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Thoughts on the Coming Revival

Yesterday I wrote about my visit to Leonard Sweet’s crib in Orcas Island to share at his Spring advance.

One of the questions we discussed was, “Is there a coming Revival? And if so, what will it look like, how will the body of Christ respond, and who will it affect?”

I thought I’d post some of what I said in my answer to the question and ask a related question so all of you can weigh-in.

The Charismatics often define revival differently than do other Christians. Namely, Charismatics regard one of the characteristics of a revival to be signs and wonders.

Consequently, they typically count as “revivals” the Azusa street revival in 1906-1909 in Southern California, the Latter Rain revival of 1948 in Canada, and the 1994 revival beginning in Lakeland, Florida, moving to Toronto, Canada; Melbourne, Florida; and then Pensacola, Florida.

(The latter was dubbed “The Toronto Blessing.” I was present in the early meetings in Lakeland when it first broke out. I also visited the church in Melbourne, Florida to which it had spread. A decade later, I visited the same church in Melbourne, and it had become a hollow shell. But that’s another story for another day.)

I’m defining revival here in the classic sense. It’s when scores and scores of people get converted to Jesus Christ in a short time-span (usually four years). And this massive conversion phenomenon covers more than a few cities. It typically embraces an entire nation and sometimes other nations.

With respect to the United States, there have been two revivals in the 20th century. Both were undeniable.

The first occurred from 1948 to 1952. In those years, God brought a revival that stunned the nation. Countless young people came to Christ. This revival occurred in the traditional church. And it burned through college campuses all across America.

The “post-war revival,” as it’s sometimes called, spread across denominational lines. It eventually fizzled out, however, because leadership sought to control it. Nevertheless, it produced and launched a number of gifted servants of God who would go on to have world-wide ministries. Billy Graham was one of them. (Graham’s evangelistic ministry began just when the revival broke out.) The revival also brought many new para-church organizations into prominence.

The second occurred from 1968 to 1972. We know it as “the Jesus Movement.” It was the first revival ever to hit the United States that began and continued to thrive outside the traditional church.

House churches, simple churches, Christian communes and communities sprung up all over America. Droves of young people came to the Lord. It’s been said that you could spit in the street and a fountain would rise up. You could simply say the name “Jesus” and people would get saved.

The movement thrived among the youth in the counterculture. They were turning from the free-sex-and-drug culture to Jesus Christ. They were also experiencing the body of Christ in close-knit community. The revival reached its peak in the summer of 1972, making the covers of Time, Life, and Newsweek in ’71 and ‘72).

The afterglow lasted for another six years. By 1979, the revival was virtually dead. And the Jim Jones tragedy in 1978 made people suspicious of all non-institutional forms of church.

Presumably, the men who were in their 20s during the first move of God were in their 40s during the second move of God. These men stepped into leadership roles and began to take over (and control) the new move of God.

Despite its problems, the revival produced Calvary Chapel, Maranatha Music, and Jesus People USA. Most everything else that came with it dissolved.

Historically, revivals resurrect a dying church back to ground zero. Once the church is resurrected and the revival ends, the church continues on with the same practices and mindset it had before it sunk into death. Revival, therefore, is merely a temporary solution to a long-term problem. It has never touched the root of the church’s problems.

As I put it in my book Finding Organic Church, “What is needed in the body of Christ is not restoration. It’s not even revival. What is needed is a revolution—a complete and radical change from top to bottom, a new sighting of Jesus Christ and His church, and a change of both mind-set and practice. To put it bluntly, we need a revolution in our understanding of the Christian life. We need a revolution in our practice of the church. And we need a rev­olution in our approach to church planting.”

A.W. Tozer spoke in the same vein. In his book Keys to the Deeper Life (originally published in 1957), Tozer wrote the following in a chapter entitled, “Leaning into the Wind.”

“I believe that the imperative need of the day is not simply revival, but a radical reformation that will go to the root of our moral and spiritual maladies and deal with causes rather than with consequences, with the disease rather than with the symptoms . . . It is my considered opinion that under the present circumstances we do not want revival at all. A widespread revival of the kind of Christianity we know today in America might prove to be a moral tragedy from which we would not recover in a hundred years.”

Three Closing Points:

  1. If the name of the game is conversions (souls saved), then Tozer’s analysis makes little sense. But if God is after something more than people converted to Christ (such as His Eternal Purpose), then his words should be seriously considered.
  2. It’s always problematic to look at the characteristics of past revivals. Because in past revivals, one can find a combination of characteristics. Some characteristics reflect God’s sovereign action while other characteristics reflect the culture in which that action occurred. And it’s often beyond our ability to pick those cleanly apart.
  3. In his book, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Charles Finney argued that spawning a revival is like a fine science. As long as Christians follow certain steps, revival will come. God always wants revival, but it’s the result of human action. When I was in my 20s, I bought into this thinking, even trying to put it into practice. Today, I am skeptical about any alleged methods to create revival. As I look at past revivals, it seems to me that the wind blows wherever it wills. Locating a cause is usually a study in vanity (or “chasing the wind” with pun intended).

If revival comes to the United States again, what will it look like and how will it differ from the past two revivals of the 20th century?

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FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.