Whatever happened to the charismatic movement?

Written by Peter Smith on .


It may seem an odd question given the explosion of Pentecostal Christianity worldwide, but bear with me.

The question came to mind as I was putting together my story on the 40th anniversary of the death of Kathryn Kuhlman, the Pittsburgh evangelist who rose from the Pentecostal sawdust trail to become the most prominent American charismatic leader of her time -- even outpacing the legendary Oral Roberts in her last decade, according to her biographer, Wayne Warner, a retired Assemblies of God archivist. 

Kuhlman embodied a generation in which Catholics, Orthodox Christians and mainline Protestants such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians were suddenly gathering together at services such as Kuhlman's, speaking in tongues and proclaiming miracle healings. Pittsburgh as much as any place could be seen as ground zero for this trend. It was here in Duquesne University that Catholics first began experiencing charismatic gifts. And when Ms. Kuhlman's longtime venue on the North Side underwent renovations, she was invited into perhaps the most storied church in the local Protestant establishment, the two-century-old First Presbyterian Church in Downtown. Around this time in Tulsa, Okla., Oral Roberts was making his own big step into the Establishment when he joined the upscale Boston Avenue Methodist Church there.

Talk about movin' on up. Early in their ministries, Kuhlman and Roberts were preaching tent meetings, and Pentecostalism was, socially speaking, on the wrong side of the ecclesiastical tracks.

Said church historian Amy Artman, who watched nearly the entire archive of Kuhlman's 500 or so television programs on the way to her doctorate:

"Kathryn Kuhlman was a leader in the transformation of charismatic Christianity from a suspect form of religion to a respectable form of religiosity that was accepted and even celebrated by mainstream Christianity and culture by the end of the twentieth century. ... I call this transformation gentrification. The term 'gentrification' is evocative and provocative when used in reference to urban areas, and no less so when applied to the changes charismatic Christianity experienced in the twentieth century. In urban neighborhoods, as interest builds, there is a change in public perception of an area from being uninteresting or even dangerous to being the new 'hot spot.' Charismatic Christianity experienced this kind of media-driven metamorphosis."

Church scholars often talk of three waves of 20th century Christian renewal focused on the Holy Spirit and the miraculous. The first was the Pentecostal revival, breaking out in Los Angeles in 1906 even as other revivals were exploding from Wales to India. Pentecostalism soon resulted in denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ and emphasized a "baptism in the Holy Spirit," with often an initial manifestation of speaking in tongues.

The second wave, or charismatic movement, spread into older churches and was often less strict about insisting on speaking in tongues or on the exacting holiness codes of some early Pentecostal groups. (For Ms. Kuhlman, healings were central to her meetings, but not tongues.) But the label "charismatic" was also pinned in many independent church start-ups, not just on a movement within existing churches.

The third wave, called the Third Wave (wonder why), manifested in newer denominations such as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard, and was exemplified by the term "power evangelism," in which signs and wonders played a role in helping persuade people to become Christians. If this sounds like a meeting point between more traditional evangelicals and charismatics, well, it does to me, too.

So really my question is: What happened to that second wave, at least the part that flowed through the older denominations?

To be sure, all three waves have been a dominant force in both American and global Christianity. A Pew Forum report found especially high numbers of "renewalists" in countries ranging from Kenya to Brazil. 

But at least in the United States, I don't see as much of it in the mainline Protestant churches, or among Catholics or Orthodox. Not that it isn't there, but it isn't a front-burner thing. Church histories remind us that a generation ago, controversy over spiritual gifts cut through virtually every denomination. So it was big. 

But think about all the other issues that have crowded church agendas: Politics, abortion, the role of gays and lesbians, the authority of the Bible, membership losses. It seems like churches there's been a re-separation, with the historic churches putting spiritual gifts on the back-burner, while first-wave Pentecostals and third-wave charismatic denominations and independent churches continue to emphasize the spiritual gifts. 

Sort of. Even among the Pentecostals, tongues aren't being emphasized as much as they used to be. 

But among the mainlines, the catchphrase might be, "Hands, no tongues," as one Baptist church historian put it years ago.

In other words, in many churches, the organ has been replaced, or at least is sharing space, with electric guitars, keyboards and drums. (Come to think of it, I was just in a sanctuary the other day with a great organ, and a drum set.) People like the lively, hand-raising worship that Pentecostalism brought into the mainstream. But for whatever reason, the tongues have lagged.

"I do think the worship wars of the 1980s emerges out of the charismatic movement," said Ms. Artman, now professor of religious studies at Missouri State University. "If the charismatic movement has a victory, it's in the diffusion of more charismatic worship styles into the mainline. Most mainline churches have what's called a contemporary service."



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