Thoughts about “Renewalism”

I spent Tuesday of this week (February 21) at Regent University in Virginia and learned a new word–“Renewalism” (and phrases like “Renewal Studies” and “Renewalist”). Of course, the term “Renewal” isn’t new to me. In fact, I read a paper there on Pietism and Pentecostalism the thesis of which was that the two are cousins. I put them together under the category of Renewal movements.

“Renewalism,” however seems to be emerging as a technical category both sociological and theological. Its sociological meaning is clearer to me than its theological meaning. I was informed that it is an umbrella term for Pentecostals, Charismatics, Third Wave Christians and Global South churches that are like those.

I take it the point is something like this. Pentecostals are finding common ground with non-Pentecostals and need a new category that includes all who share this common ground. What is the common ground? It seems to me it has to do with experiential Christianity and especially belief in a subsequent-to-conversion experience of the Holy Spirit with accompanying gifts of the Spirit such as healing, speaking in tongues, etc. BUT–not all Renewalists believe that speaking in tongues (or any one gift) is the sine qua non of being Spirit filled. Many, perhaps most, Pentecostals do. But most other Renewalists do not. This has kept them somewhat apart over the years, but now SOME classical Pentecostals are reaching out to neo-Pentecostals and others who share belief in the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit and seeking to forge together with them a broader movement that includes them all.

Sociologically, my question is whether this Renewalist movement might include at least SOME classical Pietists? I brought up the Blumhardts (father and son, Johann and Christoph) as examples of pre-Pentecostal Pietists who believed in healing, exorcism, prophecy, etc.

I wonder whether something like Renovare (Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, et al.) might fit into this Renewalist category? The question is how broad and inclusive will this be?

The sociological “center” seems to be passionate belief in and commitment to spiritual renewal of individuals and churches through experience of God including the contemporary supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.

What about the movement’s theology? Must a person or church be trinitarian to be included? Can Roman Catholics be part of it? What about non-Pentecostal Wesleyans? (They usually believe in healing if not speaking in tongues.) What about Keswickians?

I think what I am hearing about Renewalism sounds familiar to me from my two years at ORU. It wasn’t called that there or then, but the place was awash with people from all kinds of denominations (everything from Mennonites to Roman Catholics) who shared a common belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit (i.e., rejection of cessationism). They did not agree on many other issues. Some were sacramentalist and some didn’t observe sacraments at all.  Some were Calvinist-leaning and some were radically Arminian. Some were Pentecostal and some had no affiliation with that. Some were low church and some were high church. What held us all together was that common belief in the contemporary transforming work of the Holy Spirit through subsequent to conversion infillings of the Holy Spirit and receiving and exercising supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some were more expressive than others about that. But everyone believed in it or they wouldn’t have been there.

So, in order to understand Renewalism (in the sense I heard of it at Regent U.) I have to go back to my ORU days and remember that Holy Spirit ecumenism. It was probably the best thing about ORU then.

Personally, I would like to advocate including among Renewalists genuine Pietists whether they manifest supernatural gifts of the Spirit or not (so long as they are not cessationists). I think it would be very interesting to have a conference at a place like Regent that brings together (for example) Renovare people and Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals for conversation about church and personal renewal.  I think they would find much in common.

I still have enough of Pentecostalism in me to believe this, Renewalism, is an extremely important movement beneficial to Christianity today (even though I do not speak in tongues and do not believe it is for everyone). Conservative evangelicals have been pushing correct doctrine as the path toward church renewal for quite a while now (even in the mainline churches). I don’t think that alone will do what needs to be done. If we want to see revival as it is happening in the Global South in North America and Europe, we will have to be more open to the present operation of the Holy Spirit in very emotional ways. (I don’t mean “emotionalism” as in emotion for its own sake.) We have to shed our sense of sophistication and respectability and allow ourselves to experience God in ways that may be embarrassing for those of us with M.Divs and Ph.D.s and M.D.s and etc.


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  • Joe Canner

    My limited experience with Charismatic Renewal movements within the Catholic Church suggests that the charismatic part is less important than the renewal part, with “renewal” referring to things like vibrant worship, personal salvation, evangelism, etc. (i.e, more “Evangelical”). My sense is that the same is true of similar movements within the Anglican Church (e.g., Holy Trinity Brompton) and the Episcopal Church.

  • Casey

    Great post but you used a term that I am unfamiliar with. What exactly is the “Global South?”

    • rogereolson

      The two-thirds, “majority” world–most of who live south of the equator. “The Global South” is a phrase increasingly used by sociologists to replace “third world.”

      • caleb

        Well – off topic, but I’m from New Zealand (south as it gets bar South America), so ‘global south’ and ‘third world’ don’t seem synonymous to me, living in a first world nation, and only a stones throw from Australia – seems like a just another bit of Euro and US centric thinking if you ask me. Cheers

  • Krister S

    “If we want to see revival…we will have to be more open to the present operation of the Holy Spirit in very emotional ways…we have to shed our sense of sophistication and respectability and allow ourselves to experience God in ways that may be embarrassing…”

    In these short phrases, you have expressed what I know to be true. I say this based on my 25-year theological journey, with its twists and turns and broad variety of backgrounds. Having experienced several years’ fellowship in Pentecostal churches, conservative “Bible Church,” and as an Oral Roberts Univ grad myself, I’ve learned that sound understanding of the Bible is helpful. A well-formed hermeneutical system is essential. But an church-based, Spirit-empowered, intimate experiential approach to worship and doing life together is the key. To me, this is what Jesus wants from us. The great learning is subordinated to experiencing Him. My 2 cents. Thank you Dr. Olson for posting this.

  • T


  • Sounds a lot like the late 19th century run-up to the Pentecostal movement — people saw the established churches as dead and lacking power, and yearned for a restoration of the New Testament church, including the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, though there was not always consensus on which gift was the defining evidence. Unfortunately, many of of the restorationist and early Pentecostal leaders rejected eccleisial organization, theological education, and the great tradition of the Church (especially the creeds) because they felt that those were the cause of the deadness in the established denominations. They committed the fallacy of equating co-incidence with correlation and causation. (I just wrote a reflection paper on the early Pentecostal movement for my AG History and Polity class at AGTS.)

  • PSF

    Wheaton did a theology conference kind of along those lines a few years ago. Keynote speakers were Gordon Fee and Dallas Willard. IVP has published the lectures in essay form:

  • John Mark

    I hope you will use any influence you have to promote this further. Great thoughts as usual. btw, one of the reasons I like your blog is that you are very accessible in your presentation. For a person with a simple mind, as I am, this is deeply appreciated.

  • It.would seem the term “charismatic” as juxtaposed to “cessasionist” accomplishes the same.

  • Scott Gay

    It’s impossible to get around the facts that cessationism just isn’t true. The idea of renewal via the gifts leads me in two directions.

    (1)Professor H.M. Gwatkin was a church historian, not exactly like Dr. Roger Olson, but ……here goes…..his summary of the three main results of the Montanist crisis is as follows. He argued, first, that with distinct gain there went grievous loss. “The failure of Montanism did much to fix on Western Christendom that deist conception of God as a King departed to a far country, which empties the world and common life of that which is divine and holy, and restores it but in part, through the mediation of the Church, His representative, and by the ministry of the sacraments. Second, that as a result of the Church’s deep distrust of the prophetic and the charismatic in all its forms, enthusiasm was suspect. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit has too often been the step-child of theology. The third result, according to Gwatkin, was that a contrast began to be drawn between the apostolic age and all subsequent. “The official ministry seemed the one mediator…..the entire medieval system from the papacy downward is no more than a natural development of the unbelief which knows no working of the Spirit but one transmitted by outward ordinances from a distant past. To this development the failure of Montanism gave a greater impulse than the defeat of gnosticism or the conversion of Constantine”.
    This over strong language allows too much importance and influence to Montanism, but its positive point is one which “spirituals”(or why not renewalists) have constantly made.

    (2) The eradication of cessationism as unbiblical and not true is necessary. But as the pendulum swings, gifts must be given the priority shown by God and not the men who want them emphasized.
    “…it is needful to observe this, that, even in the infancy of the Church, God divided them with a sparing hand. Were all even then prophets? Were all workers of miracles? Had all the gifts of healing? Did all speak with tongues? No, in no wise. Perhaps not one in a thousand. Probably none but the teachers in the church, and only some of them, 1 Cor. xii, 28-30. It was, therefore, for a more excellent purpose than this, that ” they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.” John Wesley, Scriptural Christianity, 1744.

    When the subject of …….renewal, the Holy Spirit, enthusiasm, experiencing God…..comes up…..why always gifts and not fruits? It seems God’s priority is the latter. And a more excellent purpose.

    • The enduring evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit (sanctification, Christian character, and the fruit of the Spirit) is just as, if not more important than, initial physical evidence (held to be glossalalia by classical Pentecostals).

  • David Cole

    Great post as usual, Dr. O. You have indeed lifted up the very best that the ORU of the ’80s had to offer, and have generously recognized what is hopeful about current conversations and emphases in places like Regent.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, David. I’m glad you visited here. Come often and comment often. And, of course, as we are friends, call me Roger. 🙂

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Larry Vern Newman, Professor of Church Growth & Renewal at Columbia Evangelical Seminary, has recently written a book that should be an important contribution to the subject of “Renewalism”; especially from the pentecostal point of view. The book is entitled, “The Ultimate Evidence.” It’s a call for a more open and inclusive appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers, regardless of their subjective spiritual or emotional experiences.

  • Praveen

    Hey brother Olson
    i would like to share with you this
    This morning right after I woke up and still on bed I got this thought
    I believe in TULIP – Total Goodness of God (Lord is good to all his tender mercies are over all that he has made – Psalms 145:9)
    provided Unconditional atonement (lamb slain before the foundations of the world – Rev 13:8) because of his
    Limitless Love (God is love – 1 John 4:8), and in his Infinite mercies (Psalms 136) Perseveres with Humanity (Love always perseveres – 1 Corinthians 13:7)
    Peace my friends

    PS: The word used for tender mercies in Hebrew
    has the connotations of a young married pregnant Israeli girl having compassions over the child in her womb.

  • caleb

    It seems that theology is still a very important factor regarding identification within Christianity (ie am I a charismatic, contemporary, pentecostal etc?) but people are simply coming to terms with the reality of revival in nations where culture allows it! New Zealand society, as a western nation, is fairly conservative regarding emotional displays – it’s only ok at a Rugby game – when it comes to church I think that even in Pentecostal churches here, many accept the reality and are happy to observe examples of contemporary outworking of the Holy Spirit in the form of spiritual gifts – however many are just too scared to get amongst it due to difficulty in overcoming powerful western social values like not showing emotion, materialism etc…

    • caleb

      I mean – people are happy to accept that revival is happening in other countries, but their appeasement of western secular cultural values kills their own chance to experience this

  • caleb

    Very interesting article! I think this is a good example of someone attempting to define the way in which post modernism is affecting church/theological identification… we aren’t so interested in denominations and the small differences between us in theology, but rather the similarities in light of the wider/growing acceptance of charismatic gifts and emotional expression in worship… ie if those other guys are experiencing the same thing as us, then they cant be all that bad right?

  • Dr. Olson,
    Regarding Pietism, it is quite unfortunate that contemporaries claimed followers of Spener’s movement “degenerated” into “fanaticism.” Sounds like the various claims of excess against John Wesley during his time, “enthusiasm.”
    I would say the prophecies, visions, prayer healing, etc., exactly reflect the practical aspects of any charismatic movement within Christian history. And I believe that “Renewal” is in fact an umbrella term for any group of Christians who are taking advantage of what God has provided through the Holy Spirit: charismata for the building up of the Body of Christ. At the core of such charismata is undoubtedly “revelation” gifts and ministries, such as prophecy, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and related visions, holy impressions, etc. If they are made use of for ministry purposes, then they are being used correctly.
    The Episcopal Charismatic Fellowship made a change in name to Episcopal Renewal Ministries back when exactly to provide a method of gathering groups together who were seeing “supernatural” ministry and results, but were uncomfortable with claims of being “neo-Pentecostal.”
    So why shouldn’t Pietism, with its concern for practical Christianity being evidenced in various places through such revelatory charismata, be considered a facet of the Renewal movement(s) of its day?
    BTW, when were you at ORU? My mother was in charge of circulation at the ORU library circa 1974-1977 or so, during the same time Bob Stamps was chaplain.

    • rogereolson

      Bob Stamps was away studying in England during the two years I was there. I taught at OUR 1982-1984. Was she still there then? As an aside about Bob Stamps. I heard about him a lot during the two years I was at ORU. People said “If Bob were here he’s straighten Oral out.” Well, when Bob returned to resume is chaplaincy, he and Oral had a falling out. Bob then came to Minneapolis-St. Paul where I was teaching and we finally met. He was never a bitter man, but he was very sad about the direction Oral had taken by, for example, joining Victory Christian Center and leaving the United Methodist Church. (Bob was pastoring an evangelical Methodist church in Minneapolis when I met him.)

      • Rob Eaton+

        No, she was gone by then, moved elsewhere.
        Never heard that before about Bob and Oral.
        Also, I’m a firm believer in the fire being in the fireplace; otherwise the house burns down (undeserved or not).
        Bob is out there somewhere, still. I ran across him on a blog thread while I was searching out one of the songs he had written back then while he was still at ORU, and he answered back.
        Re: Pietism, I’ve forgotten which of the second or maybe third generation of Pietists was arrested and put on trial for “fanaticism” as it related to prophetic utterances, etc.?

        • rogereolson

          I’m not sure of the specifics of that either.