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Revival at Asbury: A Cold Take

Revival at Asbury

The revival at Asbury has already come to an end. What began as a brief and simple chapel service turned into a weeks-long worship event that drew tens of thousands of participants and elicited tens of millions of opinions. Only now have I gathered my thoughts and bundled them into this “cold take.” I trust you won’t mind that I’ve chosen to share it as a series of short thoughts rather than a single essay.

Some things may be wrong or misguided, but not particularly dangerous. A small revival (or purported revival if you prefer) at a small college far away does not necessarily demand a great deal of scrutiny by those who have no connection to it. While it is good to have “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14) there is usually little need to put the effort into what does not intersect your life and what is unlikely to cause anyone any great harm. Those biblical calls to discernment ought to be considered alongside the exhortations about meddling in affairs that are not your own.

Revival is not a clear biblical category like, for example, deacon or baptize. It’s not a word we find in the New Testament, and it does not tell us to try to generate revivals or be on watch for them. It doesn’t even instruct us to pray for them, though that may be a very good thing to do. It’s clear that God sometimes chooses to work in ways that we choose to label revival, but God’s greatest and most consistent work is through the ordinary means of grace within the local church. Because the Bible does not define revival, it may be difficult to know exactly what one is and exactly when one is happening. It may describe a range of circumstances and experiences.

The New Dictionary of Theology offers a helpful definition of revival: “God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives. It is essentially a corporate occurrence, an enlivening of individuals not in isolation but together.” If this is an appropriate definition, then examples abound in Scripture and church history. And if this is an appropriate definition it does not set the bar all that high—where we see God quickening a number of people all at once, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace, there we may have a revival. A revival does not need to sweep over the globe or impact millions to be genuine.

When revival breaks out, we need to guard against treating it as something that has an almost mystical or mythical quality to it. God’s plan for the world is centered around the church, so we should be careful not to inadvertently disparage his “Plan A” which is—and always will be—the church. Of course we should also hesitate to treat revival as if it is nothing or to speak ill of what God may be using for his glory.

I would like my first instinct to be “Praise God” rather than “Fat chance!”

It seems to me that news of an outbreak of revival is best met with a guarded optimism. We don’t need to be naive but also don’t need to be incredulous. And if that revival begins in a tradition very different from our own (though of course one that acknowledges the gospel) we should perhaps be especially glad and hopeful, for it is good to be reminded that God is at work in many different places and through many different people. Speaking personally, I would like my first instinct to be “Praise God” rather than “Fat chance!” (Jim Elliff: “How do you respond to a pastor friend who says that the youth in his church have experienced repentance and brokenness and restored relationships in spontaneous youth-led gatherings which are less than perfect. Do you immediately tell him how skeptical you are, or do you rejoice?”)

A revival that emerges in a Wesleyan school led by Wesleyan faculty within the Wesleyan tradition is likely to manifest itself in ways that are distinctly Wesleyan. It is therefore unlikely to feature Presbyterian worship or Baptist doctrine. And that’s okay. We could perhaps imagine genuine revival breaking out simultaneously at a very good Anglican Church in Australia and a very good Reformed Baptist church in Zambia. I doubt many of us would be shocked or dismayed if they looked quite a bit different from one another even as we rejoiced in them both. I doubt many of us would be shocked or dismayed if we were drawn far more to one of them than the other. We should not demand, then, that a revival arising from a different Christian tradition look just like our church. For reasons that are his own, God sees fit to work through many different theological streams or traditions.

Jonathan Edwards once made some good and helpful observations about the distinguishing marks of revival, but his observations are not authoritative. He, after all, lived at a particular time and in a certain place and within a distinct context. And, of course, he was a sinful, finite, limited human being like you and me. So yes, when we hear whispers of revival, by all means, we should look up his work on the subject. But even as we appreciate his insights, we should be cautious about demanding that a revival looks exactly like his description or about disparaging one that doesn’t perfectly match it. All of which is simply to say that we should avoid using Edwards as a kind of trump card.

The internet in general and social media in particular demand the constant creation of content. Many people crave hot takes from their favored content creators and this means that much of the material that gets generated during curious or controversial events is not particularly thoughtful or useful. In fact, much of it is created to generate income, to satisfy existing subscribers, or to draw new ones. Don’t doubt that there’s money to be made and platform to be gained by having opinions on even something as good as revival. Thus it’s important to distinguish between creators who really have something to contribute and those who are merely in it for themselves, usually through relentless negativity. After all, cynicism and controversy are still the easiest ways to gain a following.

Any revival is likely to encounter not only opposition but competition. There will be people on one side who refuse to acknowledge that it is (or even may be) revival and who try to discern it out of existence. God may not snuff out a smoldering wick, but many of his people will gladly do so. Meanwhile, there will be people on the other side who want to turn it into a complete circus. If one group is determined to make it far less than it is the other is determined to make it far more. Both are essentially just wanting to use it for their own ends. This seems to have been the tension at Asbury and I think we should all respect the school’s administration for being aware of this and for working hard to prevent excesses. I did not envy them their task.

You don’t need to care about everything. You don’t need to take an interest in everything. You don’t need to have an opinion on everything. You certainly don’t need to voice your opinion on everything. If a situation like that at Asbury doesn’t intersect your life in any way, you can pray for it or you can just never give it another thought—both perfectly valid responses under the circumstances.

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