In about 1980 C. Peter Wagner coined the phrase “Third Wave” to describe a new strand of Christianity, especially charismatic Christianity. He believed that this new strand was the third major movement of the Holy Spirit in the 20th century, the first two being the rise of the Pentecostal movement beginning around 1901 and the charismatic renewal that spread through mainline denominations in the 1960’s. Third Wave became a term used to refer to people who believe in (and are excited about) the continuation of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, but don’t usually hold to some of the big points of classic Pentecostalism– for example, speaking in tongues as a necessary proof of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or the baptism of the Spirit as an event separate from salvation in the first place.
All that’s background. Whether or not you buy the idea of the first 2 waves, Third Wave now refers to this fairly large, loosely-associated group who are charismatic with a small “c”. They’re usually pretty conservative theologically, value the teaching of the Bible and place a good bit of emphasis on the supernatural, especially in praying for miracles and expecting something significant to happen in worship. Vineyard churches are sort of characteristic of this crowd.
But in the past 10-15 years, another strand of charismatics has emerged. I’m thinking of guys like Wayne Grudem and John Piper, and of movements like Sovereign Grace and Acts 29. This is not really a movement from within the charismatic fold, but from within the evangelical fold. You’re even starting to see the word “continuationist” used rather than “charismatic” because of the desire to stand apart from some of the excesses and problems that the charismatic movement has become known for.
I wonder if guys like this could be the “Fourth Wave.” I think the major thing that sets these groups apart from other branches of the charismatic family is balance, specifically in the sense of placing emphasis where the Bible places it. So they are eager to pray for the miraculous, they believe in things like speaking in tongues (with all the right restrictions), they even think that God sometimes speaks to people in dreams and visions– but all these things are not the main attraction, the Gospel is. So each worship service isn’t primarily about what cool thing might happen, but about proclaiming and celebrating the glory of God, especially as presented in whatever Bible passage is being highlighted that day.
These guys are also closing gaps. When a charismatic and a Presbyterian share the podium at an event like Together for the Gospel, something significant is happening. It’s keeping the charismatic issue from being as much of a dividing line, and the growing number of Gospel-loving, Bible-preaching, responsible charismatics (or whatever you call them) is making their view more palatable to some who 20 years ago wouldn’t have touched it with a ten-foot pole. I guarantee you I went through seminary with more guys who are “open but cautious” on the supernatural gifts than I would have even 10 years ago.
I’m not saying Acts 29 and Sovereign Grace are the next best hope for the church. But the new move of Bible-centered charismatics is encouraging, and I hope the evangelical scene in two decades looks a lot more like them than it does now.
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