04 September 2012

Is this Real Revival?

I have been praying for revival for years.  My heart is desirous for genuine revival within my church and in my community at large.  I see the sad state of churches and my heart cries out as the psalmist did, "Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?" (Ps. 85:6)

This past Sunday (Sept 2) something very much out of the ordinary happened at First Baptist Church, Hazard, Kentucky.  It happened with the beginning of a five-part series of messages that target five areas of Christian significance and commitment.  I'm packaging these messages as five dares.  The basis of the five dares comes from Acts 2:42-47.  Here, we see a snapshot of the early church's activity.  It's easy to draw from this description of the church five fundamental purposes, or commitments of the church.  Many before me have seen these in this passage and utilized them in preaching and writing.  Herein lies nothing revolutionary.  However, I have felt led at this time to leverage this passage to challenge our church to be what we ought to be all the time.

The first dare this Sunday was to begin to worship God with passion.  Simple. Basic. Understandable.  After explaining the challenge and preaching from John 4 on the topic of worship, I gave an opportunity for the congregation to respond to the dare.  I simply asked if they would take the dare truly to worship God with passion on Sunday mornings and see what would happen in their lives personally, in the church, and how it might impact their community.  I gave a specific challenge that contained three parts.  I wanted to leave them with something practical and measurable. Here is how I challenged them to put passion into their worship:
  1. To be faithful in attendance to Sunday morning worship (passion = priority).
  2. To invite others to come with them (passion = entuhiasm). 
  3. To participate with heart, mind, and voice (passion = affection flowing from understanding).
When the invitation to take the dare was given, the vast majority of those in attendance came forward.  By the time the invitation concluded the front pews were packed with people who took the dare - practically everyone.  It was a solemn moment.  I was almost speechless myself.  Many people were moved to tears.  There was an undeniable heaviness and joy.  I prayed for us and we dismissed.  Many lingered afterward in excited conversation.  I did not know what to think.  But eventually, the building emptied, we turned off the lights and went home. 

I've spent the last two days processing that moment.  I've laid awake thinking about it.  It seems I've been in constant thought about it.  It has consumed me. I'm hopeful and hesitant at the same time.  The haunting question that keeps turning over in my mind is simply this: "Is it real?"

Revival by it's very nature is a season of obvious spiritual renewal and enthusiasm.  It's something that comes and goes, but should leave a lasting transforming effect on those who have experienced it.  However, attempting to determine if a revival is genuine is difficult.  How can you know for sure?

I'm certainly not the first one to struggle with this question.  Actually, a man of God much smarter than me delved deeply into this very subject.  My mind goes back to him and what he said so well in 1741.  His name was Jonathan Edwards, he was a pastor in Massachusetts, and his church experienced something remarkable.  However, many didn't know what to think about it.  Some embraced the movement as a true work of God; others were skeptical and didn't like certain aspects of it, particularly the emotionalism that accompanied it.  In response to this divide Edwards wrote a short work to address revival called The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God.

I recommend the entire work to you.  But here is a summary of the main ideas.

First, Edwards unpacked reasons that we cannot assert that automatically dismiss a movement as not being the work of God. We cannot dismiss what may be revival... 
  • because people's minds begin to be extraordinarily preoccupied with spiritual concerns
  • because people become unusually emotional (either with fear or joy)
  • because people have an unusual enthusiasm and excitement
  • because there exists some examples of insincerity among some
In other words, sometimes people will nitpick even a true movement of God in order to cast doubt on its authenticity.  Edwards wisely warns us to be slow to judgment.  Just because certain aspects of a revival may push us from our comfort zones, doesn't necessarily invalidate the movement.

Second, Edwards lists several positive things to look for as evidence that true revival is happening. Genuine revival is marked by...
  • a renewed and elevated esteem for Jesus as declared by the Gospel
  • resistance to Satan's interest (issues related to lifestyle choices)
  • a greater regard to know and obey the Bible
  • a greater spiritual discernment
  • an increased love for God and others
Edwards was simply a pastor reflecting on his experience and observations with his Bible in hand.  However, Edwards was no simple pastor - he thought deeply about these matters.  I find his thoughts 271 years later still incredibly relevant and useful.

My heart desires real revival.  I don't want to settle for some manufactured imitation that will not lead to real transformation.  My prayer is that God stir and awaken us in such a way that we cannot and will not ever go back to business as usual.  I suppose only time can give us the perspective we'll need to measure if the revival was real.

In my former life as a seminary professor, I taught a class on American Revivals.  We studied the history of revival in our country and looked at many figures involved in significant times of revival, such as Edwards.  At the end of the class, I challenged students to collectively come up with a definition of revival.  We worked on it together for days.  I still have this definition scribbled in my notes from that class.  I don't remember exactly which students to give credit to, but I still find this statement useful for me today. 

"Revival begins with the work of God's Spirit and is realized through His willing and responsive people following a period of spiritual apathy, resulting in conviction of sin, individual repentance, reconciliation between persons, renewed obedience to God and His Word, increased prayer, increased personal holiness, and in the salvation of the lost."

I'll continue to pray, preach and watch with a hopeful and honest eye in the weeks ahead.  I'll be thinking of Edwards and I'll use these students' definition (because I think it is a good one) as a measuring rod for what's happening at First Baptist.  May God give us real revival that we can declare with bold assurance because of the evidence.  I never expect the intensity of real revival to last, but the effects (or evidence) will, if the revival is indeed real. 


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