Last week, on Wednesday I finished teaching a six-week elective course at our church on American Christianity and its history. Throughout the six weeks, I continually returned to the subject of Revival, especially when we looked at Jonathan Edwards’s five marks of authentic Revival. (I’m capitalizing the word because I use it to reference specific events in Christian history).
I shared with the group an article that Pastor Tim Keller had just published in The Atlantic Online on February 5 about the possibility of Revival. Keller was optimistic, but he cautioned that “it will not happen until the Church applies this famous saying of Jesus to itself. “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant…even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” If the Church aims at loving service to one’s neighbor while clearly speaking the truth, it will grow again and may have cultural influence. But if it aims at influence rather than humble service, it will have neither.” I encouraged the group to pray regularly for revival.
A Wednesday surprise.
Imagine my surprise when I checked my email later that night and discovered that something was happening at Asbury University. Chapel that morning had not stopped, and the service had lasted well into the evening with more and more students, faculty, and staff gathering in Hughes Auditorium where the Spirit of God was moving them toward repentance and prayer. No celebrities. No prosperity gospel. No politicians trying to use Christianity for their own political ends. Just people being led by the Holy Spirit into greater relationship with God and obedience to God.
I’ve been pretty negative about American evangelical Christianity over the past ten years. To me it seemed like far too many evangelicals were trading the reality of Jesus Christ for a drug of partisan politics, an illusion of so-called “Christian America,” and the tripe which says that God wants you to be rich and pretty. So, my surprise has turned to joy these past few days, because out of the blue we are seeing what Jonathan Edwards termed “a surprising work of God.”
Some friends of mine have reported being at Asbury and witnessing the events for themselves. This is not a clergy driven or a faculty driven meeting. There is nobody orchestrating it or trying to use it for publicity. Even those with disruptive agendas have been politely asked to leave unless they are there to worship God and repent of their sins. There is simply a flexible coalition of student leaders, faculty supporters, and some area pastors seeking the Spirit’s leading as this surprising work continues. I don’t know when the meeting will end. It’s already gone on longer than the week-long 1970 revival in the same place. But the meeting will end, and I think the results will be seen primarily in students who have drawn close to the Triune God and who will seek to serve him in their careers and in their lives.
Two revival movements shaped much of American Christianity in the early 1970s. The first was the “Jesus Movement” that emerged in California in the aftermath of various hippie movements in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The movement spread the Christian faith among the counterculture of that day. The other was the 1970 Asbury movement that touched young people who were not necessarily part of the counterculture. Unlike the Jesus Movement, the Asbury revival impacted students in a host of colleges and universities, even some that were not necessarily Christian. One of the big effects from both was the large number of young people among my generation, the baby-boomers, whom God called to pastoral and other Christian vocations (I was one of them). Another was the revolution in music (some good, some not-so-good) that impacted much of American Christianity. But the largest impact came as Christian students graduated and began to serve Christ in their lives and in their careers.
Thomas McCall, a professor of Asbury Seminary (right across the street from the college), offered this view of the 2023 Asbury Revival, “As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very weary of manipulation [author’s note: so am I!]. I come from a background (in a particularly revivalist segment of the Methodist-holiness tradition) where I’ve seen efforts to manufacture “revivals” and “movements of the Spirit” that were sometimes not only hollow but harmful. I do not want anything to do with that.”
The Spirit is undeniably powerful but gentle.
“And to be perfectly clear, this is nothing like that. There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor. To the contrary, it has been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable–a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle.” I love that last line! “Undeniably powerful but gentle.
So, what happens next? Some will obviously question the genuineness of the events at Asbury. But whether a revival is genuine or not is not necessarily judged by what happens at a meeting. Instead, Jonathan Edwards reminds us that all true revivals have the following characteristics:
- A Deeper esteem for Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord–a commitment to the centrality of Christ in our individual lives and our congregations.
- Repentance from sin and passion for the righteousness of God.
- Greater love for the Bible and a desire to immerse ourselves individually and corporately in their teaching. (Lord, please provide a renewal of expository preaching in our pulpits.)
- A commitment to establish the truths of biblical Christian doctrine and teaching in our minds and allow them to form the foundation of our thinking and living.
- A genuine love for God and for all human beings expressed in active concern for our neighbors.
My hope is that we will not only see this surprising work of God grow and expand, but that these five fruits described by Edwards and rooted in the Bible will be the results. Meanwhile, join me in praying for this wonderful expression of God’s surprising work at Asbury. Pray that God will protect it from the enemy of our faith who would love to distract it and use others to promote ungodly agendas. Pray that evangelical Christianity will once again return to the centrality of Christ.
The 1970 Asbury Revival has been well chronicled by Robert Coleman in his short book, One Divine Moment. Dr. Coleman was a professor at Asbury College during the 1970 revival. For Jonathan Edwards descriptions of revival and its biblical marks, see Johnathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Revival. Richard Lovelace has published perhaps the best history and theology of Revival. See his Dynamics of Spiritual Life.