How did I become skeptical of revivals? From attending many of them.
I grew up in churches that offered week-long revival services. One particularly memorable revival featured a preacher who spoke every night about Christ’s second coming, frightening me with images of hell and being left behind if Christ should happen to return at a moment when I was screwing up. I went to the altar at the end of the services to confess my sins “just in case.”
At my evangelical Christian college, students were required to attend revival services every semester. During one of our chapel services in the mid-1990s, the chaplain was preaching about revival and before I knew it, a student came onto the platform and encouraged the rest of the student body to get enthused about revival on our campus. For several days, the presence of God was nearly palpable in that chapel as students came forward to share their stories of how God was working in their lives. The people in those services were getting high on Jesus, and then…I don’t know what happened. The feelings kind of dwindled and that was the end. I don’t remember any lasting change coming from it. (If my fellow ONU alums remember it differently, I welcome your feedback.)
When stories of revival at Asbury College – a school with values and beliefs similar to my alma mater’s – began to circulate late last week, I thought, “Yeah, right.” Friends of mine began to post about it on social media. Mainly, the posts were from people of backgrounds similar to mine who apparently have much fonder memories of revival than I do. As the stories appeared in my feed, I may or may not have rolled my eyes a few times. I may have said to my spouse, “When they start confessing of their exclusion of LGBTQ+ people, I’ll believe it.” (OK, I actually did say that to my spouse. The spiritual care and inclusion of my beloved queer community within the church is my calling. It’s the reason I recently enrolled in seminary and left the non-inclusive evangelical denomination of my youth.)
Just a couple days into the revival on one college campus, another college campus suffered a mass shooting. How can these kids at Asbury sing and pray their cares away, I thought, while kids at Michigan State are terrified and mourning the deaths of three students? I was angry. Angry at my seemingly tone-deaf friends who celebrate news of revival in another state but make no mention of the gun violence happening sixty miles up the road. Angry that these college-age kids have never, NOT FOR ONE DAY, ever attended a school that didn’t require rehearsed lockdowns and active shooter drills. Before they could open their own juice boxes or tie their own shoes, they learned to silently huddle in dark, cramped storage closets with their teachers and fellow students, lest someone with a gun should ever come into their school.
All week, I’ve been carrying these feelings with me. I haven’t had the words. I’ve been reluctant to poop on the Asbury party, in the slightest hope that something of substance is actually happening there. I’m beyond knowing what to say about gun violence. I’m as devastated, heartbroken, and perplexed as you are.
Thursday, after conducting a therapy session with an MSU student, I wrote, “What the eff is wrong with this country? Good Lord.”
You know those TV shows that, partway through, do a sudden rewind and go back in time? The main character goes back to a pivotal moment in the story and gets a do-over, where they make a different choice? Well, cue the record scratch sound effect and back up the truck. A few things happened Friday that set my thoughts on a different path.
First, a friend visited Asbury and posted her story. I was interested in her opinion because she spent time around conservative evangelicals (just like I did) and is now pastoring in a more progressive environment. She told of her own experience there with confession, forgiveness, healing from emotional trauma and physical pain. Another update today indicates that she continues to be pain-free several days after her trip.
Second, another friend directed my attention to this piece written by Tom McCall, a professor from Asbury Seminary. McCall writes, “In previous revivals, there has always been fruit that has blessed both the church and society. For instance, even secular historians acknowledge that the Second Great Awakening was pivotal to bringing about the end of slavery in our country. Likewise, I look forward to seeing what fruit God will bring from such a revival in our generation.” It was a reminder that sometimes, social change does happen following a revival. It’s not always emotional fluff.
Third, I was reminded of the things I’ve been reading and writing for my seminary class on the Missional Church. Essentially this class attempts to answer the question: In this post-modern era, how may the church most effectively answer its call to share the Gospel? One answer we keep coming back to is that the church must be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit led the apostle Peter to overturn the essentials he’d been taught about God, so must we allow the Spirit to show us our errors, embrace the corrections, and reveal new things to us.
Renowned missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, writes in his book The Open Secret:
“My own experience as a missionary has been that the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of ‘resources.’ This kind of language, appropriate for a military campaign or a commercial enterprise, is not appropriate here. The significant advances in my experience have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge. God opens the heart of a man or woman in the gospel. The messenger (the ‘angel’ of Acts 10:3) may be a stranger, a preacher, a piece of Scripture, a dream, an answered prayer, or a deep experience of joy or sorrow, of danger or deliverance. It was not part of any missionary ‘strategy’ devised by the church. It was the free and sovereign deed of God, who goes before his church. And, like Peter, the church can usually find good reasons for being unwilling to follow. But follow it must if it is to be faithful. For the mission is not ours but God’s.”
As a proponent of the missional church, I have frequently felt frustrated with others who question the leading of the Holy Spirit to follow in new directions. I can see that the American church in will continue to dwindle if we keep doing the same things we’ve been doing. I get excited by innovation in the church. I like thinking outside the box. I have been praying for several years that the hearts of evangelicals will be broken for the spiritual abuse we’ve inflicted upon our LGBTQ+ siblings. I’ve been praying that these same hearts will be filled with a yearning to include all people in the body of Christ. I long to see an end to the violence that is killing our children. Yet, while others have been saying that revival is happening, that possibly prayers of repentance and prayers for justice are coming to fruition, I’ve been harumph-ing on the sidelines with my arms folded across my chest.
Here’s what I know:
- God can change the hearts and minds of people who are open to correction and change.
- God works in and through faithful people to affect change.
- God moves in ways that we can’t always predict.
- God is able to do “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
I’ve seen these things happen in my own life and in the lives of people I know.
In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles are put on trial for teaching about Jesus. Some leaders wanted to kill them. But one man named Gamaliel spoke up for them, saying “keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (vv 38-9).
Is it reasonable to question the authenticity of a revival? I think it’s not only reasonable, but also wise. We see in Gamaliel a strong example of an open heart balanced with wisdom. I have no idea what the Asbury revival will ultimately yield. It may take awhile before we know. But if I’m praying for change in the church, yet am too skeptical to even give this revival any consideration, then I’m a hypocrite. I’m no better than the people who frustrate me when they can’t see God moving in new ways. I might just be one of the people who is fighting against God.
If I truly believe God can use a revival to spark change, and if a revival is currently happening, then I need to be praying. Praying for the people who have the potential to be mobilized and directly affected by the services. Praying that, instead of a spiritual high that eventually fizzles out, real change results. Praying for open and contrite hearts that are willing to follow where the Spirit leads. Let it begin with me.