows such reports, which makes similar testimonies more likely to occur. Since verbal reporting is not always an adequate indication of bodily functioning, the person may even be convinced of the healing. Combined with the illogic of "denying the symptoms" found in some groups, the illusion is strengthened. This is in contrast with Christ's teaching, which avoided false reporting of symptoms (even when healing was not complete, as in Mark 8:24), and who often healed persons without the social influence of a crowd.

Speaking in tongues and healing may not always. be the product of behavioral conditioning. These experiences are described in the Bible as gifts which are supernatural in origin. However, it is probable that many such experiences in worship groups are the result of such influences. Further substantiating this view, linguistic anthropologist William Samarin (1972) states that in his broad sample of Pentecostal and Charismatic groups, he did not find any examples of genuine language in tongues speaking.

Demon Possession

Many worship groups emphasize teachings concerning demonic activity, particularly demon possession and use of exorcism. , , Casting out demons" is frequent in some groups, even to the extent of a special service once each week for this purpose, as was observed in one group by this writer. While not denying the possibility of possession, particularly with persons who are involved with the occult, it is likely that much of what is considered demonic is actually the result of a complex mixture of shaping, modeling, and unintentional reinforcement.

As with speaking in tongues, most people usually observe the "casting out" experience before they find themselves "delivered." This observation provides as opportunity to model the behavior, as well as to observe the discriminative stimuli for the often bizarre mannerisms described as "demon expulsion." At some point, the individual becomes convinced that some problem or set of problems he or she has experienced is the product of demon possession, and begins to desire supposed exorcism.

Once a demon is "expelled," verbal reinforcement is given in the form of verbal praises and smiles by both the group and usually the participant. Testimonies help to solidify the learning, and within a short time such behavior becomes more likely.

While Satan is undoubtedly pleased with Christians acting like those he possesses, the screaming and erratic movements contradict the biblical statement, "For God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (11 Tim. 1:7). Modern "exorcisms" produce the opposite consequence in far too many cases.

During the first century, demon possession may have been more common than it is today because of widespread involvement in the occult. Yet, taking the Bible as a whole, demon possession is rare, with almost no mention in the more than 4000 years covered in the Old Testament, and with only three instances following Pentecost. Counselors and pastors should be aware that individuals are not necessarily possessed merely because they say they are or act in a manner that might suggest demonic involvement.


Through the analysis of behavioral influences in worship groups, many characteristic behaviors can be better understood. As a result, those who participate may recognize the influences that can affect their behavior and decision-making. Spiritual development is then more likely to be based upon the wisdom and careful study so often enjoined in Proverbs, rather than mere group consensus.

Likewise, through behavioral perspectives, rigidity and dogmatism is less likely for the Christian. Legitimate variations in practice and belief, within the boundaries of biblical orthodoxy, are thereby less likely to be discouraged. Behavioral influences may be valuable in reaching biblical objectives, or may in other circumstances be dysfunctional to reaching such goals.


Bufford, Rodger. The Human Reflex: Behavioral Psychology in Biblical Perspective. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Pub., 1981.

Collins, Gary. Search for Reality. Santa Ana, Calif.: Vision House Pub., 1975.

Griffin, E. The Mind Changers. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Pub., 1976. Paloutzian, Raymond. Religious Belief and Behavior. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Christian Academic Publications, 1978.

Ratcliff, Donald. "Tongues: Human or Divine?", Advocate, Nov. 4, 1977. Ratcliff, Donald. "Using Behavioral Psychology to Encourage Personal Evangelism", Journal of Psychology and Theology, Summer, 1978.

Samarin, William. Tongues of Men and Angels, New York: Macmillan Co., 1972.