Third Wave

[Note: this is an older movement, but in recent months we have again started to receive many questions on this topic. Hence this update of an old entry].

Term coined by the controversial church-growth specialist C. Peter Wagner in his book “The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit” (out of print). The term indicates a movement similar to – yet different from – the Pentecostal movement (First Wave) and the Charismatic movement (Second Wave).

There is no question that a new and exciting era has come upon Christianity in the twentieth century. It started with the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the century, a movement which continues to multiply under God’s blessing. It was joined by the Charismatic movement soon after mid-century. And now in these latter decades the Spirit is moving in what some of us like to call the third wave where we are seeing the miraculous works of God operating as they have been in the other movements in churches which have not been nor intend to be either Pentecostal or charismatic.
– Source: Signs & Wonders Today, C. Peter Wagner. Vida Publishers, Oct. 1986.

The Third Wave movement is diverse and multifaceted. It has no central authority. Proponents of Third Wave theology do not all have the same views, beliefs and practices.

With that in mind, distinctives of the Third Wave movement include — but are not limited to — the following:

  • The baptism with the Holy Spirit is identified with conversion. This is unlike other Pentecostal movements, in which the baptism with the Spirit is either a separate and/or a recurring experience.
  • the belief that the spiritual gifts are valid for today; that Christians can ask for, receive and learn how to use these spiritual gifts (and become better at using them with practice.
  • the belief that the primary use of the spiritual gifts is for ministry in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit – both to bless and heal those inside the church and to minister to those outside the church ("Power Evangelism."). This ministry includes healing the sick, casting out demons, prophesying, etcetera.
  • active promotion of unity — sometimes at any cost (e.g. the Toronto Blessing Movement ‘s acceptance of certain Word-Faith teachers. “Unity over doctrine
  • the belief that people, Christians included, can be possessed (or ‘demonized’ — or ‘oppressed,’ something seen as a lesser form of possession) by evil spirits with or without their consent
  • the belief that objects or places can project evil influence and act as conduits for demonic oppression
  • the belief that traumatic events, either in our lives or in our ancestral past, can make us particularly vulnerable to demonic influence, possession or oppression
  • the belief that some Christians — using appropriate spiritual gifts — can identify and cast out demonic spirits
  • a general acceptance of Kingdom Now theology, which has led to the practice of so-called ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare‘ or SLSW — an unbiblical concept in which Christians identify (through ‘spiritual mapping‘) and then target (with SLSW) ‘Territorial Spirits.’

The term ‘Third Wave’ was popularized in 1983, when Vineyard Vineyard founder John Wimber, assisted by C. Peter Wagner, taught the course MC510 – “Signs and Wonders” – at Fuller Theological Seminary.

It became the most popular course taught at Fuller, but was eventually canceled because it was deemed too controversial.

Within the diverse range of doctrines and practices that constitute contemporary pentecostalism there has been a striking development of a family of neo-charismatic movements that may be collectively termed Third Wave evangelism (cf. Corten and Marshall-Fratani 2001:4-6). Coming to prominence near the end of the 1980s, Third Wave approaches draw on a series of theological and practical innovations prominently associated with evangelists such as C. Peter Wagner, John Wimber, Benny Hinn, George Otis, and John Dawson. Wagner coined the term ‘Third Wave’ as a shorthand designation for a Spirit-based movement that succeeded earlier pentecostalist forms (Wagner 1988:15).

Much of the Third Wave’s doctrinal impetus grew out of Wagner’s sojourn as Professor of Church Growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary, where he was much impressed by the growth of Latin American Pentecostalism which was accompanied by what has come to be termed ‘signs and wonders’ (Wagner 1988; Stoll 1990:76-77; see Marsden 1987). Thus the Third Wave is understood as a movement of the Holy Spirit in which supernatural interventions–or rather, the intervention of the spiritual in the material (Wagner 1988:15-36)–play an important role, both as authentication and as a source of benefits for believers. Such demonstrations are crucial in the ‘power evangelism’ that is credited with producing dramatic church growth (e.g., Wimber and Springer 1986; see Wagner 1996:32-3). The range of such interventions includes trances and speaking in tongues as well as visions–traditional gifts of the Spirit. To this are added healing, prophecy (sometimes with the help of ‘two-way prayer’), and discernment (e.g., an ability to identify spirits). These are part of what has become known as the Faith Gospel, which encourages believers to expect miracles and wonders as signs of the Spirit’s work (see Gifford 2001:62-65). Taken in their epistemological implications, the tenets of the Faith Gospel depart from mainline doctrine in their emphasis on what is termed a ‘pragmatic theology’ where the evidence of experience (signs and wonders) is granted doctrinal validity even when explicit scriptural support is lacking (see Wagner 1996:39ff). It is a view that finds its justification in its empirical effects:

I am proud to be among those who are advocating power evangelism as an important tool for the fulfilling of the great commission in our day. One of the reasons that I am so enthusiastic is that it is working. Across the board, the most effective evangelism in today’s world is accompanied by manifestations of supernatural power
– Source: (Wagner 1988:87) [WAGNER, C. P. 1988 The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit: Encountering the Power of Signs and Wonders Today. Ann Arbor: Vine Books]

Elaborations on these themes appear in the Prosperity Gospel, where material prosperity is seen not merely as proof of the Spirit’s activity, but as entitlements that believers may claim, and yet another form is the Deliverance Gospel, in which believers are delivered from the power of satanic forces that may have compromised or ‘blocked’ their well-being (Coleman 2000, Corten and Marshall-Fratani eds. 2001, Gifford 2004, Meyer 2000).
– Source: Third Wave Evangelism and the Politics of the Global in Papua New Guinea: Spiritual Warfare and the Recreation of Place in Telefolmin, by Dan Jorgensen, University of Western Ontario. Oceania, Vol. 75, Issue 4. University of Sydney, 2005. Page 444

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This post was last updated: Oct. 21, 2014