When you think of revival, what comes to mind? Hot, dusty tents filled with thousands of attentive listeners keen on every word spoken by the magnetic leader up front? Spontaneous baptisms in open fields? A football stadium filled with worshippers, a stream of them moving forward for the altar call? Billy Graham? Jonathan Edwards?
Do you think of the past or the present?
If you’re like many other leaders in the Church today, you probably think of revival as something from a bygone era. Few of us living in the West today have ever seen a revival—certainly not one on a national scale like those seen in centuries past. Globally, revival stories are common from South America to Africa to the underground church in China.
To be sure, domestically we see encouraging bursts of spiritual energy as people pray together around the clock and join their hearts across denominational and racial divides to confess their sins and ask God for forgiveness. But grand visions of revival and the miraculous are not a common part of most American churches today.
Postmodern believers might just be unfamiliar with the idea. Few Western Christians have ever seen God bless the Church on a national scale with His palpable presence. It can be tempting to become de facto naturalists who limit our expectations for God’s work within the man-made confines of observable, repeatable phenomena.
Or maybe some are turned off by events called “revival” that would not pass the biblical or historical standard. Perhaps they know a church that holds scheduled “revival” meetings. But overwrought appeals to renew your vows to Christ do not constitute revival. During genuine revival, the Holy Spirit contends and convicts, testifying to the work and words of Jesus Christ (John 14:26). He does not manipulate, and He will not be manipulated. In revival the Spirit grants Christians a fresh, unexpected experience of divine power. Jesus is the main event. He’s praised by those He saved from sin and death by His atoning work on the cross and triumph over death in the resurrection.
There is another common reason that tempers desire to ask God to revive His Church. Some Christians worry if they chase the miraculous, they’ll demean God’s ordinary work. This concern gives many pause. No one wants to demean God’s work, however ordinary, because the grace He grants His followers daily is pretty extraordinary. Still, it doesn’t seem like the Church’s problem today is wanting too much from God. Rather, it’s growing comfortable and complacent.
It seems like most Christians today don’t even bother to ask God for anything big. But we need to remember the times when those big things seen and heard in the Bible returned again.
Those who are content with their life and ministry won’t get much out of this. But maybe others have heard the objections to revival and are being nudged by the Spirit. Some may be starting to understand if Jesus is truly Lord, then everything changes. Some want to see a glimpse of the world from a loftier vantage point. In one’s disbelief, he or she asks God for inspiration to believe.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones is one Christian who had a God-sized vision. He read and taught about revival, advocated for it and prayed fervently to experience it. Revival was central to his ministry as pastor of Westminster Chapel in London from 1938 to 1968.
“I do not understand Christian people who are not thrilled by the idea of revival,” he said. “If there is one respect in which God confounds the wisdom of the wise more than in any other, it is revival.”
But Lloyd-Jones never experienced a large-scale revival. Regardless, his ministry thrived as he allowed God to expand his vision. He pleaded in prayer for God to do what only God can do. And he strove in the meantime to build the church as a faithful minister of the Gospel. He was not preoccupied with the spectacular to the point that he neglected gradual gains. He worked to prepare the church for revival by preaching the “grand, glorious, central truths” of Scripture. These include God’s sovereign rule in the world, judgment for sin, justification by faith alone, the authority of Scripture, the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His miraculous resurrection.
These doctrines should be Christians’ delight. But people are tempted to teach them in their own power, making much of their leadership skills, speaking ability or theological knowledge. Leaders sometimes forget only God can give their teaching great power. Lloyd-Jones said, “The fact of revival proves … so clearly again and again the impotence and smallness of man left to himself.”
Why is it so difficult for people to live in light of this truth? Christ-followers are like the Israelites of old. They so quickly forget what God has done. Their problem today, though, may be worse than forgetfulness. They’ve never heard many of the revival stories that encouraged Lloyd-Jones and Christians through the centuries. Such stories have been lost. These testimonies of God’s faithfulness must be recovered so they can stoke the passions of Christ-followers to see God at work in the world.
To be sure, learning those stories won’t make church committee meetings shorter. They can’t guarantee greater happiness, and they can’t be found in any ready-made revival formula. But maybe, by going back to days when God tore open the heavens and gave this world a glimpse of eternity, these stories might stir leaders to offer the sort of prayers that move God. At least that’s how the stories have affected Christians over the years.
“There is no one thing that I know of which God has made such a means of promoting His work amongst us, as the news of others’ conversion,” said Jonathan Edwards, the great American pastor and theologian of the 1700s. “This has been owned in awakening sinners, engaging them earnestly to seek the same blessing and in quickening saints.”
Any worthwhile pursuit of revival starts with God’s Word. But history offers many other exciting examples of God’s work. Learn about the national awakening that touched New York City and spread throughout America between 1857 and 1858. Read about long-term awakenings in China and East Africa that help explain dramatic church growth in the last century. Discover again evangelists such as Billy Graham and Bill Bright, who saw revival following World War II in the United States.
But true revivals don’t make much of men and women, however devout. They honor the God who blesses them and His followers with Himself. He has given His followers the Holy Spirit, who leads them to rejoice in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and in the empty tomb. And when He sends revival, He works through ordinary tasks: teaching the Bible, preaching the Gospel, praying through Scripture, serving one’s neighbors. Christians will know they’re seeing revival when God endows these ordinary means with extraordinary power.