On Feb. 8, the undergraduates of Asbury University lingered at the end of a routine chapel service — the compulsory worship that’s part of life at Christian schools — and the service continued unscripted for the next two weeks. Word spread through social media, inspiring pilgrimages to the college’s small Kentucky town and causing daylong waits to get inside the chapel. By the time it was over, the university estimated 50,000 visitors.
The New York Times, CNN, The Atlantic and The Washington Post ran features, foisting the revival into the consciousness of those who aren’t tuned-in to the world of evangelicalism. Although America has seen similar — and larger — viral outbreaks of spiritual fervor, it’s been generations since one made national news, provoking questions from the faithful and skeptical alike: What is revival? Why did people make long drives and cross-country flights to see it? Is this just a spectacle?
These questions about revival are as old as revival itself. The definition of “revival” is simple enough and generally agreed upon. It’s the renewal of spiritual life after a period of decline. In Christian history, it refers to times when those who have been formally or culturally religious are reinvigorated.
But scratch below this definition and questions still abound. Should we attribute revivals to God? Or should we look for a more rationalist cause? Is revival evidence that God is active in the world? Or just more evidence that TikTok, Instagram and Facebook can rally people to crazy things?
The earliest massive revival in America provoked similar debates. The First Great Awakening (1730s-40s) jumped the Atlantic and spread through the colonies. Famous British itinerant preachers promoted it, including John Wesley, eventual founder of Methodism, the movement to which Asbury traces its roots. Revival preachers emphasized that people are sinful, are vulnerable to judgment when God puts the world to right, that anyone can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ and — most unsettling at the time — that this requires a personal commitment, that merely being born into a church or Christian family doesn’t save.
This message unleashed a wave of conversions, but it also jolted staid New England. Establishment clergy were wary of revival preachers.
Many of the revivals featured unusual displays of emotion, which critics dismissed as “enthusiasm.” In short, different people saw different things. Some saw God working; others saw hysteria spreading.
Into this debate stepped Jonathan Edwards, a pastor and public theologian. He had seen what he called “the surprising work of God” in his own parish. His evaluation of the revivals was hopeful but discerning. He was inclined to see God at work but also knew they could turn excessive. In 1746, he published “The Religious Affections,” a guide to distinguishing true works of God from spectacle. How does all of this help me take stock of Asbury? First, it fits the consensus definition of revival. Gen Z has come of age in two decades of floundering church and ascending secularity.
They’ve seen the fall of celebrity pastors and the unveiling of church scandals. All the while, the main alternative spirituality on offer has been a radical individualism which places enormous burdens on people to discover, invent and express themselves in an “authentic” way, free from ancient sources of wisdom. I’m not surprised if they’re voting, “None of the above” and longing again for a real Capital-G God.
But what of the viral phenomenon? Can’t some of this be explained by social media and sociology? Probably so. It’s here that I find Edwards helpful. In “Religious Affections,” he lists things that are not necessarily signs of God at work, including: great emotion, spontaneity and extended expressions of praise. Today he might add, “Much virality on TikTok is no certain sign.”
But then he turns to consider what is a sign of God-wrought revival: God creates in people a love for what He loves, aka “truly gracious and holy affections.” It starts with delight in God as He really is. It continues into humility. It results in acts of love for God and neighbor. I hope that’s the fruit from Asbury. We need that kind of revival.
Hunter Beaumont is lead pastor of Fellowship Denver Church. You can reach him at fellowshipdenver.org