Is Charismatic Renewal Dying?

by Francis MacNutt
Jul/Aug 2006

Even while our CHM conferences continue to grow and we see peoples’ lives transformed, truly transformed, we also learn of places where once vibrant groups or centers have diminished in numbers or disappeared completely. Then I keep reading that the charismatic renewal has “peaked.” Just yesterday I was reading in the esteemed evangelical journal, Christianity Today, and found a disturbing statement: “Today, many scholars and participants agree that the charismatic movement as a distinct phenomenon has fizzled out, and survives in niches of broader movements.”1

Now, I don’t dispute the fact that, at least in the United States, the charismatic renewal has waned in influence. What worries me is the casual tone in which the news is announced, as if it were just one more fad that has run its course — “fizzled,” like an old, open bottle of Coke!

Charismatic renewal, at its heart, was not just a fad; it was a rediscovery of the absolute need for the power of the Holy Spirit to change people’s lives at the very center of our Christianity. What it led to, over and over again, was ordinary people being touched in such a way that they knew God — they met God in very real ways and experienced his love. This happened to thousands at the first Pentecost, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah (31:34): “There will be no further need for neighbor to try to teach neighbor, brother to say to brother, ‘Learn to know the Lord.’ No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest …”

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that this promise was the greatest, the most important, in the entire Old Testament concerning the New Covenant, the New Testament. This is what the charismatic renewal is really all about, our coming into the true meaning of the New Testament — entering into what Jesus came to give us. As John the Baptist taught, the purpose of Jesus’ coming was to baptize us in the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; also found in Mark, Luke and John).

Accompanying this baptism in the Spirit are the charismatic ministries that enable us to be freed of the deadly evils that are beyond what we can overcome by ourselves (I Cor. 12:4-11): the blindness in our minds, the weakness in our wills (addiction), the chaos in our emotions, the demonic influence in our lives and the sickness in our bodies. These are the areas where we poor, weak human beings really suffer. For the most part, these wounded areas in people who sit in their pews are not really touched in our churches by what we do on Sunday morning.

But over and over again, as in our recent healing conference, we have seen people truly transformed — not through education (good as that is) but by the power of the Spirit. To say that what we have seen and what we, ourselves, have experienced was just a fad, is, in my mind, a blasphemy, a denial of what God is trying to do — and has been trying to do for 2000 years.

So what went wrong?

What went right was that church authorities in general saw that people were being blessed, and gave charismatic renewal their approval. This was a great step forward, since some prophets of doom had predicted that church authorities would "pull the rug out from under" any leaders who promoted charismatic renewal. That never happened; that’s the good news.

The bad news is that something else never happened; that is, simply, that most church leaders never got the point that the charismatic renewal was centered on the essentials of the Gospel. It wasn’t just a nice "extra" for those who enjoyed a certain kind of emotional spirituality. It was central, not a fad. It was not merely an option, but most churches have treated it as an option.

What was needed was for church leaders in all denominations to recognize that the Baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts were central to the church’s life. They gradually lost their importance in the 4th century (for all the reasons mentioned in my book The Nearly Perfect Crime2). Good things took their place, but some of the essentials were downplayed and superceded.

To take one important example: how many mainline church leaders ask whether their people have received the baptism of the Spirit (as Paul did in Ephesus)?

And how many seek out laypeople who may be prophets or who may have healing gifts or the gift of discerning spirits?

There is no place in most regular church services set aside to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and, after people have received the baptism in the Spirit at an optional meeting, no program to help it grow in community. It’s optional. Ordinary church goers, therefore, don’t consider the baptism of the Spirit as very important. For example, compared with the number of approximately 1200 priests who came to the same conference in the mid-1970s, I understand that the annual charismatic Roman Catholic priests’ conference at Steubenville University, this summer, is expected to draw approximately 150 priests.

If it is true that charismatic renewal has seen its day in the sun, and if an excellent Christian magazine can refer to it as a “fad,” I think this is tragic. The blossom has not been watered and the flower has withered on the stalk. You can see the result when you look out at the faces of the apathetic, burdened people who sit out there in the pews on Sunday morning. Good people, but they are waiting for something to happen — waiting, somehow, for their leaders to bring them the Good News that will transform their lives and help them become the New Creation that Christ calls them to be.

How can we help break through this glass ceiling that somehow prevents good Christians from experiencing the Gospel? That’s the question: “To be or not to be,” in the deepest sense.

1 “Charismatic and Mainline,” by John Dart. March 7, 2006,  p. 23.
2 The Nearly Perfect Crime, ordering info. on page 13.

Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. Jul/Aug 2006 Issue