The Danger of Becoming an Awakenings Agnostic

When is the first time you remember seeing God move? The first time you remember being aware of his presence, seeing him change lives, or knowing he was near? I remember seeing God save young people, some of whom were hippie-types. I remember our church converting a skating rink into a “One Way Christian Night Club.” I remember wanting to know Jesus personally. I was 11.

When was the last time you saw him move? Just last week I had the honor of helping someone place their faith in Christ alone for salvation. That never gets old. Sunday, as I taught on my Sharing Jesus book for my friend Kie Bowman at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, I sensed God’s good hand, and was renewed in my heart that God called me to encourage believers in evangelism. How about you? When did you last see him answer prayer, change a life, or change your life?

When is the next time you will see him move? Are you anticipating his work in your life?

I know what you may be thinking: “Hang on, you are asking questions about our experiences–isn’t it a dangerous thing to focus on our experiences?” Yes, but no more dangerous than to ignore the reality that our God is living and active and at work in our world.  The Word of God, his unchanging truth, is always the arbiter of our experience. But the Bible that guides us teems with accounts of the activity of God at work in the world.

I’m always wary of people who overly emphasize experience. But I’m concerned about the other side of this: believers who interpret the Bible by their non-experience. We have an entire generation who has never really seen God move in power, except in spots here and there. The cumulative effect can be to develop a suspicion toward anything out of the ordinary. We could even become agnostics toward spiritual awakening. Jonathan Edwards wrote several of his treatises on revival to respond to professing believers who were skeptical of the work of God.

God has moved mightily in the past. We see it throughout the Word, as I noted above. We see it in history, through powerful missionary movements, in remarkable stories of God’s people standing firm in persecution, and in great revival movements. I love to tell my students some of the stories of revival. For some, it’s a stimulus to seek God with a fresh heart. For others, I fear it’s just some stories totally detached from their experience with Christ.

We don’t seek revival for the experience of it. We pray for a God-intervention, an awakening, to know God more. We ask for God’s power to be more effective in serving him and to bring more glory to his name. We pray for God to awaken the church because God can do more in a week of his activity than we can do in a decade in our own power.

There is another thing: an awakening really does change things. It changes the church, and it sweeps many into the kingdom of God. I’ve seen bits and pieces of this in my life on earth. I’ve never been the same from such visitations.

Don’t seek an experience, but don’t be suspicious of them either. Seek the face of God more than his hand, and walk with him with deep affection, and pray for revival. Like the Psalmist prayed in Psalm 85, and Habakkuk prayed, and as Isaiah prayed in 64:1. Our world is a mess, and our hope is in God.

By the way, several years ago a professor of mine named Malcolm McDow and I wrote a history of awakenings called Firefall. More recently we updated it. If you are hungry to know more about how God has moved in the past to be stirred to pray today, you can get it here. My life has been shaped greatly by the stories of revival.

One more thing: I warn my students, and I want to warn you–you can be in the middle of the activity of God and miss him at work. You wouldn’t be the first. That reality drives me to prayer. I believe our God is at work in powerful ways, and I don’t want to miss being a part of his activity. As you pray, pray for revival.

The Jesus Movement Today

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The Jesus Movement is the most sweeping spiritual movement in my lifetime that most young people have never heard of in theirs. I came to Christ in 1970 in a church that let the hippies come in to hear the gospel. I was 11; my parents wouldn’t let me be a hippie. But I saw Christ change many.

I saw a small Southern Baptist Church turn an old skating rink into a “One Way Christian Night Club.” I watched young people start an outreach ministry on Panama City beaches and in the mountains of East Tennessee. And I later read how our small church was perhaps the fastest growing small SBC church that year.

Seminary enrollments grew dramatically out of that era, continuing to expand well after the Viet Nam conflict ended. Southern Baptists saw our greatest years of baptisms in our history from 1971-75; even many leaders in the convention today have no idea of that fact. In 1972, our greatest single year where we baptized 445,000, we also saw our greatest year of youth baptisms both in the total number (137,000) and in the ratio of youth baptisms to youth population. Last year we baptized somewhere under 80,000 youth, by the way. That year a teen named Ronnie Floyd was one of the youth who were baptized. He serves as president of the SBC and has recently issued a call to revival prayer.

Explo 72, which dwarfed Passion with 180,000 gathered on a Saturday to worship and hear Billy Graham preach, registered 80,000 for a week long witness training and outreach effort unmatched before or since. And by the way, 20,000 at the Campus Crusade for Christ event were Southern Baptists.

The tradition that gained the most from the Jesus Movement was the Charismatic Movement. One study notes about three-fourths of those involved considered themselves Charismatic. Since a lot of Southern Baptists were freaked out by the Charismatic Movement, perhaps that is why most young Southern Baptists know little to nothing about the Jesus Movement. . . . But I digress.

My point in this post is to note that although most in the SBC missed the movement, many in the SBC joined the movement and enjoyed remarkable seasons of refreshing from the Lord:

–no church had come close to 1000 baptisms in the SBC in a year; FBC Houston saw almost 1700 baptized in 1970, 90% being youth.

–Asbury College witnessed a powerful revival in 1970; many SBC churches were touched through students who testified from the school. Southwestern Seminary saw a movement that touched many, including a young Tom Elliff who was studying there at the time. 

–C.B.Hogue, pastor in 1970 of FBC Ada, Oklahoma, had experienced a personal revival. Students from Asbury came to his church and revival ensued. Hogue later came to lead evangelism at the Home Mission Board (now NAMB). He instituted the Office of Prayer and Spiritual Awakenings, eventually led by Henry Blackaby, who wrote Experiencing God and Fresh Encounter.

-Music in worship has forever been changed in the church, including the SBC. This brings joy to some and sorrow to others! We have witnessed a greater freedom in worship, but admittedly at times worship has become superficial and too me-centered as well.

The Jesus Movement had its issues. It was, to use Richard Owen Roberts’ terms, more experience-centered than Word-centered. But God used it greatly in the lives of many, with estimates from 300,000 to a million youth specifically changed by Christ.

That includes me.

Do you have a story from the Jesus Movement? I would love to hear it. I wrote my dissertation on its impact on evangelism in the SBC and am beginning to write a book on the whole Jesus Movement including both an analysis and implications for the church today. I’m helping a film crew (see video above) put together a documentary on the Jesus Revolution that will be in theaters this fall. We need to tell this story. I know this: most young adults in our churches know little about historical awakenings and less about the Jesus Movement. We need to be telling the next generation about the work of God in previous generations. 

1971 TIME magazine cover on the Jesus Movement

1971 TIME magazine cover on the Jesus Movement

What Happens When Revival Comes: Looking A Posteriori

“We can do it if we will.” Samuel Mills at the Haystack Revival

In the First Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise defending the revival. He argued we must judge such movements a posteriori, not a priori. In other words, we judge them by their fruits. Sometimes you cannot be sure a movement is the work of God until you look back. This is true in our personal lives as well as the lives of churches and regions. This is why we walk by faith, trusting God in the midst of His work.

The Second Great Awakening offers a case in point. It had its controversial elements as all movements do (read the book of Acts, for instance). Revival is messy because we are messy, my prof Roy Fish used to say. The Second Great Awakening spanned from the late 1700s well into the 1800s. From college campuses and churches in the East to the camp meetings of the West, from the Calvinist evangelist Asahel Nettleton to the New Measures of Charles Finney, the awakening caused no small stir in the newly formed United States. Here are some effects of this movement:

1. Evangelism and church growth. From 1800 to 1830 Presbyterians grew fourfold, from about 40,000 to 173,329. Baptists experienced dramatic growth, from 872 churches and 64,975 members in 1790 to 7,299 churches and 517,523 members in 1836. The Methodist Church, after rapid gains in the latter eighteenth century, actually lost some 11,000 members from 1793-95. But phenomenal growth in the Second Great Awakening resulted in 1,323,361 members by 1850.

2. The greatest long-term impact of the awakening came in the form of new societies and agencies, many of which remain active today. The New York Missionary society emerged in 1796, founded by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Dutch Reformed to
reach the Indians. Congregationalists formed the Missionary Society of Connecticut in 1798 to establish new churches in frontier areas. The Massachusetts Society, founded in 1799, supported 224 missionaries by 1824.
By the turn of the century, such enterprises literally exploded. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions began in 1810. Two of the first missionaries, Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice, became Baptists while en route to
Burma. Rice formed the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions in 1814. In this same period a shoe cobbler in England named William Carey uttered his famous words, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” Carey challenged the church of his day to take seriously the Great Commission. In 1793, Carey, his wife Dorothy, and four young children sailed to India, taking the gospel to
the nations as the young collegians in America would not many years following. Samuel Mills itinerated three thousand miles through the western frontier on mission work. His work was influential in beginning the American Bible Society. In
1817 Mills helped form the American Colonization Society. He died at sea while returning from Africa, where he discovered a location to return freed American slaves.

Magazines began that promoted missions endeavors: Connecticut Missionary Magazine, Missionary Herald, Evangelical Intelligence, and The Analytical Repository. The American Bible Society and the American Education Society came along
in 1816; the American Colonization Society in 1817; the American Tract Society in 1825; and the American Home Missions Society in 1826. In 1791 the first Sunday school union was formed in Philadelphia. The New York Sunday School Union was
established in 1816. The American Sunday School Union organized in 1824 to establish a unified effort for the growing Sunday school movement.

3. Social effects were felt as well. One cannot underestimate the impact of the Great Awakenings on the cultural fiber of America, particularly in the nation’s formative years. Lacy stated succinctly: “The Great Awakening of the eighteenth
century prepared the way for Independence and the New Republic; the Great Revival of the 1800s saved the new nation from French infidelity, crass materialism, rapacious greed, godlessness, and out breaking violence on the frontiers.”47 Some of the new societies were directly aimed at social reform: the American Temperance Society in 1826; the American Peace Society in 1828; and the American Antislavery Society in 1833. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) began as an evangelistic
outreach. It also became known for its positive influence on society as a whole. YMCA founder George Williams was profoundly influenced by Finney’s writings shortly after his conversion. He and a group of others began the association on June 6, 1844. Finney was a foremost spokesman against the scourge of slavery. Lyman Beecher also led
efforts in social and moral reform. His daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Education was renewed as well. By the end of the awakening, the colleges in the nation were operated, “from boards of trustees down to senior tutors, by ministers and devout laymen.” The beginning of the modern seminary movement is traced to Andover Theological Seminary in 1808, although earlier prototypes, like the Log College of William Tennent, had existed. One reason for the need of such schools was the rise of ministers out of the college revivals. Princeton Seminary began in 1812; Yale Divinity School in 1822; and Hampden-Sydney established a theological library for ministry students. The first
Baptist seminary was Newton Theological Seminary, begun in 1824. Oberlin Seminary, later led by Finney, opened in 1835. In 1780 there were nine schools of higher education in America. By 1861, there were 182. States or municipalities founded only 27 of these. The Presbyterians founded 49 schools; Methodists, 34; Baptists, 25; Episcopalians, 11; and Congregationalists, 21.

4. The music in the churches was changed. Awakenings always change the church liturgy, and this was no exception. This can be seen especially in the influence of the music from the western camp meetings. The style of camp meeting songs developed into the gospel hymn, marked by a verse and chorus; they were notorious musically for their sentimentalism. Lorenz stated the reason for their songs:

“A new kind of hymn was needed for this new feeling. Watts and Wesley and other eighteenth-century English hymnists had written hymns that expressed the emotions of the newly converted, and these were whole-heartedly adopted. But new hymns, and especially new tunes, had to be found that equally conveyed the sense of the exhilaration, even the ecstasy, which newborn souls needed to express.”

The camp meetings were not complete without song after song. The Southern Harmony, a collection of camp meeting songs published in 1835, sold 600,000 copies over twenty-five years. Finney worked closely with local churches in urban centers, so a different sort of revival song was needed to reach the people in the cities. The church hymnals set too high a standard for some tastes, but the typical camp meeting songbook’s standards were too low. Thus Finney used Thomas Hastings, who published an early hymnbook, as a musician in the urban setting.

I’m not praying for a repeat of a past awakening, but I am praying for the remarkable impact we could see if God moves in power in our time. May history be our encouragement that God yet works today.

[Adapted from Malcolm McDow and Alvin L. Reid, Firefall 2.0.]

When the Fire Falls Part 7: The Power of United Prayer

When the Fire Falls Part 7: The Power of United Prayer from Alvin Reid on Vimeo.

Here is the text for the call to prayer by Backus and Gano mentioned in the video:

To the ministers and churches of every Christian denomination in the United States, to humble in their endeavors to carry into execution the humble attempt to promote explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people in extraordinary prayer for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.
In execution of this plan, it is proposed that the ministers and churches of every Christian denomination should be invited to maintain public prayer and praise, accompanied with such instruction from God’s Word, as might be judged proper, on every first Tuesday, of the four quarters of the year, beginning with the first Tuesday of January, 1795, at two o’clock in the afternoon, if the plan of concert should then be ripe for a beginning, and so continuing from quarter to quarter, and from year to year, until the good Providence of God prospering our endeavors, we shall obtain the blessing for which we pray.

May we be moved to prayer in similar fashion.