What is revival? How do you define this religious experience? The esteemed J. I. Packer suggested that revival is “God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives.” Robert Baird described revival as an “extraordinary season of religious interest.” J. Edwin Or wrote that revival was “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord” and Duncan Campbell said it was “a community saturated with God.”
There are numerous ways that people have described revival, though it seems safe to say that the simplest way of describing and defining revival is when God shows up and shows off, to use the words an old Pentecostal preacher once said.
When I was in younger, I visited the “Brownsville Revival” several times and also was at the “Toronto Blessing.” I have also read numerous books on revival, from a variety of traditions, including Iain H. Murray’s Pentecost Today?, Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Revival, Collin Hansen and John D. Woodbridge’s God-Sized Vision, Leonard Ravenhill’s When Revival Tarries, and several of Bill Johnson’s books. I’ve studied a fair amount on the First and Second Great Awakenings and have enjoyed reading about and the works of men like John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards (see his Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God), and Charles Finney. This means that I’ve read Charismatics, Pentecostals, Cessationists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and basically any works I could get my hands on. I’ve listened to literally hundreds of sermons on the topic and have attended hundreds of prayer meetings focused on revival. I’m familiar with the arguments that differentiate between renewal, revival, and awakenings and could likely tell you the top 10 verses that are used to support the longing and expectation for revival as well as the support for working toward it.
In other words, I get it.
Becoming uneasy with “revivalism.”
For a season of my life, I was hanging out with folks who were really into “revival.” So I was attending prayer meetings and spending a lot of time “contending” for it. We focused on it during our pre-service prayer meetings, our Sunday evening prayer meetings, our Monday night leadership meetings, our mid-week service, and our Thursday morning prayer meeting. We
read and listened consumed any material on the subject of revival that we could. I attended numerous conferences connected to ministries that are currently focused on the subject of revival, etc.
While I learned a lot of great stuff, I started to notice that almost every event or teaching always ended with a “the next thing we do will be the event that leads to unprecedented revival.” There seemed to be a magical carrot that would be dangled in front of everyone that implied that if people would just do one more thing, revival would come.
Unfortunately, I began to observe that people who were caught up in this stream of Christianity tended to be either on the verge of or experiencing some form of burnout. And what’s worse, they seemed to be unable to function in “normal” settings. Churches began to be graded on whether or not they were committed to revival or not. If those churches didn’t spend the vast majority of their time “contending” (a particularly difficult concept to actually define with any sort of biblical-theological insight), they weren’t really about the kingdom. Never mind how much evangelistic or discipleship oriented work was being done. And people were basically judged to be either “serious” about the kingdom or “luke-warm” or “passive” about the kingdom. So I watched people go off to “ministry schools” or “internships” and then come back to their local churches and basically be unable to serve because they were incapacitated by the vision of “revival.”
But it wasn’t revival. It was “revivalism.”
Toward an Understanding of “Revivalism.”
There is a fair amount of debate about the term “revivalism.” David Bebbington positions “revivalism” under the historic Evangelical impulse toward activism. He states,
“Revivalism is a form of activism, involvement in a movement producing conversions not in ones and twos but en masse… There was created [during the 19th century] a network of zealous Christians eager for a fast spiritual tempo.” (source, emphasis mine).
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states that “revivalism” is:
“A type of religious worship and practice centring in evangelical revivals, or outbursts of mass religious fervour (sic; they are British!), and stimulated by intensive preaching and prayer meetings.” (1403)
I’m all for conversions “not in ones and twos but en masse.” I believe there is biblical precedent for massive conversions (e.g., Acts 2:41 states that about 3,000 people became followers of Jesus at one time). But I see two issues in Bebbington and the Oxford Dictionary’s definitions that cause me to pause and push back or nuance. They are as follows:
- “Christians eager for a fast spiritual tempo.“
- Fervor under the stimulation of “intensive preaching and prayer meetings.”
It is my opinion that if Christians are not balanced in these two key areas, “revivalism” is actually far more destructive than it is constructive for the Church. It has the potential of hurting more than helping. In what follows, I want to lay out some of my concerns…
The Kingdom is now/not-yet, both/and, as well as fast/slow.
The work of George Eldon Ladd concerning Inaugurated Eschatology, the view that the kingdom is both “already” and “not yet” has been firmly established in New Testament scholarship (cf. Ladd’s Gospel of the Kingdom or The Presence of the Future). The kingdom of God always compels me to be far more “both/and” rather than “either/or” in many areas. Far too often we seem to be under the impression that ideas are mutually exclusive rather than being able to be held in tension or integrated.
And one very important truth about the kingdom of God is that it is both fast and slow. Being a healthy follower of Jesus means that we embrace both sides of that coin. There are seasons of life where our “spiritual pace” seems to be fast and other times where the face seems slower. That is healthy Christian spirituality.
I’m afraid that “revivalism” places way too much emphasis on going fast. This, in turn, forces unhealthy expectations for people. If something doesn’t happen fast enough, it’s a sign that God isn’t blessing it. But what about those missionaries that spend decades in Muslim countries only to see one or two conversions? And what about people who are honest enough to acknowledge that they have days, weeks, months, or even years of doubt?
Christian discipleship, I think, can be summarized well by the title of Eugene Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. The goal of Christian spirituality is to become more like Jesus, shaped by his ways and words by the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this process goes fast and sometimes there are periods that are slow and difficult and challenging.
“Revivalism” makes it almost impossible to acknowledge the common issues faced in the context of spiritual formation. Interestingly, it seems no small observation that folks who are deeply committed to the process of spiritual formation do not seem to have any commitment to “revivalism.” They are certainly committed to “revival” in the historic sense of the word (God’s presence comes and changes things), but do not seem to place a ton of emphasis on “fast” spirituality (e.g., the work of Dallas Willard, James Bryan Smith, Richard Foster, etc.). Why is this?
I’m convinced that Christian spirituality must have a grid for slow, or even snail-paced. Anything less does a disservice to people because it creates unhealthy expectations on work that should be reserved for the Holy Spirit, especially his timing, and seems to operate on an unbalanced grid related to the process of discipleship. Sometimes the kingdom of God extends far and wide in a very slow manner, both on an individual and large and massive level.
The line between “emotional” or “intense” and “manipulative.”
Sometimes I’m a passionate person. I have the tendency, at times, to include emotions in my preaching. I am, after all, a human being. Any form of Christian spirituality that attempts to remove emotion is, in my opinion, suspect and to be rejected. Contrary to the apparently assumptions of certain segments of the western church, largely those comprised of white males over the age of 55, God created our emotions and he isn’t afraid of them. So I’ll never suggest that church gatherings shouldn’t have “emotion” or be “intense.” There are certain subjects that can only produce feelings, unless people are robots (they aren’t, mind you).
But I am concerned that “revivalism” is often built on and designed in a way that “stimulates” with little regard for the “big picture.” I mean, if those steeped in “revivalism” aren’t careful, they can’t help but produce burnt-out Christians. And not only burnt-out Christians, but followers of Jesus who have absolutely no freedom to enjoy the non-spectacular, non-fast, non-allegedly-unsupernatural way of life. I say “non-allegedly-unsupernatural” way of life because I refuse to buy into the type of spirituality that can’t identify God’s presence and God’s work in the normative mundane aspects of our lives.
I used to attend a huge ministry’s yearly conference that would always end with a long half day of prayer. It was very intense and every prayer leader and speaker was full of passion calling on everyone to engage in the moment because this was going to be the big move of God, the big and final outpouring of God’s Spirit. After four years of hearing the same “guarantee,” it started to feel like a carrot was being dangled in front of the attendants and I started to wonder if anyone else was asking questions about, for example, why every year was going to be the year it happened but thus far, it didn’t really seem to be at all like we were being told.
It just got to the point where I think a lot of manipulation was taking place. And I don’t even think there was any intention behind it. It was just simply what was happening and appears to often be the byproduct of “revivalism” as opposed to “revival.”
I long for a move of God.
Critical readers may assume that I’m opposed to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Trust me, I’m not. I’m a card carrying member of the Renewal Tradition and love when the Spirit shows up. I love when the Spirit moves and gifts of healings take place and prophetic ministry happens and people are filled up. I even like when I am uncomfortable.
I desire a move of God. I pray for it. I work for it. I believe it happens. But I’d also like to suggest that it’s possible to be passionate for the kingdom and to desire a move of God while also loving my boring Monday mornings. I can skip prayer meetings “guaranteeing” the great outpouring of the Spirit and instead attending my 13 year old daughters spring recital.
What do you think?