As Alpha in a Catholic context spreads across the globe, Nick J Drake wonders whether the elusive ‘fifth wave’ of the Spirit has arrived
It was during the 4am taxi ride back to the airport that it hit me.
The young Polish Catholic driver of the car had started telling me his story: ‘I had grown up attending Mass, knowing the Bible, eventually being trained theologically, but then I went on the Alpha course and my whole world changed. I experienced the life of the Holy Spirit. I felt like I had known the “what” of church but now I knew the “how.”’
What this young man was testifying to, and what I had just seen with my own eyes at the Alpha Poland conference, was a mighty move of God in the Catholic Church in Europe. I hadn’t just participated in yet another Christian conference, but perhaps stumbled into the elusive ‘fifth wave’ of the Spirit – with historic connections going back over a century to London, Rome, Pittsburgh and California.
As I clambered bleary-eyed onto the plane to return to my home and Protestant church in London, I knew the Catholic Church was on fire and I needed to warm up.
THE ‘WAVES’ OF THE SPIRIT AND THE BIRTH OF ALPHA
On 1st January 1901 Pope Leo XIII consecrated the 20th century to the Holy Spirit. Within a few short years the Pentecostal movement would be born, thousands of miles away on the streets of Los Angeles. By the 1960s and 70s the established Anglican and Catholic churches would be experiencing the power of this charismatic renewal; intensifying towards the end of the century with the arrival of John Wimber and his Vineyard Church in the UK, followed by the Toronto Blessing.
This history of renewal through the 20th century has been talked of as the first, second, third and fourth waves of the Spirit (see box p.53z). This is a typology that suggests links, causes and effects between each wave.
At the end of the century the effect of these waves upon the Church of England could be clearly seen. There were three new developments that would dictate Anglican charismatic worship and mission for the 21st century: firstly the New Wine conferences and network started by David and Mary Pytches of St Andrew’s, Chorleywood; secondly the Soul Survivor youth festivals under Mike Pilavachi; and thirdly the further establishment of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) as perhaps the epicentre and model of an Anglican church adopting charismatic spirituality.
It is this latter consequence of the third and fourth waves that interests me, because out of HTB came the tenweek course on exploring faith known as Alpha.
The spirit has not gone from the Church
Although birthed in 1977, arguably it was not until Wimber came over to the UK (as part of the third wave) and the subsequent experience of the fourth wave of the Toronto Blessing at HTB under Sandy Millar, that Alpha began to progress around the world. Crucially, it was the Holy Spirit’s impact on the leadership of HTB, including on Nicky Gumbel who was by now heading up Alpha, mediated by the prayers of John Wimber, John and Ele Mumford and others, that led to an environment in which an evangelistic course with a ‘Holy Spirit weekend’ was invested in.
Despite various flourishes around the place (the UK impact of the Pensacola Revival or the ministry of Todd Bentley) there arguably hasn’t been any sustained significant ‘move’ of the Spirit in the UK since those third and fourth waves in the 80s and 90s.
LOOKING FOR THE ELUSIVE FIFTH WAVE
While holding such a scheme lightly, it is interesting to look through the lens of this ‘waves’ model and ask ‘where is the identifiable, corporate and manifest move of the Spirit now?’ Where is the Church moving in the gifts of the Spirit, bold in witness, giving glory to Christ and growing in ever-increasing unity? Where is the elusive, longed for fifth wave of renewal in the Church: something traceable to the impact of the previous moves of the Spirit?
I want to suggest that God is moving powerfully through what I consider the most unlikely container and in the most unpredictable of places: the Alpha course in the Catholic Church. This is the fifth wave. The Spirit has not gone from the Church. The manifestations of his presence, joining us to Christ, have not ‘died down’. They have just moved into mission.
What is happening across the Catholic Church today through Alpha is an extraordinary, unpredictable continuation and result of the third and fourth waves hitting the UK: the impact of the Vineyard Church on the Anglican Church (is it coincidence that Carol Wimber was a Catholic?). The unique Reformed-Catholicity of Anglicanism seems to have provided the perfect mediator between Pentecostalism and Catholicism; London the perfect stopover between LA and Rome.
The four waves
Prompted by the emergence of John Wimber’s Vineyard movement in the late 1980s, Professor Peter Wagner proposed a ‘three waves’ reading of 20th Century outpourings of the Spirit. It provides an interesting lens through which to read recent Church history.
The First Wave is defined as Pentecostalism. This is commonly thought of as originating in Azusa Street LA in 1906 under the leadership of William Seymour. However the roots of the movement are traceable to 1901 when Agnes Ozman received the gift of tongues in Bethel Bible College, Kansas.
The Second Wave is understood as the influence of Pentecostalism on the mainline established churches, which eventually resulted in a distinguishable second movement. The charismatic ‘renewal’ occurred both within Protestant churches such as Anglicanism in the UK and within the Roman Catholic Church, originating in the famous ‘Duquesne Weekend’ near Pittsburgh in 1967.
The Third Wave emerged in the 1980s and centered on John Wimber and the Vineyard church. The Third Wave believed in signs and wonders but without necessarily holding to the need for a specific ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ event.
The Fourth Wave was labeled as the ‘Toronto Blessing’ of the mid-1990s. It was viewed by many as a separate move of the Spirit due to its particular manifestations and wide impact, especially upon the UK protestant Church.
SPIRIT-FILLED POLISH CATHOLICS
Ninety per cent of the delegates at the Alpha conference I attended in Poland were from the Catholic Church. When called on to pray, the first thing to come out of their mouths is not Polish, nor English, but that great, holy charism: the uniting language of the gift of tongues.
Giving themselves wholeheartedly to running Alpha courses, setting up Bible colleges and leading worship, these Catholics have a zeal for the gospel that matches the Acts of the apostles era. They have one thing on their minds: the spread of the living power of God to change lives and change nations – an alive and living Christianity that has bite. If you ask any one of them their personal story, they will likely give you a thrilling account of how they experienced a recent infilling of the Spirit on an Alpha course. They are confident, non-showy, experienced, and clear in their role of proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom coming. Their worship is contagious, expressive, spontaneous and spiritual. They know how to sing in tongues more than the average English charismatic congregation.
Crucially, they have been so filled with the Spirit, that they know dead religion when they see it. These ‘Alpha-Catholics’ only want Spiritdistilled Christianity. They’ve tasted it and are thirsty for more. What would, in a previous generation, have been considered ‘Pentecostal’ is now just ‘normal’. These Christians no longer see the need to use the adjective ‘charismatic’. They are simply ‘Catholic’.
These Catholics have a zeal for the gospel
Alpha in the Catholic Context, was launched in the UK in 1996. It is now running in 70 countries across the world – from Sydney to South Africa, Malaysia to Mexico. In Europe, France has seen the strongest growth with around 800 parishes now running Alpha.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
The English charismatic Church of the third (and fourth) wave would do well to listen to this sound of heaven touching earth in the Catholic Church. Perhaps if the anointing upon us seems lesser, then we are to move to where the anointing is. In the fifth wave, the anointing comes in mission, out on the edge; it’s in the conversions, and the rekindling of faith that the Alpha course is mediating through the Catholic Church.
For those of us in the UK looking for a marked increase in the manifest, identifiable presence of God in our gathered worship (as happened in the third and fourth wave), perhaps we need to remember Miroslav Volf’s wisdom that worship is both adoration and action. We need to remember that enjoying intimacy with God requires extending invitation to his world; that the stream of life that flows out from the Ezekiel temple is for the healing of the nations. The terminus of the Spirit in this current ‘now and not yet’ period, where everything is not yet complete, is not in the room of worship, but out on the edge of the Church in mission, where faith meets fear, light overcomes darkness and hope triumphs over despair.
Are we charismatic in name, but now tame?
So what is the challenge to us in the UK? Firstly, don’t ‘move on’ from Alpha. Don’t think Alpha doesn’t work; it does. Yes, augment it with new models for mission, creativity in proclamation of the gospel and a renewed boldness in personal engagement in evangelism.
Don’t lose faith in God at work through an unlikely container. The Alpha course is the woman at the well in John 4; the Alpha course is Levi the tax collector; the Alpha course is all of us: unlikely, imperfect, created people. Yet it is precisely these vessels that the creator chooses to communicate himself through by his Spirit: not just information, but revelation that leads to transformation.
Secondly, for us third-wave charismatics, let’s not be ‘over’ the Spirit. The temptation is to think we know all there is to know about the way the Spirit moves in the Church; to get bored and view the third and fourth waves as belonging to the past – something fun but now relegated to history. There seems to be an increasing danger that we’re slowly becoming ‘cessationist charismatics’ – an oxymoron and a tragedy. Are we charismatic in name, but now tame? Are we nodding to the Spirit in all the right ways, but safe in our liturgy and safe in our faith? Has ‘comfortable’ become a more accurate adjective than ‘charismatic’ for us Christians in the UK? Have Sundays never felt safer?
What this fifth wave reminds us is that God is powerfully at work in the world through the presence of the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. I for one want to align myself with this end-time movement. This is where the Church is contagious, ablaze, fluid, unpredictable and powerful. This is where I want to be.
If he could have seen it now, John Wimber would not have believed it; neither would Charles Parham and the early Pentecostals over 100 years ago: the fifth wave consequences of their faithful synergy with the Spirit of God.
Slightly later than planned, it seems Pope Leo XIII’s prayer is coming home.
The Alpha Course has been recently re-filmed. For more information see alpha.org
Nick J Drake is theology and formation pastor at St Luke’s, Gas Street, Birmingham. He is also a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Charismatic and Pentecostal Studies, University of Birmingham