Impact of the charismatics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`HALLELUJAH! Praise the Lord!'' Dressed in shirt sleeves, John Wimber quietly leads an assemblage of Christians gathered in the auditorium at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a church situated in a neatly converted warehouse in the Hispanic section of this southern California city. With spontaneous ease, the congregation begins to sing ``We exalt Thee! We exalt Thee, O Lord.'' Faces, rapt and radiant, are uplifted, hands are raised high in worship, and some in the audience begin swaying gently as the strains of the hymn of praise, supported by a three-piece electronic band, swell.

Pastor Wimber later prays to Jesus to ``touch people.'' After moments of pregnant silence, a cry is heard in the audience, then another, followed by convulsive sobs and moans in various parts of the auditorium. Small groups of people cluster around those in apparent distress and quietly begin praying, laying on hands....

``Thank you, Jesus! Praise you, Jesus!'' resound the soft cries. ``O Jesus, you are healing me, Jesus.''

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Though Wimber does not regard himself as a charismatic, his services are charismatic in nature. And scenes like the above at the ``Healing '87'' conference in Anaheim in July are replicated in thousands of Pentecostal and charismatic gatherings across the United States and throughout the world. The fervor of the worshipers and ecstasy produced by the prayers for healing speak of the emotional impact of the charismatic movement on millions of Christians here and abroad.

According to church historians, the charismatic renewal is the fastest-growing Christian religious movement worldwide. Although the movement appears to have peaked in the United States, its growth in third-world countries is reported to be phenomenal. Even in the US, the independent charismatic churches (i.e., unaffiliated with mainline denominations) are said to be expanding more rapidly than any church.

It is important to understand the charismatic phenomenon, because it has tended to dominate the modern-day Christian healing scene.

Charismatics regard the healing of physical ills through prayer as only one aspect, and not the most important aspect, of their religious worship. But because this is the largest aggregate of those active in healing, the charismatics have had a substantial effect on how healing is viewed today.

While the movement embraces a wide array of practices and styles - ranging from effusive, dramatic worship (including spirited singing, hand-clapping, and even dancing) to quieter, more subdued services - most charismatics have these elements in common:

They believe in a ``Spirit baptism'' or ``filling by the Holy Spirit,'' which takes place subsequent to their conversion to Christ. This conversion is accompanied by or leads to speaking in tongues (these tongues are spontaneous and unlearned, resembling human language although largely unfamiliar to the human ear). The Holy Spirit is then viewed as empowering them with the ``gifts of the Spirit'' mentioned in I Corinthians 12, including healing.

They believe in and desire to experience the supernatural. This is taken to mean the intervention of God in the physical world, resulting in various phenomena, from the opening up of a parking space to ``miraculous'' healing, being ``slain in the Spirit'' (falling over as a result of feeling touched by the Holy Ghost), and having visions of Jesus.

They have a strong sense of Jesus as personally entering their life and governing it as their Lord and Saviour. This personal relationship with Jesus takes precedence in their services and their theology.

A relatively new development, the charismatic renewal arose in the early '60s and was preceded by other healing movements. It has its roots in turn-of-the-century Pentecostalism and the evangelical healing ministries of the 1920s, which were led by such prominent evangelists as Aimee Semple McPherson. Pentecostalism similarly stressed restoration of the New Testament gifts, but focused on baptism as evidenced primarily by the gift of speaking in tongues. Pentecostal services are more formally and traditionally structured than charismatic services, and Pentecostals tend to distance themselves more from popular culture.

NONDENOMINATIONAL, the charismatic or neo-Pentecostal movement, as it is also called, includes Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others. Most charismatics maintain their membership in their ``home'' church even while participating in interdenominational charismatic services and prayer groups, some organized without the knowledge of the church body.

While the movement has a strong grass-roots base, clergy lead the lay groups and, if they are strong personalities, tend to dominate them.

For many clergy and churchgoers in the Protestant mainstream, the charismatic mode does not fulfill yearnings for the more profound meanings of Christianity. It is seen to draw people because it is easy, and simple to identify with.

``The charismatic movement appeals to emotion and does not require deep thought,'' says David Yohn, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. ``It represents a childlike phase of faith development that is `me'-centered.''

``It's emotionally and experientially centered and lacks cognitive content,'' comments Protestant theologian Carl F.H. Henry.

There is also concern that charismatics are tempted to use Jesus as a formula for personal benefit rather than pursuing the Christian demand for moral redemption of humankind. ``The danger is evading a deep and sound work of the Holy Spirit in restoring man to holiness and fellowship with God,'' says the Rev. Dr. Henry, author of ``God, Revelation and Authority.''

It is not denied, however, that the charismatic renewal has brought more public attention to the healing thrust of Christianity. Even though such movements tend to ebb and flow, they have helped shape religious thought.

``There's a greater air of expectancy [of healing] when the charismatic dimension is present,'' says the Rt. Rev. David Collins, president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies.

``The best side of the charismatic movement is that it believes God does intervene in the lives of men and women.''

The charismatics are also credited with re-sensitizing the churches to the importance of the third person of the Trinity, i.e., the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost, even though mainline Protestants tend to have a different concept of the term.

``The doctrine of the Holy Spirit has been neglected by the churches,'' says Henry. ``The rise of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements was provoked by the lack of emphasis on that in the life of believers.''

It is also recognized that the charismatic movement has brought many Christians solace, giving their lives new meaning through a ``personal relationship'' with Jesus, a sense of being intimately cared for, and a warm fellowship within the charismatic community. The appeal is especially strong among young people who are struggling with adversity and are desperate for a sense of self-worth.

``I was addicted to drugs - heroin and LSD,'' related Deanne LeDoux, a comely woman of 39 who works at Teenage Challenge Ministries in Santa Ana, Calif. ``Seventeen years ago, I was in a 4-by-10-foot cell in a mental hospital. I was facing five to 10 years in prison when the authorities made me attend a Christian therapy program.''

``I knew nothing about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and being a Christian, or that Jesus could do something,'' said Miss LeDoux. ``But when I saw what the program did for other drug addicts, that got to me.''

``Jesus Christ changed my life,'' she added with quiet feeling.

Today the charismatic renewal has a presence in most mainline denominations. It is especially strong among ``high church'' bodies, especially the Roman Catholic Church, which some observers say has officially welcomed the movement as a way to control it.

About 10 million Catholics, or 20 percent of the 50 million Catholics in the US, are estimated to have been involved in the charismatic movement over the past 20 years. About 500,000 actively participate in prayer groups today, says the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, and the movement is still growing among Hispanics, Koreans, Vietnamese, and other Catholic immigrants to the US.

``This is probably the single most effective evangelistic movement in the church since St. Francis,'' says William J. Beatty, executive director of the national service committee.

THE Episcopal Church, too, has a vigorous charismatic component. The Rev. Charles Irish, coordinator of Episcopal Renewal Ministries, was quoted last year as saying that 3,000 of the some 13,700 Episcopal priests are charismatic, as well as 18 percent of the laity.

In the United Methodist Church, about 18 percent of the lay members are estimated to be charismatic.

Despite these numbers, the charismatic renewal movement in the United States has encountered rough waters. After splitting many congregations and then being incorporated into the mainline churches - as one mission of church rather than as an integral part of church worship - the movement has lost much impetus and even popular interest. Some religious observers think it is petering out.

``It's no longer hot news,'' comments Lutheran clergyman Richard J. Neuhaus.

Says church historian Martin Marty: ``The charismatic movement has tended to crest and, although an occasional strong leader emerges, there is no big spread or growth evident. It's a combination of exaggerated claims about healing and the cheering of oneself.''

Dr. Marty, a Lutheran clergyman, says he hears fewer questions these days about the charismatic movement as he lectures around the country, suggesting that people are no longer ``worried'' about the charismatics.

Factionalism among charismatics, the loss of such leaders as the late Ruth Carter Stapleton, the ``personality cults'' that have developed around such well-known healers as Ernest Angley, Oral Roberts, and Ralph DiOrio, and corruption among television evangelists have also had an impact.

``The scandals have hurt Christianity by giving the churches the image of secular cities,'' says Dr. Henry. ``We're back to the days of Elmer Gantry.''

If the charismatic renewal in the US is groping for new vigor, the movement appears to be exploding in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Such evangelists as Reinhard Bonnke of West Germany and Charles and Frances Hunter of the US tell of speaking to crowds numbering tens of thousands of people. They also claim that hundreds of physical healings take place, not only at mass meetings, but in local churches and prayer groups as well.

Estimates of the worldwide charismatic movement vary widely. C.Peter Wagner, an authority on church growth, has given a figure of 178 million Pentecostals/charismatics worldwide. According to David B. Barrett, editor of The World Christian Encyclopedia, the charismatic movement has grown to about 277 million, accounting for 17 percent of the world's Christians.

Dr. Barrett also estimates that there are 29 million charismatics in China. Observers say this figure is hard to verify. But according to the International Christian Digest, pastors in China have recently been directed by the state-run Three-Self Patriotic Movement not to preach on such subjects as casting out demons and healing the sick.

People in third-world lands attracted to Pentecostal and charismatic religion usually come out of the poor and uneducated classes, and are drawn to it because of their religious roots. The majority of Africans, for instance, believe in pagan animism and witchcraft, which affirms the existence of evil and good spirits and includes the practice of exorcism. The ``Holy Spirit'' of evangelical Christianity - a ``good spirit'' - is thus readily accepted as a powerful weapon against the ``evil spirits'' or ``demons'' afflicting human beings in their everyday experience.

Whether the Pentecostal/charismatic movement can sustain such exponential growth is problematic, church observers agree. Evangelicals in general have set themselves the ambitious goal of converting 3 billion people to Christianity by the end of the millennium.

But the charismatic movement itself is far from monolithic. Charismatics hold divergent opinions about the value or dangers of exorcism, for instance. Many tend to stress the existence of demons and evil spirits, based on Jesus' injunction to ``cast out devils.'' Healing conferences often devote whole sessions to demonology and the practice of exorcism.

But voices in the Pentecostal and charismatic churches warn against a preoccupation with ``discerning of devils'' and exorcism.

``They spend all their time looking for demons - and the devil keeps them so busy looking for him, they don't see the Lord,'' wrote the late David du Plessis, one of the world's best-known Pentecostal leaders. ``There is a lack of discernment in the Church today, because pastors have not come to recognize that discernment is discerning the mind of the Spirit, and not devils.''

Within the charismatic movement is also to be found concern about the influence of the Catholic Church, a concern that surfaced at the North American Congress on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelization in New Orleans last July. Although an ecumenical spirit characterized the general meetings, denominational services, and workshops of the congress, the dominating presence of Catholic charismatics drew quiet criticism.

``People won't talk about it, but the dividing line at the congress is Romanism,'' commented a Pentecostal pastor from Louisiana. ``We're concerned about the charismatic renewal movement because the churches, especially the Roman church, have accommodated it. So you see a lot of things infiltrating - Mariolatry, infallibility of the Pope, and the like - things we can't agree on.''

Given the Catholic Church's traditional interest in the healing works of saints, say church observers, Rome's appropriation of the charismatic renewal is not surprising. Vatican II (1962-65) restored the sacrament of the sick as a rite of healing. And Pope John Paul II in 1975 set a seal of approval on the charismatic renewal; today the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office is situated at the Vatican.

There are also strong differences of approach among charismatics and other evangelicals to the practice of healing.

AT the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, during the evangelical congress last summer, Charles and Francis Hunter conducted a workshop on healing that pulsated with emotional intensity. ``This is the hour of miracles and excitement,'' Mrs. Hunter bubbled. ``We're the wildest people you've ever met.''

As she related dramatic healings witnessed during the pair's healing sessions in the US and Brazil - healings of heart disease, broken bones, deafness - exclamations of ``Thank you, Jesus, Amen!'' reverberated among those gathered.

``Every believer can handle Satan,'' she told the crowd with rising enthusiasm. ``Every one of you believers is going to lay hands on the sick and they're going to recover. You can heal, you can handle the serpent! When you're born again your spirit is filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ. He lives his life in and through you. You'll receive that power, and it's that power that heals the sick - like an energy, a virtue, the breath of God.

``Is there someone here with a serious back pain, with a ruptured disk?'' Mrs. Hunter asked, practicing the ``words of knowledge'' mentioned in the Bible as one of the ``gifts of the Spirit.'' A young man in shorts made has way to the stage.

As the youth sat in a chair, Charles Hunter asked him to extend his legs, then placed his own thumbs on the boy's ankle bones. ``In the name of Jesus I command you to be healed,'' said Hunter. ``I command all pain to leave the body.'' Mrs. Hunter's hands lay gently on the boy's head. ``It worked!'' cried the patient after a few moments, slipping a back brace from under his shirt. ``It feels great! Praise you, Jesus!''

Many in the audience were moved; some were uncomfortable. ``I don't want this if it's without grace,'' commented one woman as she quickly left the theater.

A SHARP contrast to the scene at Saenger Theater are the quieter healing services that often take place in private prayer groups. After studying a Catholic charismatic prayer group in the suburbs of Chicago for a period of three years, sociologist Mary Jo Neitz of the University of Missouri concluded: ``Inducted believers understand that most healings take place over a long time period and that part of the healing process is coming to accept a new understanding of health and wellness, and a new understanding of the world and one's place in it. With the new understanding, illness and death can be overcome.''

Margaret Poloma, a sociologist of religion at the University of Akron, concurs that the American charismatic renewal faces the challenges of any movement that becomes institutionalized. Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals are no longer on the fringes of the larger social world, she writes in ``The Charismatic Movement: Is There a New Pentecost?'' But, she adds, the movement has become ``routinized,'' is beset by internal fragmentation along racial and ethnic lines, and is seeing the ``retreat'' of many charismatics to the safety of denominational boundaries.

``At present many signs point to the decline of the movement,'' writes Dr. Poloma, herself a charismatic. ``It is better organized than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but it is also less charismatic.''

Defining evangelical movements

Evangelicalism: A largely Protestant movement that took shape in the early 19th century. It emphasizes the authority of the Bible, salvation as possible only through regeneration or being ``born again,'' and zealous efforts to convert others.

This movement includes fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and the charismatic renewal.

Fundamentalism: A term first used in 1920 for evangelical Christians who oppose ``modernist'' theology and the secularization of modern culture. Fundamentalists preach the literal inerrancy of the Bible and tend to believe that the healing Jesus practiced was for his time only.

Pentecostalism: A movement that originated at the beginning of the 20th century. It places supreme importance on being baptized by the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by ``speaking in tongues.''

Other supernatural phenomena that are considered central include miracles, faith healing, prophecies, and exorcism. The principal Pentecostal denominations are the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), the Church of God in Christ, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, and the Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

The charismatic renewal:

A movement begun in the early 1960s comprising Protestants and Roman Catholics who adapt Pentecostal practices to their own churches. Like Pentecostals, they embrace healing as one of the many ``gifts of the Holy Spirit.'' Unlike Pentecostals, they accept modern culture and are widely accepting of one another. Charismatics are sometimes referred to as neo-Pentecostals.

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