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Try this experiment some Sunday morning while you’re sipping coffee after the worship service. Ask a few friends this question: “How do you think the Third Wave movement has influenced the Christian Reformed Church?”

My guess is that you’ll get blank stares.

Though we may not recognize it by name, the Third Wave (called by some “the Third Wave of the Holy Spirit” or “the Third Wave of Pentecostalism”) has had a much greater influence on the CRC than most of us realize.

To get a sense of how your church and its ministry have been changed by the Third Wave, ask yourself these questions:

  • Has a growing emphasis on intercessory prayer been evident in my church in recent years?
  • Have we held a “healing service”?
  • Is my church using or thinking about using the Alpha course?
  • Does my church feature a network of small groups?
  • Has my church offered a course to help people identify their spiritual gifts?

If your church is like most in the CRC, you’ll probably find that the Third Wave has influenced your congregation’s worship, fellowship, and spiritual formation.

That’s why this June the CRC synod (the denomination’s annual leadership convention) will take a look at the Third Wave movement. A study committee appointed in 2004 will present a report designed to provide advice to churches, some of whom wrestle with difficult questions about the biblical basis and pastoral implications of this momentous movement.

Four Features of the Third Wave

So what exactly is the Third Wave movement? The study committee’s report identifies four distinctive features:

  1. Prophecy and hearing the voice of God. The Third Wave movement affirms the ongoing communication of God. Not only does God still speak to people today, we are able to hear God’s voice (sometimes referred to as receiving a “word of knowledge” or “word of wisdom” from God).
  2. Powerful prayer. The Third Wave movement emphasizes the mysterious but undeniable ways in which God’s will is affected by the prayers of believers. The power of prayer lies in its ability to create new realities, ones which would otherwise not have been called into existence. The faithful prayers of God’s people are the power to move the hands of God.
  3. Healing ministries. The Third Wave affirms the ongoing power of God to provide physical and mental healing. The experience of healing often occurs in the context of prayer, which provides an avenue for the power of God to restore broken lives.
  4. Spiritual warfare and deliverance ministries. The Third Wave movement emphasizes the ongoing battle between good and evil, recognizing that both holy and demonic forces struggle to gain influence in our lives at every level of our experience.
A Bit of History

Perhaps the reference to a third wave leaves you wondering when the first and second waves occurred. All three of these movements refer to key periods over the last 100 years characterized by an extraordinary emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The “first wave” or “Pentecostal” movement took place in the early years of the 20th century. In 1901 Agnes Ozman, a student at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kan., received what she called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” demonstrated by her ability to speak in tongues. This was followed by the Azusa Street Revival, which took place in Los Angeles in 1906. Today’s Pentecostal denominations trace their roots directly to those two events.

The “second wave” or “charismatic” or “neo-Pentecostal” movement occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. It also placed an emphasis on tongue-speaking as it was experienced at an Episcopal church in Van Nuys, Calif., where Dennis Bennett served as rector.

The Third Wave, which began in the 1980s, is a little more difficult to pinpoint. In 1983 Peter Wagner, professor of World Missions at Fuller Seminary, observed in an interview for Pastoral Renewal magazine: “I see the third wave of the eighties as an opening of the straight-line evangelicals and other Christians to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that the Pentecostals and charismatics have experienced, but without becoming either charismatic or Pentecostal.”

While there are some direct points of contact between the Third Wave and the first and second waves, there are also some clear differences.

One of the significant differences has to do with church unity. The first and second waves of Pentecostalism were largely revival movements within traditional churches. The purpose of both movements was to enliven the faith experience of believers who felt that the dead orthodoxy and stale liturgy of their churches had left them spiritually parched. As you might imagine, congregations affected by the first and second waves, including those in the CRC, were very often afflicted by internal division.

To a large degree, this sad presence of division within churches encouraged a major study report on neo-Pentecostalism approved by synod in 1973. That report, according to the 2007 study, was “remarkably open to the charismatic movement and its attendant phenomena,” and broke new ground in the way our denomination regards the gifts and ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Another key difference between the Third Wave and its two predecessors centers on how the Bible is read and interpreted. The earlier Pentecostal and charismatic movements tended to foster a reading of the Bible that was individualistic and characterized by shoddy scholarship. In contrast to this, the 2007 report identifies the growing number of “exegetically responsible preachers and competent biblical scholars” who are associated with the Third Wave movement.

Challenges for Synod 2007

While the 2007 report highlights the positive contributions of the Third Wave, it also offers words of caution, most of which have to do with avoiding the excesses of the previous two movements.

One potential pitfall of the Third Wave is a triumphalistic emphasis that is overly optimistic about the prospect of healing and that downplays the positive impact of suffering on our lives. Other potential pitfalls include such things as valuing the gifts of the Spirit more than the fruit of the Spirit, viewing some people as “more spiritual” than others, affirming a claim to prophecy that goes beyond the clear teaching of Scripture, and fostering an unusual fascination with the demonic realm.

Concerns about these and other dangers were so weighty for some on the 2007 study committee that they could not agree with the majority, who ask that synod “gratefully accept all the ways in which this movement manifests the work of

the Spirit” (see both reports online at under Resources). The minority report is not nearly as positive regarding the influence of the Third Wave on the CRC, and it points out a number of important concerns.

In my opinion, synod should adopt the majority report, not because the concerns found in the minority report are not valid, but because these concerns are to a large extent resolved by heeding the majority report’s cautions and call for discernment.

An even better outcome would be to include the approved majority report in a reissued publication of the 1973 report, which is as timely today as when it was written. I can think of no better way to acquaint people with a movement whose name most people don’t recognize but whose influence many people gratefully celebrate.

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