Recent decades have witnessed a remarkable movement throughout the Christian church. Springing up spontaneously across the full spectrum -from Protestant to Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox - the charismatic renewal now involves millions of people on every continent.

Because it is so widespread, with different forms of teaching and practice, this renewal can be confusing. Like the reports of the three blind men on Aesop's elephant - one of whom touched the hide, another the tail, the third a tusk - it all depends on the point of contact.

The charismatic renewal is not strictly a movement like many others described in this book. It cannot be traced to one outstanding leader, or even a small group, with a well-defined set of doctrinal and organizational convictions. This renewal has sprung up from the grassroots in a wide variety of forms.

The charismatic renewal takes its name from the Greek word charisma, a gift. In the New Testament this gift involves all that God gives us in his grace through Jesus. But most often this word is used for a specific way the Holy Spirit shows himself within the Christian community.

The apostle Paul uses the picture of the body when he writes about spiritual gifts. Christians are members of the body; Jesus is the head. Just as parts of the human body have different functions, so Christians experience a variety of spiritual gifts. These are given by the Holy Spirit to strengthen the body of Christ in its worship, witness and service.

At the heart of the charismatic renewal stands the conviction that the full range of spiritual gifts in the New Testament is meant for the church today. This belief challenges centuries of traditional teaching that certain 'supernatural' gifts (such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues) were only for the first generation of Christianity.

Historically, these gifts did wane in the third and fourth centuries. In order to explain their decline, it was taught that these so-called 'supernatural' or 'extraordinary' gifts were needed only during the first century until the church was established and the New Testament was completed. The charismatic renewal replies that not only did these gifts continue into the following centuries, but nowhere does the New Testament teach that they would be withdrawn.

Paul makes no distinction between 'natural' and 'supernatural' gifts. Prophecy and service, healing and helping, tongues and administration stand side-by-side in his lists without these labels. All are manifestations of the Holy Spirit needed by the church in every generation to inspire its worship and give power to its mission.

Charismatic fellowship

The charismatic renewal has solid evidence that its teaching on this subject is true: all of the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament are in use today. They become evident in weekly prayer and praise services. These may involve 500 people in a church or twenty in a home.

The main purpose is to worship God. Those present believe the Lord is living and personal, and as they praise him they expect the Holy Spirit to provide the gifts needed for the occasion. The members focus on Jesus Christ, the head of the Body, as they enjoy his presence and the power of the Spirit to strengthen them for their worship and witness.

Often the music of a guitar begins a hymn of worship. It might be this one, based on Isaiah's vision in the temple:

We see the Lord.
He is high and lifted up,
And his train fills the temple.
The angels cry holy,
The angels cry holy is the Lord.

Other hymns follow, many of them words from the Bible set to music. A silence ensues after which someone may read a psalm of praise.

Another may speak about how Jesus Christ has set her free, how she reached the end of her own resources and began a new spiritual life. As she concludes many share in her joy: 'Thank you. Lord'; 'Praise God'.

The service is not planned in advance. Rather its structure develops round basic themes as members follow the leading of the Spirit. It is much like the early church meeting the apostle Paul describes, 'When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.'

One by one various members read from the Bible, or offer a prayer. They report how Jesus has given them victory over sin, a special healing, new love for neighbours, wisdom in a difficult situation or renewed joy in himself.

Once or twice there is a prophecy, a word from God speaking to a specific situation. It is not so much a prediction of the future as a practical message for the present. The prophecy may rebuke pride, call for faith, offer encouragement, condemn wrong attitudes or affirm God's love for his people. These prophecies must be in harmony with and subject to what the Holy Spirit has already revealed in the Bible.

There may also be speaking in tongues. Such a message comes in a language unknown to the people present. So after a brief silence another member gives an interpretation so that everyone can understand the message. Its meaning, just like a prophecy, is in line with the unfolding theme of the meeting. The charismatic service follows the guidelines Paul laid down in 1 Corinthians 14:27-33. Frequently someone gives extended teaching, an exposition of a Bible passage applied to everyday life.

Occasionally someone asks prayer for healing. The larger charismatic fellowships often have a special service for this at another time. Smaller groups in homes, liowever, where members have a better opportunity to know each other, pray for healing whenever requested. Sometimes the healing is immediate; at other times it involves a process of supporting prayer over a long period; sometimes the healing does not occur, but always the person feels loved and valued by God and by the fellowship.

These prayer and praise meetings offer an opportunity for members of the body of Christ to show a variety of spiritual gifts for building up the community, for giving new strength to its worship, witness and service. Even though the programme is unplanned, there is a dynamic movement within the fellowship as the Holy Spirit develops the theme of the meeting. People often come from a variety of churches where they are active in the more traditional forms of worship and service.

Four streams

To understand the impact of the charismatic renewal, we need some historical perspective. Although the river cannot be traced to one source, it is fed by four main streams. They do not flow in isolated channels, but merge with each other at times. Yet each has its own distinctive characteristics.

The first stream is classical Pentecostalism which began to flow in the United States shortly after 1900. (A more detailed description appears in the article Releasing the Spirit.} The larger Protestant denominations rejected the Pentecostal movement as another cultic wave. Nevertheless it spread overseas to Great Britain, Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland. During the following decades it became established in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Initially, fragmented as well as isolated, Pentecostalism gradually coalesced into several major groups. In the 1940s these formed the triennial Pentecostal World Conference. Pentecostals now number 50 million and comprise the largest non-Roman Catholic communion in many countries of Europe and Latin America.

A second stream began to make its way quietly within the major Protestant denominations during the 1950s. A key person was David Du Plessis, a Pentecostal minister from South Africa, who opened lines of communication with mainstream churches. He shared the charismatic message with influential Protestant leaders in Europe and North America.

Underground rivulets formed independently at the congregational level across the United States. One suddenly splashed into the headlines through an event at St Mark's Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California during April 1960. The rector, Dennis BenTiett, stood in his pulpit and told of a new work of the Holy Spirit in the church and also in his own life. It involved a variety of spiritual gifts including speaking in tongues. The immediate strong reaction forced his resignation.

Bennett wrote a letter to his parishoners asking them not to leave the church. He affirmed the importance of their slaying in the church so that the Spirit could work more freely. Bennett was invited to serve at St Luke's Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington. There he continued to teach and encourage the exercise of spiritual gifts in the church, including healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues. His extensive travelling and writing during the following years stimulated charismatic renewal in the major Protestant denominations. Also influential in these early years were Lutheran Larry Christenson, Reformed Harald Bredesen and Episcopal Everett Fullam.

In 1963 Du Plessis, Bennett and Christenson began visits to England. As a result Michael Harper, a curate in All Souls Church, London, became involved in the charismatic renewal. He left All Souls in 1964 to set up the Fountain Trust, which for the next sixteen years pioneered renewal in Britain and influenced it around the world. The Guildford Conference in 1971 was formative for renewal in Europe and many parts of the British Commonwealth. By that year it had spread to all denominations in Britain and begun in the Roman Catholic Church.

A third charismatic current has simultaneously developed outside of mainstream Protestantism. Independent groups which shed some of the Pentecostal image appealed to many people who were disillusioned with their own churches. These groups, with such leaders as Derek Prince and Bob Mumford, have moved to a strong emphasis on community. They are currently wrestling with the whole question of church structure and what discipleship really means today. Prominent in this stream are the house churches. Many of these independent communities are linked together as informal fellowships by common teachers, conferences, cassette tapes and literature. (See The Church at Home.)

Roman Catholic renewal

The fourth charismatic stream began to flow within the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1960s. The way had been prepared during the preceding ten years by the Cursillo movement with its concern for a renewal in the church. Its conferences helped Christians live out effectively in the world their commitment to Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This movement began in Spain after World War II and came to America in 1957.

In the autumn of 1966 several laymen on the faculty ofDuquesne University in Pittsburgh recognized a lack of dynamism in their Christian witness. So they began to pray that the Holy Spirit would renew them with the powerful life of the risen Lord. In mid-February, 1967, about thirty students and teachers went on a weekend conference to pray and to meditate on the first four chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Saturday evening as they gathered in the chapel the Holy Spirit brought something new into their lives. One professor reported. There was no direction as to what had to be done... Some praised God in new languages, others quietly wept for joy, others prayed and sang. They prayed from ten in the evening until five in the morning. Throughout the evening God dealt with each person there in a wonderful way.'

During the following weeks the fellowship group at the university grew. It began to function as more of a community using spiritual gifts to strengthen the body of Christ. This renewal spread to other universities.

In September 1967 the first annual National Catholic Pentecostal Conference was held with about 150 students, staff and priests. During the following decade the movement spread to many parishes across the United States. By 1977 about one million people were active in the renewal and the annual conference had an attendance of 30,000.

In 1974 Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, an early supporter, convened a small international group of theologians and lay leaders at Malines for a study conference. They prepared a statement on theological and pastoral concerns of the charismatic renewal and its role in the life of the church. The renewal was now spreading to every major continent. Eventually its headquarters became the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office based in Rome. By 1983 about 15 million people in 120 countries were being affected by this movement of the Spirit.

The streams ol the charismatic renewal continue to broaden and deepen. The Pentecostal denominations around the world are growing rapidly, especially in Latin America. Within Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches this movement is being used by God to revitalize millions of Christians for whom church membership has been mostly formal or nominal.

Like earlier revivals in the church, the charismatic renewal has brought disturbance as well as benefit. Sometimes its adherents have been over-enthusiastic and acted unwisely, so that more traditional members of the congregation have been put off. At times there has been division. Yet for the most part the charismatic renewal has flowed on within the major established churches.

What marks out this renewal?

Every genuine renewal is a gift of the Holy Spirit. And renewals have certain common features: people expect God to work; worshipping God becomes central to life;

new hymns are written; people radiate love towards one another; they struggle to work out their renewed life in individual and corporate terms. The charismatic renewal has all these. But it also has other marks, which together make it unprecedented in the history of the church:

  • It sprang up spontaneously. Unplanned and unpredictable, it does not correspond to any human plan for church renewal. In an extraordinary way similar patterns of charismatic activity have appeared in widely separated places without apparent interaction between them.
  • It is worldwide in scope, crossing most church boundaries as well as political barriers between East, West and Third World. Its basic characteristics are not fundamentally changed by differences of culture, economic system or standard of living.
  • The initiative lies with laypeople, as is evident in the square or circular arrangement of a typical charismatic meeting. Led by the Spirit, members of the body have an opportunity to share in Bible reading, prayer, witness and using a range of spiritual gifts.
  • There is a growth in Christian community. The renewal shows that spiritual gifts are meant primarily to strengthen the body of Christ for its worship, witness and service. This theory becomes reality with a new sense of community in this movement.
  • Charismatic fellowships expect the Holy Spirit to provide all of his gifts. (Speaking in tongues and baptism in the Spirit receive special treatment in following sections.)
  • The renewal takes the Bible seriously as the word of God. People develop a new thirst to read and apply its truth, and they find its authority becomes evident as they apply it in daily living.
  • As people are renewed, they develop a new concern to share the good news about Jesus. They have confidence that they can witness effectively about him.
  • The renewal frees people to use their bodies and emotions, as well as their minds, in worship. Praise is joyous and hearty; hands rise in worship; Christians embrace each other. There is also a recovery of the church's healing ministry in all kinds of illness including the physical.

The remarkable growth of the charismatic renewal answers to a longing many people feel. We long for a truly spiritual life, in place of a Christianity that has become intellectualized and preoccupied with techniques. We long for genuine fellowship in which each Christian finds his or her role in the body of Christ. And we long to know the power of the Spirit, in reaction against a Christianity that explains away the miraculous in the New Testament and excludes it from life.

Millions of Christians in the charismatic renewal witness to a life-changing experience. Many call it 'baptism in the Spirit'. They describe the results in different ways, but always there is a sense of spiritual freshness, a new Christian vitality. This goes along with a new appreciation for spiritual gifts, provided by the Holy Spirit to build the body of Christ and strengthen it to reach out to others. Many, although not all, start praying in tongues in their private prayers.

Yet it is easier to describe than explain baptism in the Spirit. Some link it with conversion and assurance, others with a second blessing. Many try to avoid controversy by using another term, such as 'release of the Spirit'. Unnecessary controversy can be avoided if people recognize that 'baptism in the Spirit', like many words, can have more than one meaning, depending on the context. Paul used it at least once for 'salvation', Jesus for 'service'.

When the Spirit works in dramatic and unexpected ways, the church often requires time to understand what is happening. It is possible for our experience of God to be better than our theological explanation. Nevertheless, all participants in the charismatic renewal agree that it raises a basic question: 'What is normal Christian life as Jesus intends it?'

They see the renewal as the Spirit pouring out his gifts to revive spiritual life among Christians and churches long accustomed to a level of living the New Testament would call subnormal.

Speaking in tongues

The charismatic movement is usually equated with speaking in tongues. More than any other spiritual gift, this one causes anxiety and controversy.

Speaking in tongues was prevalent in the early church. Often it was linked with prophecy. On the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues and declared the wonders of God. Luke reports other occurrences at Caesarea and Ephesus. The apostle Paul notes this gift in his various lists. He also gives explicit instructions to the church at Corinth, to regulate its use in public worship along with prophecy.

At Pentecost the tongues were recognized languages, spoken by the pilgrims who had gathered from many parts of the empire. But at Corinth the language was unknown to both the speaker and hearers; hence the need for interpretation so that the Christians could understand the message and draw strength from it. Speaking in tongues also occurs in the frenzy of some ecstatic religions. But in a Christian setting it is under the speaker's control.

Speaking in tongues sometimes comes under strong suspicion in our rationalistic culture which dislikes anything that appears irrational. In a scientific society the charge of emotionalism is the kiss of death - except in sports, love and war. But within the charismatic renewal many consider tongues to be a legitimate spiritual gift, although they do not accept the Pentecostal view that it is the initial physical evidence of baptism in the Spirit. Paul simply lists it as one of the many gifts for strengthening the body in its worship.

Most Christians involved in the charismatic renewal speak in tongues mainly in private prayer. It is a means of expressing oneself to God in non-rational speech, of praising and praying apart from the usual working of the mind. While many in the charismatic renewal start speaking in tongues in a group meeting, others begin alone in their private devotions. For some it is a highly emotional experience, perhaps like their conversion; for others it is quiet and calm like other milestones in their Christian path. Often it comes when the Holy Spirit is breaking through in a new way, with a profound sense of God's presence and a new openness to his will.

Some leaders point out that speaking in tongues is also a rebuke to our rationalistic culture. A sceptical age has turned God's good gift of the mind into an idol, accepting only what it can logically analyse and scientifically explain. So speaking in tongues can be a reminder that 'the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom'.

For all its faults ...

Like other renewals in church history, this one has its own weaknesses.

These can be an overemphasis on dramatic experiences; such gifts as prophecy and healing are more highly prized than acts of service and mercy. Again, spiritual certainty can become self-assurance, a holier-than-thou attitude toward Christians on the outside. Some people also concentrate on inward spiritual development and strengthening the Christian community to the neglect of the disadvantaged and oppressed. It is a weakness too when the charismatic renewal so emphasizes Jesus' resurrection and the Holy Spirit's power as to slip intoa one-sided triumphalism - featuring only success and ignoring the cross in Christian I living. The apostles learned to serve and suffer; they experienced the Spirit in praise and miracles, but also in persecution and martyrdom.

Sometimes established churches have been so aware of these weaknesses that they have written off the renewal entirely. Yet many churches are recognizing new opportunities in this fresh release of the Holy Spirit. They appreciate the new influx of vitality in different areas of church life. In worship there can be a fresh experience of conversation with God as he and his people speak with each other, often in creative forms of praying and singing as the Spirit provides his gifts. Individual members are more free to pour out their hearts in prayer; they become more sensitive to what God is saying through the Bible. The leaders recognize that people are more important than programmes and buildings; they are readier to hear God's guidance through the members. Pastors realize that in the last analysis it is Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd, who is responsible for his flock. He will work through all members of his body, not just through one.

A worldwide movement

Two decades after it emerged in North America the charismatic stream continues to deepen and broaden within most sections of the church. Around the world it is now active in about 125 countries. First in terms of size and impact is Latin America, where virtually every country has a vital charismatic renewal. Not only are the Pentecostal churches growing rapidly but the predominant Roman Catholic church is being influenced. For example, 30,000 to 50,000 people attend charismatic conferences and national days of prayer in Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Second in terms of influence is North America - the United States and Canada -where the renewal began and covenant communities were born. Here the largest body of teaching and literature is being produced. Third comes Asia, including Australia. In this part of the world, compared to the masses of people, the Christian population is small. Yet among these millions the renewal is having a strong impact, especially in Sri Lanka, Korea and the Philippines.

The central and southern parts of Africa are experiencing a large-scale conversion to Christianity. A charismatic power is behind much of this explosion as the renewal is active in about 30 countries.

Finally, there is activity in all the countries of Western Europe. In Strasbourg, 'Pentecost 82' involved 20,000 people in one of the largest ecumenical gatherings Europe has seen.

The charismatic renewal seems to be entering a new stage. Initially the largest impact has been on individual lives and on developing vital Christian community in the body of Christ. While these will always be important, the renewal needs to refocus the mind of the whole church on the supernatural dimension of life. All its activities require a complete dependence on the Holy Spirit.

The charismatic renewal resembles a great river. At its source small streams race downhill with splashing and noise. At times they cast debris on to the banks. These streams converge into a river that moves with deeper and quieter power, until it flows into the sea.

This renewal will give up its distinctive identity when it fulfils its mission to bring new spiritual life to the church and to the world.