What Is a Revival? And What Does It Matter?

The spark in the beginning seemed to be a small group of students who didn’t want to leave. They didn’t want to stop worshiping.

I am not who took this photo, but I am grateful to the person who captured the scene.

I pay only casual attention to the news. Maybe that is why I didn’t know much about what is going on at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY until about 10 days into the 1-hour chapel service that turned into a two weeklong, around the clock gathering of young people worshiping Jesus. Or maybe I hadn’t noticed because most media outlets aren’t reporting on it. Not that they would know what to do about it if they did!

When I began scrolling through Instagram that Friday evening, I found one video after another from the chapel at Asbury University. It was all I had in my feed, and I started following it.

Other than the live feeds, video, and people self-reporting on the Asbury phenomenon, I began seeing many cautionary pundits who seemed uniformly concerned about whether what was happening is a revival, most of whom were convinced it wasn’t. Notably, the Asbury school administrators and staff seemed uniformly hesitant to categorize what was happening as a revival.

I have watched a lot of live video. I have listened to interviews with students, staff, professors and visitors. I have listened to people who are skeptical. I have listened to the cautions and warnings.

I “grew up” in the Lord in Charismatic churches in the 1980’s. Since the 1990’s, however, I have gravitated away from charismatic circles into more traditional Christian environments. I have focused on daily Scripture reading, weekly church attendance, and getting involved in leading and participating in small groups, apologetics, and regular fellowship – and writing.

I have been disillusioned by the emotionalism and thrill-seeking that can characterize the charismatic movement. I have seen the dangers of idolizing charismatic leaders and the charismatic movement, itself.  

It’s easy enough to want what God can do for us more than we want God.

Some people I looked up to in those charismatic churches walked away from God. The church that I practically idolized in my early Christian walk, splintered and fragmented and fell apart in a very short time. The pastor who married my wife and I got divorced a few years later. It didn’t last.

I am an attorney. I am trained to be analytical, even skeptical. I am naturally more comfortable exercising my brain than my heart. I can easily settle into an intellectual faith that is thin on authenticity.

I didn’t immediately pay attention to the Asbury University “revival”. We live in a sensationalized world of clickbait, and I have learned to look away. Revival isn’t a biblical term, as far as I know. I can’t think of a verse or passage that uses that terminology.

Anyway, I began scrolling through Instagram last on Friday night. I know better than to scroll through Instagram late at night like that, but it was a long week. I was looking for some mindless entertainment before I shut my eyes and went to sleep.

I scrolled to one video after another from Asbury University. Mild interest began to pique. Something was going on there. It was then that I realized that 10 days is a long time for a routine chapel to last!

One video showed the last few minutes of the message that ended the chapel. It was ok, but anything but spectacular. It was far from a passionate call to the altar. It was an ordinary message by any measure.

Now, I was even more interested.

One University professor described the beginning of the revival as “ordinary” and unremarkable”. It was a normal, scheduled chapel. Some students didn’t want to leave after chapel and kept playing music, worshiping and praying. That was it.

Another video included interviews of several students who were there. A group of 15 or so students just stayed. They sang. They prayed for each other. They didn’t want to leave. Other students went to lunch or to class, but they felt a compulsion to return.

They trickled back over the next few hours. Some administrators began to take notice. A few wandered in to check it out. The gathering was growing organically. It was spontaneous, student-led, completely unassuming.

When the dean or president (not sure) found out what was happening mid-afternoon, he sent out a message inviting students back to the chapel if they wanted to go. The gathering continued to get bigger as the day wore on. Food and water was brought in. Midnight came, and it was still going strong with no signs of letting up.

It was still going on when I began to write this piece – two weeks later.

The spark in the beginning seemed to be a small group of students who didn’t want to leave. They didn’t want to stop worshiping. Then one person, then another person, and another person after that began to get real. They began to confess their sins and to ask for prayer.

About day 12, a spokesman for the University said, “To know whether it is a really a revival, only history will tell…. We are calling it an outpouring…. Obviously, God is bigger than Wilmore, KY. We are really humbled that this is happening here, but we encourage people to get into their churches and their universities and share the love of God.”

This is what the critics were saying too, only it seems they were unaware of the same message coming from the school administrators and staff. The air of distanced judgment and stony failure to acknowledge that God might be doing something didn’t sit well me.

“There has been no production. This is lead by our students. Our students have been on stage leading worship this entire time…. There is no flash. You can tell very quickly when you step in that room it is real…. Gen Z is craving authenticity….. That is what is happening here.”

The thing that really caught me attention when I initially I scrolled through video after video was the gentle and sweet atmosphere, the tenderness that characterized it, the lack of cliché signs of “revival”, which we might rightly call sensationalism.

The student worship leaders were off to the side of the staff. Kids stood and sat behind them. Maybe there was no other room. There were moments of hushed silence, soft prayers, tender choruses.

It ebbed and flowed, and all the while students were talking with and praying for each other. Some were kneeling in prayer at the altar. Others were lying prone on the floor. People were off to the side in wheelchairs getting prayer for healing, I suppose, but they weren’t the center of attention.

In fact, the center of attention was Jesus, Jesus was being lifted up. People were worshiping and exalting God the Father and God the Son.

I saw video showings more excitement – loud singing, clapping, jumping – but these were later videos. The early footage was simply gentle, sweet, tender and authentic. As the time wore on, the worshipers were floods of people coming from across the country and around the world. The gathering took on a different flavor from when it started.

I have seen plenty of cautionary words. Alisa Childers drove there and stayed just long enough to caution her followers with the reality that she had been there. One person I follow on Facebook observed:

“Any revival, that does not lead to true repentance of sins, and awakening to become more Christlike, is hardly genuine.”

I went to a Southern Baptist revival once in Jonesboro, Arkansas. It was called a revival before it even started. I wonder how they knew what it was?

What did I know? I was a Catholic kid from up north. I was completely caught off guard when the message about the prodigal son seemed to be aimed directly at me like someone fed that preacher my life story.

I went forward that night under the conviction of my sin. I repented and asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior.

That was called a revival, but I couldn’t have told you whether it really was one. I just know something remarkable happened to me that changed the trajectory of my life.

Do we really measure the genuineness of revivals by “true repentance of sins”? Who does the measuring? What instruments do they use? Does it really matter that we call it a revival if lives are changed?

If you had followed me through the year after that night in Jonesboro, AR, you would have seen me wandering like a lost puppy with a new flame in my heart and no idea what to do with it or how to keep it lit. You would have seen me slowly falling back into the old habits that I knew so well. Then faster and deeper until I hit the bottom.

At that point, you might be asking whether I really attended a revival. It wasn’t genuine. I wasn’t changed at all. So much for that “revival”! Just a bunch of hype.

Throngs of people came to listen to Jesus. Some of them followed Jesus. But when Jesus was about to be crucified, most of them scattered, some denied him, and some of those people in those crowds called for his crucifixion. Not a revival. Not genuine?

If God calls, and a person doesn’t respond, Jesus says that seed feel on the path and was snatched away by Satan as soon it fell. If God calls, and a person responds initially with great joy, but it doesn’t last, Jesus says it fell on hard ground.

If God calls, and a person lets it take root, but the worries of life, deceitfulness of wealth and other things take over, Jesus says it fell among the thorns and was choked out.

If God calls, and a person responds, lets His word take root, and it grows, bearing good fruit, Jesus says it fell on good ground. Whether it happened at something we might call a revival doesn’t really matter.

The measure of the authenticity or genuineness of God’s call, the movement and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, is not in the response, but in the delivery and character of the seed that is planted. Jesus touched people in the flesh and healed people who failed to obey him. At one point, only one in ten people came back to him with gratitude.

What is a revival? And what does it matter? If God moves, and some people repent of their sins, others submit their lives to him for the first, still others are encouraged, stirred up, excited for Jesus, renewed, filled with the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus is lifted up, does it matter what we call it as long as we recognize God’s Holy Spirit at work?

I don’t know what to call what happened at Asbury University, but I wish it was still going on. I wish it would happen here, where I am. I know that it can. My safe, intellectual faith could use the danger of a little revival.

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