Theology 101

What is a Revival Movement?

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The worship was so powerful you could cut it with a knife. About one hundred students were packed into the small chapel. There was no worship band on stage; it was empty. There were no big screens showing the words to the songs. Several guys were sitting in the audience with guitars but were not formally leading the worship. 

Many of the songs were randomly started by members of the audience. There were a few hymns, but most of the music could be considered contemporary. This part of the service lasted about an hour, but it did not seem that long. There was sweetness and joy to the worship that actually drew people into the service from off the street.

The next part of the service was a combination of sharing, prayer, and confession, which flowed orderly but organically from the audience. The prayers were so honest and convicting that they brought tears to some and deeply moved others.

Finally, several scriptures were read, there were teachings from several members who seemed to be part of the leadership, then a few more songs and a closing prayer. This part of the service seemed prearranged but did not feel structured. The entire service lasted just a little over two hours.

This was not Asbury, Kentucky, in February 2023 but a midweek worship service in Gainesville, Florida in February 1971. I know because I was one of the guys playing guitar in the audience.

A Revival Movement

What did these two services have in common? They were both a particular movement orchestrated by the Holy Spirit to bring renewal to his Church, which has often been called “Revival.” While the word “Revival” is not found in the Scriptures, the idea is demonstrated in many places in the bible. Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge, in their book, A God-Sized Vision, quote J. I. Packer’s description of the canonical witness:

Revival is a social, corporate thing, touching and transforming communities, large and small. Bible prayers for revival implore God to quicken not me but us…God revives his church, and then the new life overflows from the church for the conversion of outsiders and the renovation of society. 

The worship service described above meets Packer’s description and was a part of a larger revival in the United States, which is called the “Fourth Great Awakening” (also known as “the Jesus Movement” or “the Charismatic Movement”). It lasted from the mid-1960s through the 1970s and touched every Christian denomination, including the Catholic Church. 

The movement was interdenominational, interracial, and intergenerational. Jeremy Walker, in his book Revival: The Work of God, notes that revival is “something divinely powerful, probably painful, truly delightful, sweetly fruitful, often resisted, easily abused and greatly to be desired.” I experienced these things not only in the worship I regularly attended but in more than 50 different services visited during this “Fourth Great Awakening.”

In 1971, Time Magazine described the growing Jesus Movement in a very truthful article

There is an uncommon morning freshness to this movement, a buoyant atmosphere of hope and love along with the usual rebel zeal. But their love seems more sincere than a slogan, deeper than the fast-fading sentiments of the flower children; what startles the outsider is the extraordinary sense of joy that they are able to communicate…If any one mark clearly identifies them it is their total belief in an awesome, supernatural Jesus Christ, not just a marvelous man who lived 2,000 years ago but a living God who is both Savior and Judge, the ruler of their destinies. Their lives revolve around the necessity for an intense personal relationship with that Jesus, and the belief that such a relationship should condition every human life. They act as if divine intervention guides their every movement and can be counted on to solve every problem.

Another thing the Asbury event has in common with the “Fourth Great Awakening” is that most people writing about both events weren’t there. Revival is a mountain-top experience; you can’t read about it or watch it on TV. It must be experienced in person. That is why so many people flocked to Asbury. 

How To Speak About Revivals

We need to be careful about what we say about events like the Asbury experience. Revival doesn’t fit neatly into our little theological boxes. As the Apostle John writes:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (Jn. 3:8). (Note: The Greek for Spirit is the same as that for wind.)

Mike Cosper, in an article on the Asbury awakening in Christianity Today, echoes the same sentiment:

…grace is an untamed thing, consistent only in its tendency to defy reason and laugh at our expectations. There’s a lavishness to it, whether it’s in God’s tendency to save the “greatest of sinners” or in the indiscriminate way Jesus dispensed miracles and mercy in his ministry.

Maybe the best advice on how to think about Asbury or the “Fourth Great Awakening” can be found in the book of Acts from an unlikely source. The second time Peter and John are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people,” stands up and gives the Jewish leaders the following wise counsel: 

Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God (Acts 5:38-39).

We all should desire and pray for revival in our churches. But if we really want it, we should ask God to send revival and let it begin in our hearts!

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