Riding the Third Wave: The Neo-Charismatic Movement

I feel like this blog post could open with a Matrix pun. In fact, as a kid who grew up in the neo-charismatic movement, I’ve heard a good many youth-centred messages that included the old “red pill, blue pill, choose your reality” message extracted from the wisdom of the Wachowskis (who wrote the screenplay). But I’ll refrain. I’m about to launch into an interesting series on the link between modern spiritual warfare and paganism. But in order to preface that, we need to know what the New Apostolic Reformation is (see last weeks post) and what the Neo-Charismatic Movement is. They are intertwined, but also quite distinct from each other. So here we go: the history-hack takes on the third wave. Up, up and away. 

The Third Wave Charismatic Movement is known by a few names. Among them are the terms neo-charismatic and hyper-charismatic and of the two, I think the latter makes the most sense. Essentially, it’s a relatively recent movement within evangelicalism, which in itself is a broad term taking in a good many expressions of faith (all of which involve evangelism or the spread of Christianity). To understand the neo-charistmatic movement, we need to know what came before it and what it looks like today.

The first wave: Pentecostalism circa 1900

This “first wave” as some historians call it was undoubtedly an exciting time in the life of the church universal. Marked by revivalists and revivals (such as Azusa Street), it was a renewal movement within protestant Christianity that did away with the cessationist idea that the spiritual gifts had disappeared from the church. The Pentecostal movement saw the restoration of prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues to the church. Since Azusa Street (which seems to have become the historical marker of Pentecostalism’s emergence), this movement has swept across the world and with it, the classical beliefs within Pentecostalism have spread. These include but are not limited to (because lets remember I’m a hack of a historian):

  • Evangelism
  • The reliability and infallibility of the Bible (in fact, many pentecostals seem to be Biblical Literalists)
  • Salvation by grace through faith, and then transformation of ones life through Jesus.
  • Baptism, as in baptism into Christ at salvation, then Baptism in water and Baptism with the Holy Spirit where the gift of tongues is received.
  • The eminent return of Jesus.
  • Other doctrines such as divine healing, spiritual gifts, and worship through songs, prayers, communion, giving and other methods.

All in all, pentecostalism has offered great gifts to the world. It seemed to be an alternative to the stagnation that other faith institutions were/are experiencing. It offered a shared experience of faith which was a relatively new experience. There were some big names in this movement, of course. People like Charles Parham and William J Seymour were teaching on speaking in tongues, divine healing and evangelism. Gone were the silent observances of faith, mediated by the much revered clergy, and in came the participatory revival experiences that immersed believers in a new experience of Christianity.

There have been a good many big names, controversies and developments within the Pentecostal movement over the years (which would take forever to cover off on). I can’t help but think of the tele-evangelists of the 1980’s and 1990’s and wonder where they fit in – names like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Yonghi-Cho and others that rang loud through-out my childhood. They were hardly the revivalist types (like Parham and Seymour), but attempted to take the Pentecostal church experience into lounge rooms.

Truthfully, you could exist in a Pentecostal church, be touched by the evangelical charismatic movement and still be influenced by the neo-charismatic movement in tandem. One wave seems to roll into another quiet seemlessly.

The second wave: The evangelical charismatic movement of the 1960’s

Charismatic Evangelicalism amassed a wide following and built on the pentecostal doctrine with two major differences: it did not major on speaking in tongues as evidence of being baptised in the Holy Spirit, but it did major on the spiritual gifts (prophecy, healing, faith, healing, miracles, discernment of spirits, tongues). While, as I said above, these two “waves” or movements seem to roll in pretty effortlessly with each other, there were clashes aplenty. One was this “the failure of Charismatics to embrace traditional Pentecostal taboos on dancing, drinking alcohol, smoking, and restrictions on dress and appearance [that] initiated an identity crisis for classical Pentecostals, who were forced to reexamine long held assumptions about what it meant to be Spirit filled. The liberalizing influence of the Charismatic Movement on classical Pentecostalism can be seen in the disappearance of many of these taboos since the 1960s. Because of this, the cultural differences between classical Pentecostals and charismatics have lessened over time.”

Looking back through my experience in Christianity, it seems that many people don’t know exactly where they fit on the Pentecostal/Charismatic scale. It is said that Pentecostals believe that speaking in tongues is necessary evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and that they are more strict on the taboos mentioned in the quote above, while Charismatics aren’t too fussed on either of these things. I guess I grew up Charismatic, but even within this, I was touched by the purity movement which (functionally if not explicitly) placed restrictions on dress and appearance). I had my first drink of alcohol at age 25, and dancing was always a matter in which one had to be careful not to be too sensual. In my experience, Pentecostalism and Charismatics seemed to roll together. The clashes between the movements seem to be put on the back burner as people plunge ahead and roll with the waves when it comes to faith movements. This is fine, but as you know, I’m all about knowing what you believe.

So that was the second wave. The third wave was yet to come:

And here we are: The Neo-charismatic Movement.

In the third wave, we saw the power evangelists gain fame. I’m sure Billy Graham was the trailblazer here. But as time marches on, it’s the big ministries like the Bethel types, the Todd Whites and Heidi Bakers of the world that fly the flag.

Early on, there were a couple of movements that raised eyebrows or attracted a lot of criticism. Two such movements were the so-called Toronto Blessing (marked by so called “holy laughter” and lead by Rodney Howard Browne) and the Pensacola (or Brownesville) Revival. Criticisms that spanned both movements included  a lack of sustainability, and potentially capitalising on the naivety of believers who may have been swept up in a hyped atmosphere that may have had little or nothing to do with God at all.  There was also a bucket of theological issues raised. (I’m not going to critique these revivals today. You can read up on them here if you want).

As a child, I never experienced the Brownsville/Pensacola revival. That was considered to be “geographically specific” and unless you visited the so-called “power centre” you wouldn’t be touched by it. This, of course, is jarringly opposed to the omnipotence and omnipresence of God which leads me to ask “Which spirit was ruling the roost over there?”  I did, however, experience the Toronto Blessing. I sat beside my parents in a crowded auditorium in 1996 and witnessed the immersive worship that was the preliminary to Rodney Howard Browne striding onto the stage and singing “This is that” – his self-penned revival theme-song. To be honest, I was more taken with the lady on the piano who could run a whole band from her seat behind the ivories.  She was the one I wanted to emulate. (And kinda did, I guess).

ANYWAY! This movement characterised by laughter and being “drunk in the spirit” did reach my corner of the world – little Gippsland region in the back blocks of Australia. I remember watching the adults roll about on the floor in church meetings barking and laughing and falling on each-other. I had no idea what was going on, but it proved the perfect opportunity to find your friends and cackle your way through church. No one ever noticed if you leaned in to your bestie, made a quiet remark about how ridiculous someone looked, and then laughed raucously. It was “the Holy Spirit at work”. That was our cover.

Years on, I see little or no fruit from that movement (although I’m happy to be proven wrong if anyone has data). Not a soul saved in my area because of it (that I can recall). No lasting sense of renewal that I know of or could observe. No larger churches. No socio-economic change. No patches of the world touched by this movement that showed lasting declines in depression and anxiety statistics that should go with an outpouring of holy peace and joy. Maybe there were miracles, but these can’t be attributed directly to a movement. If the scripture says “Lay hands on the sick and they will recover” and that happened, then it’s because of the Holy Spirit and not because of so-called “Holy Laughter.” I guess 1 Peter 4:7, which cautions us to be sober and watchful, is my big caution here.  

What was the Toronto Blessing then, and if it was God, why did He do it? I don’t know. Ask the real historians. But the thing we have to be watchful of now is the theological issues that are raising their heads as the neo-charismatic movement beds itself down and marches forward under the current big brands in Christianity.

The Big Theological Differences in Neo-Charismatics

In the neo-charismatic movement, we have gone from the gifts of the spirit, to emphasis on signs and wonders, and the supernatural. I find this interesting. We seem to be upping the ante from one movement to the next and I have to wonder whether this is at least partially manufactured to fit an audience that demands more from the entertainment it consumes and has less of an attention span to consume it. Tv scenes are shorter and more intense. Movies are more gripping, with more special effects and quickly escalating plot lines. Social media has seemingly affected the attention spans of readers to sound-bytes and status updates.

Why do I mention these seemingly unrelated issues? Because along with these shortened attention spans and the escalating nature of entertainment in the secular world, we see shorter sermons, more intensive immersive worship experiences, electric atmospheres, shows of signs, wonders and miracles and (in my opinion) less emphasis on a well-considered and well informed faith. How do you build a solid, deep and well informed faith in a short sermon that is often more loaded with pop psychology than with scripture? (Look, there are some wonderful churches out there! I’m taking a broad brush to the issue)

My big concern within this third wave is that we can’t and shouldn’t treat Jesus like a drug. If we don’t feel Him, that doesn’t change His reality. It shouldn’t. But if we have been raised into Christianity on a steady diet of signs, wonders, miracles and spiritual gifts, immersive worship experiences and communal expressions of faith, then if our faith suddenly becomes rocked by an estrangement from church or community, and those feelings go away or we pray and don’t get healed – who is God? Where is God? Did He disappear? Am I going to Hell now?

Many a theologian has raised concerns over the errant teachings that have come out during this third wave. A personal concern of mine is that with increasing numbers of independent churches, and a decrease in emphasis on doctrine and qualification (with calling taking its place as if we don’t need both), then it seems we are perfectly poised for an epidemic of toxic, authoritarian or even cultish churches to emerge. These do not serve the body of Christ. These can leave immense damage in their wake when a believer wakes up to what is going on and has to extract themselves and their family from its grasp. (Read more here)

We don’t need bizarre manifestations for Christianity to be relevant. In fact, that could make it a laughing stock. We don’t need to ‘use’ Jesus like a drug to fix our mood or elevate our faith and devotion. Christianity, true followership of Christ, comes from a deep place within us. It is not a political stance. It doesn’t demand Dominionism (as we see in the NAR) or showiness. If we continue to create this hyped-up Christianity, then we are prepping ourselves for a mass exodus from the faith when inevitably, the individuals that make up the massive evangelical following worldwide hit hard times and start to question their faith.

True faith, to me, is deep, sober, grounded in the word, grown in compassion and love, and practiced regardless of church attendance (which of course we are exhorted to do so we don’t lose faith in the hard times anyway). How do you build such a faith if yours is built purely on the experience of neo-charismatic Christianity? For all the hype, for all the miracles, for all the songs and sermons, surely the personal expression of faith offered to God in the quiet, unseen moments is more meaningful. Just my take on it!

So there you have it: third wave/ neo-charismatic movement. I’ll admit, I’m a participant in the third wave. I just do it with my own Bible in hand rather than a firm reliance on my pastors wisdom. To be honest, I much prefer it that way.

See you in a few days for one heck of a series!

(Okay Kit. Stop procrastinating and write it!) 


Kit K


2 Comments Add yours

  1. James Leonard says:

    Hi Kit,

    Thank you for a enjoyable read. Nice analysis on the escalation of the “experience” at the possible expense good solid knowledge (theology). I am distrustful of hyper emotional worship – is it truly sustainable, or even desirable? It is the other side of the coin from deadness of liturgical formulae. Somewhere in between lies the right balance.


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