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Right now, something is happening on the campus of Asbury University in Kentucky. What began as a chapel service has turned now into a several-day worship service of singing and prayer. People from other universities have been busing in to see and to participate. People are queuing up outside the chapel. There are both people cheering it on, and claiming this is a revival the answer to prayer, and there are people sceptical, doubtful that this is more than emotion, and a kind of prolonged crowd-hysteria. I find that the momentum of the moment is to believe that it is true, and to harshly criticise those who are in any way doubtful, or even just unpersuaded. 

The tradition I grew up in is known as revivalism. Revivalism doesn’t only seek revival to come when God sovereignly wills it, in some ways, it seeks it every week. A lot of this began in the 19th century with a fellow named Charles Finney. Finney taught that the goal of a minister was to create an emotional crisis in every service, that would leads sinners and saints to an altar call of tears of sinners prayers or rededication. In the 190 years since Finney, church leaders have found more and more ways to try to create those crises: powerful music, trance-like atmospheres, guilt-tripping people, scaring people, bringing people to tears with stories, lighting and stage techniques learnt from Broadway, Nashville and Hollywood. And like Finney, people who successfully use these techniques will have results in their churches. People are moved, choked up, touched, maybe shamed. Commitments and rededications follow, and they conclude that because they are feeling their religion so much more deeply than before, that this is truly a work of God; it is true revival. They feel like they’ve been woken up, renewed. And who doesn’t want to feel the things of God more deeply? Isn’t this true revival or renewal?

Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. We really only know as we watch the fruit of those meetings and services. Sadly, most often we find something people don’t expect. It’s the principle of easy come, easy go. The quicker and more sudden those religious feelings were evoked, the shorter they seem to last, after the service is over and the music has stopped. Those feelings that felt so powerful during the service become more and more of a distant memory. As they fade, some Christians try the futile approach of trying to get those feelings back, hoping that another church service or song or sermon will ignite those tears or that ecstasy again. When it doesn’t, they’re confused, a bit perplexed, perhaps discouraged. Those commitments they made, which they made sincerely at the time, seem to have less and less hold on them. Weeks or months later, they remember with some guilt and some regret that they aren’t keeping those commitments anymore. 

Christians of all stripes and types speak about revival, the importance of revival, the need for revival. Churches pray for revival. I think if we asked the average Christian, would you like to see revival, everyone would say, yes. But what exactly is it? How would you know if it occurred? 

There are several events that have taken place in church history which are just like what is happening in Asbury University right now. Depending on the person, the event is either called a revival, or a great deception. In colonial America in the 1740s, there was a period of time when many thousands of people seem to come under great conviction of the Word when it was preached by people like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. Many regarded that as a revival, and was called the Great Awakening. But there were many who were sceptical of the emotionalism, and thought most of it was a sham. 

In the 1830s, Charles Finney began holding crusades, and there were claims that several hundred thousand people were converted. The so-called Second Great Awakening ran from 1790 to about 1840 and many claim it was a time of revival. Others are not very sure. 

Many regard the Third Great Awakening as a time of revival. This was when the Pentecostal movement as know it began in 1900. Many other movements like Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses began during this time. But this was also the time of Charles Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, D. L Moody. So was it revival or wasn’t it?

Here is the great problem. Many people make the mistake of beginning with spiritual experiences either historical or contemporary, and then they go looking for Scriptures to support those. They start with the event, and then move to the Bible. They start with prayer meetings that went for hours, or the many professions of faith, people becoming deeply emotional about their sins and confessing them, or people manifesting unusual behaviour (weeping, or falling, or ecstatic utterances) and then they try to find a biblical category for those actions. And the problem is, however sympathetic you are to that event in history is then really going to control what you find in the Bible. Experience is going to trump Scripture every time, when you do that. 

We must start with the Bible. But where should we start? We could do a word search for the word revival. That won’t help us too much. The Hebrew word translated revive comes from a root word that occurs 809 times – sometimes translated revive, sometimes, life, living, creature. That’s not really going to help us narrow down the idea. 

What we do know is that the Bible does not teach what Charles Finney taught. The Bible does not describe the Christian life as a series of emotional crises and perpetual, weekly rededications. But it does teach that God’s people can sometimes enter into periods of spiritual stagnation, where instead of growing, we become dull. Believers can enter periods of spiritual dullness, where the things of God become dreary and boring and tiresome, and the things of this world seem alluring, exciting and inviting. Believers can enter periods of spiritual slumber, where they are almost asleep to the Word, to prayer, to the church, to worship, to fellowship, to holiness, to making disciples. 

What does this renewal look like? We will consider that next.

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