Much of the negative commentary on the revival at Asbury University is wide of the mark. In part, because the critics mistrust the conviction that God can intervene in people’s lives. In part, because they can see nothing but manipulation as the engine of such behavior, and in part, because they rely on Reformed and fundamentalist notions of revival.
Revival in the Wesleyan context is very different, both in terms of its history and its theological assumptions. At its best, it presupposes the possibility of perfection in one’s love of God, and by virtue of that love, a love of others. It represents the Methodist appropriation of the Orthodox notion of theosis, and it envisions the possibility of personal transformation. Unlike the Reformed tradition, it looks beyond the experience of saving grace, to the larger vision of life made possible by God’s sanctifying grace. These are not two separate things, but a larger vision of what God longs to give us.
That experience does not stop with the individual, however. It holds that we are blessed to be a blessing. And that is why both the university and the seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, have been the engine of ministry and mission, care for the poor and marginalized, and a vision that has embraced John Wesley’s vision of the world as his parish.
If there has been a tension in that tradition, historically it has been between that kind of transformation and legalism – competing visions of sanctification as the perfection of love and the perfection of performance. But, judging from the reports, that tension is not a problem. Vulnerability, self-examination, repentance and openness to the work of the Spirit have been front and center. The students themselves have surfaced their own spiritual struggles and their own descriptions of their experience suggest that they have navigated those conversations with love and forgiveness.
If everyone keeps their spiritual wits about them, that will continue to be case. Indeed that may well be the revival’s enduring gift. That has happened in the past, which is why the throw-weight of the community in mission and ministry has exceeded its size. There is every reason to believe that can be the case again.
Wesley – who described love as “the sum of all” Christianity, Methodism, and true religion – would approve, and Christians everywhere should take note. Mainline Protestantism has dithered and backed away from taking confirmation, college ministry, and youth retreats seriously. But at Asbury and now at colleges and universities around the country, young adults are taking their own faith seriously, and they are making commitments that may well shape a life time.