When you look over the past few centuries you see a convergence between a rise in evangelistic fervor and effectiveness corresponding with a certain historical manifestation. Movements of God called revivals or spiritual awakenings ushered significant numbers of believers into the Kingdom, while church planting and missionary movements often emerged as well. All my adult life I’ve been fascinated with the stories of such movements, whether a localized church revival or a great awakening.
Here are some marks of historical awakenings. Some may surprise you, but all can give us hope. We know revivals (by revival I don’t mean a four-day planned meeting but a work of the Spirit through the church) often come in times of spiritual and moral decline and are birthed in prayer. Here are other features.
First, revivals are movements of God. Christianity in its essence is more a gospel movement to be advanced than an institutional monument to be maintained. The story of Christianity is the story of movements –– the advancing church in the Acts, the missionary movements of Patrick and Columba, the Reformation of Luther, missionary expansion in the 19th century, and the remarkable spread of the gospel in China over the past two generations. The First Great Awakening in the American colonies brought what Jonathan Edwards called “surprising conversions,” while the Second Great Awakening featured the birth of modern missions in America through the Haystack Revival.
Second, the message of revival movements is the gospel. Ideas spur movements. Osama Bin Laden helped to spawn a terrible movement of global terrorism at the turn of the 21st century by taking an extreme idea and convincing others to give their lives for it. Martin Luther didn’t seek to start a movement when he nailed the 95 theses to the wall five centuries ago, but a movement was born nevertheless because of the ideas he presented. The major movements in history, whether good or evil, grew and spread because of ideas, and typically, these ideas that challenged the status quo of the times.
Christians believe in the Bible as the Word of God and in the gospel –– the good news through the life, substitutionary death, and resurrection of Jesus –– as the focal point of Scripture. We believe the Bible is not merely a book about morality, but is primarily about reality. There is one great Story in all of Scripture, one metanarrative that makes sense of the entire Bible and all of life. In Genesis we read first of the Creation: God created an amazing world, and He created man in His image to worship Him. Because of the Fall and the reality of sin, creation has been broken, and we now need redemption. Jesus Christ came to provide our Rescue, and by faith in Him we can have life God intended. We can worship God and serve Him as a part of His Restoration, which will ultimately be enjoyed in a new heaven and a new earth. Revival movements push forward the work of believers like a flood of spiritual renewal.
Read the stories of great revivals and you will find that the preachers in these movements did not preach “how to have revival” sermons. They preached the gospel. Read the literature of those times, and you will see much about the gospel. In a real sense, a movement of revival is a movement of gospel recovery. In Josiah’s day, central to the movement of God was the discovery of the Law of God that had been lost –– yes; they lost the Bible in church! When churches lose a heart for the gospel and a conviction about the mission of God, they need revival. The heart of the message of revival is the gospel and those convictions that bring us back to the gospel.
Today, a growing movement of gospel recovery is spreading across the landscape of the church. This is particularly obvious in young adults. Weary of a factory-like church where attendees are basically expected to confess Jesus, show up every week at church services, and live morally, increasing numbers of young adults want to believe in something that changes everything. They hunger for a gospel recovery not unlike those we witnessed in earlier movements of God.
Tim Keller comments on why we need a focus on revival, and how the gospel is critical for such a movement:
In other words, revivals and renewals are necessary because the default mode of the human heart is works-righteousness — we do not ordinarily live as if the gospel is true. Christians often believe in their heads that “Jesus accepts me; therefore I will live a good life,” but their hearts and actions are functioning practically on the principle “I live a good life; therefore Jesus accepts me.” The results of this inversion are smug self-satisfaction (if we feel we are living up to standards) or insecurity, anxiety, and self-hatred (if we feel we are failing to live up). In either case, the results are defensiveness, a critical spirit, racial or cultural ethnocentricity to bolster a sense of righteousness, an allergy to change, and other forms of spiritual deadness, both individual and corporate. In sharp contrast, the gospel of sheer grace offered to hopeless sinners will humble and comfort all at once. The results are joy, a willingness to admit faults, graciousness with all, and a lack of self-absorption.*
Third, young people play a prominent role in revival movements. Recently a former student came to see me. She currently serves in a ministry to college students on a state university campus, and sees the spiritual need there. She asked me a question, knowing my interest in young people and in awakenings: “Do you think we could see a spiritual awakening in our time?” I told her I am actually hopeful. The growing focus on the gospel mentioned above, a rising recognition that morality and institutional religion is stifling the church’s mission, and a massive number of young people today all encourage me.
The role of youth was abundantly clear in the First Great Awakening. Concerning the revival’s effect on the youth, Edwards commented,
God made it, I suppose, the greatest occasion of awakening to others, of anything that ever came to pass in the town . . . news of it seemed to be almost like a flash of lightning, upon the hearts of young people, all over town, and upon many others.**
He went on to argue that the Great Awakening was essentially a youth movement. If only churches would tap into the zeal of youth! I would encourage you to challenge students in the gospel and call them not to simply live a little better for Jesus daily, but to see his absolute Lordship over all of life. I could be wrong, but I believe if we in fact see a movement of God in our time, young people will be at the heart of it.
A couple years ago I was asked to speak to about one hundred leaders from across the country. These leaders represented scores of massive megachurches, agencies, conventions, and seminaries. My topic: marks of revival for our time. I mentioned several including the three noted above. As I spoke of the role of youth I looked across the room. Probably 90% of those in attendance were over 50, including me. I said something like this: “You are important leaders with great influence. But you are not likely to be the people to start the next movement of God. You could kill it, however.”
If you are older, your wisdom is valuable. But so is the zeal of youth.
Tomorrow I will offer four more features.
*Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 54-55
**Jonathan Edwards, “Narrative of Surprising Conversions….” In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Sereno E. Dwight (1834, Reprint, Banner of Truth Trust, n.d.), I:347.
[Adapted from the book Firefall 2.0]