Is There a Revival Coming?

Earlier this year I spent time with Leonard Sweet at his home in Orcas Island to share at his Spring advance.

One of the questions we discussed was, “Is there a coming Revival? And if so, what will it look like, how will the body of Christ respond, and who will it affect?”

I thought I’d post some of what I said in my answer to the question and ask a related question so all of you can weigh-in.

The Charismatics often define revival differently than do other Christians. Namely, Charismatics regard one of the characteristics of a revival to be signs and wonders.

Consequently, they typically count as “revivals” the Azusa street revival in 1906-1909 in Southern California, the Latter Rain revival of 1948 in Canada, and the 1994 revival beginning in Lakeland, Florida, moving to Toronto, Canada; Melbourne, Florida; and then Pensacola, Florida.

(The latter was dubbed “The Toronto Blessing.” I was present in the early meetings in Lakeland when it first broke out. I also visited the church in Melbourne, Florida to which it had spread. A decade later, I visited the same church in Melbourne, and it had become a hollow shell. But that’s another story for another day.)

I’m defining revival here in the classic sense. It’s when scores and scores of people get converted to Jesus Christ in a short time-span (usually four years). And this massive conversion phenomenon covers more than a few cities. It typically embraces an entire nation and sometimes other nations.

With respect to the United States, there have been two revivals in the 20th century. Both were undeniable.

The first occurred from 1948 to 1952. In those years, God brought a revival that stunned the nation. Countless young people came to Christ. This revival occurred in the traditional church. And it burned through college campuses all across America.

The “post-war revival,” as it’s sometimes called, spread across denominational lines. It eventually fizzled out, however, because leadership sought to control it. Nevertheless, it produced and launched a number of gifted servants of God who would go on to have world-wide ministries. Billy Graham was one of them. (Graham’s evangelistic ministry began just when the revival broke out.) The revival also brought many new para-church organizations into prominence.

The second occurred from 1968 to 1972. We know it as “the Jesus Movement.” It was the first revival ever to hit the United States that began and continued to thrive outside the traditional church.

House churches, simple churches, Christian communes and communities sprung up all over America. Droves of young people came to the Lord. It’s been said that you could spit in the street and a fountain would rise up. You could simply say the name “Jesus” and people would get saved.

Time Magazine 1971

Time Magazine 1971

The movement thrived among the youth in the counterculture. They were turning from the free-sex-and-drug culture to Jesus Christ. They were also experiencing the body of Christ in close-knit community. The revival reached its peak in the summer of 1972, making the covers of Time, Life, and Newsweek in ’71 and ‘72).

The afterglow lasted for another six years. By 1979, the revival was virtually dead. And the Jim Jones tragedy in 1978 made people suspicious of all non-institutional forms of church.

Presumably, the men who were in their 20s during the first move of God were in their 40s during the second move of God. These men stepped into leadership roles and began to take over (and control) the new move of God.

Despite its problems, the revival produced Calvary Chapel, Maranatha Music, and Jesus People USA. Most everything else that came with it dissolved.

Historically, revivals resurrect a dying church back to ground zero. Once the church is resurrected and the revival ends, the church continues on with the same practices and mindset it had before it sunk into death. Revival, therefore, is merely a temporary solution to a long-term problem. It has never touched the root of the church’s problems.

As I put it in my book Finding Organic Church, “What is needed in the body of Christ is not restoration. It’s not even revival. What is needed is a revolution—a complete and radical change from top to bottom, a new sighting of Jesus Christ and His church, and a change of both mind-set and practice. To put it bluntly, we need a revolution in our understanding of the Christian life. We need a revolution in our practice of the church. And we need a rev­olution in our approach to church planting.”

A.W. Tozer spoke in the same vein. In his book Keys to the Deeper Life (originally published in 1957), Tozer wrote the following in a chapter entitled, “Leaning into the Wind.”

“I believe that the imperative need of the day is not simply revival, but a radical reformation that will go to the root of our moral and spiritual maladies and deal with causes rather than with consequences, with the disease rather than with the symptoms . . . It is my considered opinion that under the present circumstances we do not want revival at all. A widespread revival of the kind of Christianity we know today in America might prove to be a moral tragedy from which we would not recover in a hundred years.”

Three Closing Points:

  1. If the name of the game is conversions (souls saved), then Tozer’s analysis makes little sense. But if God is after something more than people converted to Christ (such as His Eternal Purpose), then his words should be seriously considered.
  2. It’s always problematic to look at the characteristics of past revivals. Because in past revivals, one can find a combination of characteristics. Some characteristics reflect God’s sovereign action while other characteristics reflect the culture in which that action occurred. And it’s often beyond our ability to pick those cleanly apart.
  3. In his book, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Charles Finney argued that spawning a revival is like a fine science. As long as Christians follow certain steps, revival will come. God always wants revival, but it’s the result of human action. When I was in my 20s, I bought into this thinking, even trying to put it into practice. Today, I am skeptical about any alleged methods to create revival. As I look at past revivals, it seems to me that the wind blows wherever it wills. Locating a cause is usually a study in vanity (or “chasing the wind” with pun intended).

If revival comes to the United States again, what will it look like and how will it differ from the past two revivals of the 20th century?

About Frank Viola

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  • Rob

    I think there is a revival/revolution of sorts already happening…although slowly… the idea of self-created gods and religion as part of the New Age movement seemed to produce a whole lot of empty belief ‘systems’ and new agey earth-based movements that don’t really have much depth or substance, and so I personally see many people finding renewed meaning and interest in the Bible and in Christ. This is how it was for me and I see it with my peers. I think the church itself (in general) is going to experience (or is already slowly experiencing) a restructuring. I think the days of opulence and gaudy decor and high ceremonial structure are fading out of popularity in favor of more personalized and approachable methods like in-home bible study groups. At least, that’s my view of it. :)

  • Frank Viola

    Thx. for the comment. Wright and McKnight are professional, academically accredited scholars. I am not. So technically speaking at least, I’m not a scholar. Though I appreciate the compliment.

  • http://theoppositepc.blogspot.com Frank

    Instead of revival, what about another Great Awakening? I see the internet and social media as an unprecedented way to spread the Gospel, but there are also many wolves out there dressed as lambs, and I don’t belive the average blog-reader, facebook-poster, can tell the difference. But I do believe the Holy Spirit is stirring something. I don’t think it is coincidence that voices such as yours, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight and other scholars are gaining prominence while the missional movement is also rising (and returning to a Gospel-focus) through folks like Mike Breen and Alan Hirsch, meanwhile popular authors such as Francis Chan and David Platt are shaking things up by challenging how we define discipleship. Maybe it all seems to be happening at once because we can see it by following it on the internet, but I do believe we’re on the verge of something.

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  • Steve

    Hmmm… the awaiting of the next revival movement is a theme I keep seeing. What if it doesn’t come in the way we want? Sometimes God sent prophets to the Israelites, but sometimes He sent armies. What if the next big movement of the Spirit is persecution? I think there is more evidence of that being over the horizon than a revival movement.

    It also seems that efforts to evangelize have suffered from an error known to those in the world of marketing: If you try to hard to be like your competition, people will choose your competition. Efforts to turn the Gospel into a self-help seminar, or a self-esteem booster, or therapy, or a rock-concert are giving people “what they want” without giving people what they want. We yearn for the transcendent. Something different than the world. Holiness.

  • Brian P.

    I could be wrong but I wonder if things are different in the new era of the Internet and social media and that. Christianity says lots. And lots are in conflict with each and lots are… shall we say… outright mean.

    If not merely uninformed.

    Sure, God may do a new thang, but those folks over there say something else and another group yet something else.

    Nowadays, everyone is so over-exposed.

    There may be a coming revival, but this new one will be in the light of much more than every one before.

  • Frank Viola

    Agreed.

  • Frank Viola

    Deal! :-)

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    So weird – just now I was looking for something and came across an email from last week that I had missed. I was a friend telling me about your new book. I’ll tell you what – I’ll subscribe to your blog and you can subscribe to mine. ;)

  • rvs

    Surely the happenings that fall under the umbrella of “emerging church” have something to do with this revival concept, if only functioning as foils. I think emergence is more than a foil, and preferable to a fundamentalist backlash, but I think that the concept of emergence remains ill-defined and messy (thus making it interesting).

  • Frank Viola

    Thx. And welcome! By the way, I’m giving a free copy of my next book (in Nov. or Dec. when it’s out) to those who subscribe to this blog. ;-)

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    Oh – I hang out on Patheos from time to time. I try to keep up with discussions going on in the Christian world – maybe get some ideas for my own writing. And I’ve seen your name around. I never have any money to buy books, so I read what other people have to say about them. It’s practically the same thing as reading them, right? Ha! When I saw that you were starting to blog here, I wanted to stop in and see what you had to say. I’m sure I’ll be back.

  • Frank Viola

    Thx. for the thoughtful comment Rebecca. How did you find this blog? It’s new so I’m curious. ;-)

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    What I have come to believe is that there is a revolution coming and, as in the time of Jesus, it will largely circumvent the approved channels. While venues like the internet have made it easier for people to be heard, I think that what will provoke a revolution is someone (or probably many someones) who figure out how to go around the usual Christian outlets and sources to go directly to the majority of people who pay more attention to celebrity gossip than to the battles between complimentarians and egalitarians. Who knows exactly what form this will end up taking. But I think that what will be different about the message which makes it through is that it will be profoundly rooted in reality. It will allow the knowledge which we have gained in the last 200 years to replace a lot of the presumptions that much of the church has been hanging onto and fighting about. (Evolution being the most obvious example. But another good example would be using our growing understanding of how our biology affects our behavior, personality and way of thinking to finally rid Christianity of the influence of dualism.)

    My guess is that it will work a lot like it did in the day of Jesus. It seems to me that Jesus, being untrained, was never able to gain a real hearing in the existing rabbinical structures and eventually took his message straight to the people instead. And his message, while obviously unique, didn’t develop in a vaccum. The great commandment to love God and love your neighbor as yourself can be seen as Jesus’ interpretation (I would say correction) of Rabbi Hillel’s teachings, for example. And like Jesus, I think the message which will break through is one which focuses on humanity rather than getting all our rules and beliefs in order.

    I think that the time is probably ripe simply because we’ve pushed our own way of doing things so far and created so many hurting people. You can’t make a serious argument that our real problem is that we’re too restricted or don’t have enough wealth or freedom. Between the fatherlessness, the broken families and abundance which enriches some while leaving others without basic needs met, I think that more people than we may realize are about ready for something better. Christianity is familiar enough for people to have some comfort with, but the churches are almost entirely discredited. Again, I think that it will look a lot like in Jesus’ time – people who are deeply rooted in the faith but far enough outside proper church circles to actually understand and communicate with people where they are.


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