Revive us again (again)

Revive us again (again) February 15, 2023

In any given week there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of revivals hosted by local churches and ministries all across America. Most of these go as planned, ending up with most of those in attendance crowded into the front of the auditorium praying together to dedicate or re-dedicate their lives to Christ.

By most measures, then, most of these revivals were successful. Turnout was good. The response to the altar calls was robust and sincere. The faith of many believers was reinvigorated and refreshed and replenished in a meaningful way.

Yet the organizers of all of those revivals had been hoping for something more than that. When they’d set the date and invited the guest speakers, hung fliers, prepared special music and all the rest they had been hoping and praying that the result would not merely be a revival, but revival itself.

What they mean by that is difficult to describe. What is “revival”? This rare and elusive thing that we refer to by this name — the namesake of all of those “revival” meetings — is hard to define.* Religious people, particularly those of us from revivalist traditions, seem to have a shared understanding of what we mean when we talk about revival, but it’s not easy to articulate it — what it means, what it does not mean, what criteria or standards or threshholds we have in mind to distinguish between revival and something else that is less than that.

This thing we speak of as revival tends to be accompanied by overwhelming emotion. Skeptical onlookers tend to regard that emotion as the cause of the phenomenon — “That’s just people getting caught up in their emotions” or “That’s just emotional manipulation.” And that’s also a thing that can happen. But those who have experienced or participated in revival tend to speak of that emotion as a response to something else — to a numinous, transcendent sense of divine presence, grace, and love.

It makes sense, then, that these people will have a hard time describing precisely what they have experienced. “Can you put into words what it is that has left you speechless?” is obviously not an easy question to answer.

I saw Peter Gabriel at JFK Stadium back in the ’80s. He closed with “Biko” and 80,000 of us sang along: “Whoa-oh-oh.” Gabriel’s band left the stage slowly, one by one, until it was just the drummer and the crowd, still singing. And then finally the drummer left and 80,000 people kept singing “Whoa-oh-oh.” I don’t know how long we continued. Could’ve been five minutes, or ten, or fifteen. It felt like forever and it felt like mere seconds and it felt like that singing could reshape the world.

It’s something like that.

And because it’s something like that, it’s reasonable to be somewhat skeptical about reports of “revival” breaking out somewhere or other. Can you be sure it was God’s Spirit at work and not just, say, a Springsteen concert? When you get a world-class band playing songs about hope and dreams and an ineffable yearning for something more in front of 20,000 people singing along you’re bound to feel caught up in something larger than yourself — to be gobsmacked and goosebumped with an exuberance and exaltation you won’t be able to put into words.

What we need, in other words, is a way to describe revival that makes it clear we mean something other than a Springsteen concert.

One way we attempt to make that distinction is to say that in revival God’s Spirit is at work. That’s unhelpful — partly because it suggests that God’s Spirit is sometimes not at work. But it also begs the question, confusing discernment with the claim requiring it. Determining where and how God’s Spirit is at work is a recurring theme in the New Testament and I think those scriptural discussions can be helpful in delineating what does and what does not constitute revival. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

That metaphor of “fruit” and of “bearing fruit” is important. This is or ought to be the hallmark of “revival” — that those who experience it are revived. If we don’t see that reviving — that renewing and transforming of the lives, choices, and behaviors of the people involved — then it would seem that we haven’t seen revival itself, just something more like a Springsteen concert.**

So usually when anyone points to an example of what they believe or hope to believe is “revival,” and asks “Is this the real deal?” the correct answer will be “It’s too soon to tell.” Wait and see what fruit it bears.

Nothing I’ve written above would normally be fodder for controversy. It would not be perceived by anyone as cynical or unduly skeptical.

But it may be perceived that way just now because, just now, we are in one of those rare moments in which some say they are witnessing revival itself. That means, among other things, that any mention at this moment of the fruit of the spirit will be perceived by some as quenching the spirit. In the context of what many are describing as an ongoing revival, the normally bland question “What is revival?” comes to be viewed as hostile, rather than merely pertinent.

But since it is pertinent, I’m afraid that can’t be helped.

Bob Smietana gives a fine summary of what’s happening right now at Asbury University, “Why students at a Kentucky Christian school are praying and singing round the clock“:

Last Wednesday (Feb. 8), students at Asbury University gathered for their biweekly chapel service in the 1,500-seat Hughes Auditorium.

They sang. They listened to a sermon. They prayed.

Nearly a week later, many of them are still there.

“This has been an extraordinary time for us,” Asbury President Kevin Brown said during a gathering on Monday, more than 120 hours into what participants have referred to as a spiritual revival.

The revival has disrupted life and brought national attention to Asbury, an evangelical Christian school in Wilmore, Kentucky, about a half-hour outside of Lexington. Videos of students singing, weeping and praying have been posted on social media, leading to both criticism and praise from onlookers. News of the revival has also drawn students and other visitors to the campus to take part in the ongoing prayer and worship.

A 120-hour-and-counting prayer and worship service is, as Brown says, “extraordinary.”*** And, as the religion professor quoted later in Smietana’s article says, this spontaneous outbreak of spiritual fervor at Asbury seems to “it all the historical signposts of previous revivals.”

From what I’ve read and seen online of what’s happening right now at Asbury, I think it’s accurate to describe what’s happening there as revival — as something akin to those “previous revivals” the professor refers to there. I think this is an instance of exactly that thing that all those churches and ministries earnestly desire when they plan and schedule their “revival” meetings. And I think that this revival at Asbury is a Good Thing.

But I don’t think it is the kind of Good Thing that most people think of when they speak of, or yearn for, “revival.” My objection, in other words, is not with this instance of revival, but with the idea of revivalism and the wildly mistaken expectations that accompany it. More about that later.

* See, for example, this discussion of “revivalism” by the excellent, perceptive historian of religion David Bebbington. He describes revivalism as “a movement producing conversions not in ones and twos but en masse.”

That ain’t it. Revival isn’t about conversion, but about the renewal and reinvigoration of faith among those who are already converted. It is a Christian phenomenon occurring amongst people who are already Christians. That’s why it’s impossible to discuss without all of these words involving that “re-” prefix.

** And, alas, a Springsteen concert — while wonderful in itself — is not a revival. We know this because of Chris Christie. The former governor of New Jersey has seen the Boss play dozens of times and yet, despite that, he still does not believe in the promised land and still does not wish to meet us in the land of hope and dreams, etc.

*** The duration of this unbroken time of prayer and worship reminds me of the more than 2,300-hour continuous service held in 2018-19 at the Bethel Church in The Hague. It’s intriguing and revealing, I think, that that extraordinary outpouring of prayer and worship was not perceived, at the time, as “revival,” or compared against those historical signposts.

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