Charismatic Christians are followers of Jesus Christ whose personal experience of God shows itself in supernatural ways, enabling them to do things that they are not normally able to. This can be by a variety of means such as speaking in other languages (often called speaking in tongues); successfully praying for ill people to be healed or having messages from God for an individual or about a situation (prophesy). The word ‘charismatic’ here is derived from the Greek word, ‘charisma’, which means ‘spiritual gift’. These spiritual gifts, which charismatic Christians are demonstrating, are examples of God working through his followers. The source of what takes place is not the believer but God himself, acting through the Holy Spirit.
Charismatic Christians can be found in most Christian traditions and denominations such as the Anglican, Baptist and Roman Catholic churches. They are particularly visible in Pentecostal churches which began to emerge at the start of the last century. Pentecostal churches are among the most vibrant and are now the fasting-growing tradition across the world. Charismatic Christians see themselves as continuing or restoring the Church to the way it first was.
'I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams...’
The first time a group of Christians demonstrated these spiritual gifts was on the day the Christian Church began – a day known as Pentecost, which took place just after Jesus Christ had returned to heaven in around 30AD. The Bible book, Acts, describes how Jesus’ followers were gathered in a room when their prayers turned to an ecstatic fervour. First a sound like a violent wind filled where they were and then, ‘they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages’. People of many nationalities were in the area at the time and were amazed to hear Jesus’ followers suddenly speaking in their language. Some onlookers accused the followers of being drunk, which gives a clue to how they must have appeared. But one of them, Peter, dismissed this, pointing out that it was only nine o’clock in the morning. During his three years of travelling and teaching, Jesus Christ had told his followers that the Holy Spirit would come to them after he had gone. He also told them that they would do more miraculous things than he had.
The idea of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts was not new to the Jewish people. Ancient Jewish writings from centuries before the birth of Jesus referred to them. The Bible book, Joel, says ‘In the last days God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams...’
In the years which followed the events at Pentecost, spiritual gifts – sometimes described as signs and wonders - were commonplace within the growing Christian church. Their use began to diminish in the 4th century.
Spiritual gifts – signs and wonders
The Bible lists the spiritual gifts that are seen among charismatic Christians. These are set out in the Bible book, 1 Corinthians. They include: healing people; speaking in tongues; interpreting what those tongues mean; prophesying; having miraculous powers; wisdom and knowledge. Charismatic Christians might also show other outward signs that God is doing something to touch them in a deep, spiritual way. This might be laughing, crying or even falling over. These occurrences might seen strange to an onlooker but they are accompanied by a deep sense of joy, happiness or peace. These spiritual gifts bring a fresh dynamism to churches – strengthening the faith of believers in Jesus and encouraging others to discover Christianity for themselves. But Christians also believe it is important to test these signs and wonders – to be sure they truly are from God.
Charismatic Christianity over the centuries
Spiritual gifts among believers were a trademark of the early years of the Christian church as it spread around the Mediterranean and beyond. The accepted practice was for Christians to place their hands on a new believer and ask God to fill them with his Holy Spirit. This method is still used today. Sometimes this ‘filling’ is referred as being ‘baptised’ in the Holy Spirit.
Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been an explosion in charismatic Christianity around the world.
Some Christians believe that the gifts were only given by God for biblical times and died out when the first followers died. But many thousands of Christians experienced these spiritual gifts over the following centuries. At some points in church history, the existence of the gifts was less prominent, but it never disappeared. And they often featured at significant moments. In the 17th century a new movement, the Quakers, emerged. They got their name because the early adherents trembled under the influence of the Holy Spirit. When the Methodist movement began in the 18th century, believers also experienced charismatic phenomena such as laughing, crying, trembling and falling over.
Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been an explosion in charismatic Christianity around the world. This has occurred in waves and at different places. Some Christians describe these waves as a ‘renewal’ because they see it as the Holy Spirit renewing and refreshing the Church. Hundreds of millions of Christians, from many different backgrounds and denominations, now regularly experience spiritual gifts and would describe themselves as charismatic Christians.