Thoughts on Revival

As I write this, there is a revival going on at Asbury University. This is drawing a lot of attention. This is not the first nor the last revival that has come our way.

About twenty-five years ago, I lived near Toronto and I visited the Toronto Blessing numerous times. While the style is probably different, there is also much in common.

There is no lack of opinion, for and against the Asbury revival, just as there were for every other revival. My intention is not to state one way of another whether this is a real work of God. I have not been there and I would be speaking from ignorance.

But I can say something about revivals in general. Perhaps some of these thoughts will be helpful for others.

First of all, what we call “revivals,” that is long, repeated, or continuous worship services, are really a modern protestant phenomenon. What we are seeing at Asbury follows a pattern that likely goes no further back than the 17th century.

That is not a criticism, nor does it mean that this is not of God. It simply means that we should interpret it in its historical context.

Were there revivals in the Bible? There were a few, what we might call “revivals” in the Old Testament. These usually were led by a king or a prophet, and they focused on turning away from idols and turning back to God, sometimes returning to worship forms that they had let fall away.

So biblically, the focus of revival is on repentance rather than the exuberance of worship or liveliness of preaching. Most of the best of the modern revivals have also had a focus on repentance.

One of the questions to ask is: what should people be repenting from? Modern revivalism often focused on personal holiness. People would repent of drinking and smoking and gambling and sexual sin.

Personal holiness is good but there are other things that need repenting of. Looking at Isaiah 1, God calls the people to repent of the way they have treated the poor and marginalized. This is something that is just as relevant today.

That is not to say that that revival is only about repentance. “Revival” literally means bringing back to life. This means that an individual or congregation or campus is filled with spiritual life, however that might look.

One of the criticisms we will hear is that “If this was real revival, then we would see…” Yet if you asked a wide range of Christians, you would receive a wide range of characteristics that go with real revival. The assumption is that if God is really involved in this, then he would be working on the area that I am personally passionate about.

That is a normal reaction but God is actually bigger than our personal convictions and his timetable may look different than ours. God is free to bring about a revival that doesn’t touch immediately on the things we think are most important.

The other critique is that when a revival begins, we do not know the lasting impact of that revival. That’s kind of obvious, but it shouldn’t lead to excessive cynicism. That would be like being hesitant to ordain a new pastor because we do not know for sure that they will remain faithful for their entire ministry.

I want to conclude by saying that it is not unspiritual to be cautious or critical (in the best sense of the word) when it comes to claims of revival. The Bible tells us to discern and test the spirits. Revivals always include people and that means there is always room for error or even abuse.

Our prayer, whenever we hear about revival, is that it is true revival that will transform individuals and communities. Exciting worship is nice, but what is needed is a real work of the Spirit. Let us pray that this is the case in every revival.

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