What To Make Of The Asbury Revival?
My inbox has been lit up all week with notes from Evangelical friends telling me about the "Asbury Revival" at Asbury University, a Methodist school in Kentucky. Tom McCall, head of the theology department at affiliated Asbury seminary, writes in Christianity Today about what's happening. Excerpts:
Most Wednesday mornings at Asbury University are like any other. A few minutes before 10, students begin to gather in Hughes Auditorium for chapel. Students are required to attend a certain number of chapels each semester, so they tend to show up as a matter of routine.
But this past Wednesday was different. After the benediction, the gospel choir began to sing a final chorus—and then something began to happen that defies easy description. Students did not leave. They were struck by what seemed to be a quiet but powerful sense of transcendence, and they did not want to go. They stayed and continued to worship. They are still there.
I teach theology across the street at Asbury Theological Seminary, and when I heard of what was happening, I immediately decided to go to the chapel to see for myself. When I arrived, I saw hundreds of students singing quietly. They were praising and praying earnestly for themselves and their neighbors and our world—expressing repentance and contrition for sin and interceding for healing, wholeness, peace, and justice.
By Thursday evening, there was standing room only. Students had begun to arrive from other universities: the University of Kentucky, the University of the Cumberlands, Purdue University, Indiana Wesleyan University, Ohio Christian University, Transylvania University, Midway University, Lee University, Georgetown College, Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, and many others.
The worship continued throughout the day on Friday and indeed all through the night. On Saturday morning, I had a hard time finding a seat; by evening the building was packed beyond capacity. Every night, some students and others have stayed in the chapel to pray through the night. And as of Sunday evening, the momentum shows no signs of slowing down.
Some are calling this a revival, and I know that in recent years that term has become associated with political activism and Christian nationalism. But let me be clear: no one at Asbury has that agenda.
One more clip:
As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation. I come from a background (in a particularly revivalist segment of the Methodist-holiness tradition) where I’ve seen efforts to manufacture “revivals” and “movements of the Spirit” that were sometimes not only hollow but also harmful. I do not want anything to do with that.
And truth be told, this is nothing like that. There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor.
To the contrary, it has so far been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable—a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle.
A Baptist friend in Alabama texted me last night to say it has spread to the chapel at Samford University there.
One thing that interests me about this phenomenon is what it says, or might say, about Christian enchantment. As many of you know, I'm working on a book about that topic now. I have been frustrated that I don't have nearly as many examples of enchantment in the Protestant tradition as within Orthodox and Catholicism. By "enchantment," I mean visceral experiences of the presence of God. Seems to me that the Asbury Revival would qualify, assuming it's a real thing, and not just something ginned up by preachers skilled at crowd psychology. What Tom McCall reports is encouraging on this front.
Tucker Carlson is paying attention:
Here's more testimony:
And look at this!
This is awesome. No celebrity pastors did this. Just ordinary people hungry for God. I read that the college has said that NO celebrities would be allowed onto the altar for as long as this lasts. "No celebrities but Jesus," they said. I mean, y'all, how can you not love it?
It's not my church, it's definitely not my worship style, but the Holy Spirit surely doesn't need my permission to show up and change hearts. I hope and pray that's what's happening here, and that those young people are having a dramatic experience of the reality of the Holy Spirit -- an experience that deepens their conversion.
For a somewhat contrarian voice, here's a 2020 essay by the conservative Anglican theologian J. Brandon Meeks, who wrote three years ago in Mere Orthodoxy against the claim that "we need revival." Excerpts:
“We need revival.” ~The Teeming Masses
This phrase, ubiquitous among broad evangelicals, has transmogrified from banal cliche to axiomatic mantra. Having been chanted with such frequency that there is virtually no quarter among popular Christianity where it doesn’t reverberate, it has at long last been universalized, memorized, and canonized as the programmatic agenda for all successive ecclesial endeavors. Thus for many, the watchword is now, “revival or ruin.”
The migration from adage to axiom has been a subtle (though predictable) move. If a thing is said long enough, loud enough, and often enough people soon forget to bother asking whether it should be said at all. At the last, the proposition becomes a presupposition. After having become ingrained in the religious psyche of the masses, that notion requires something closer to exorcism than explanation to extricate the host from possession. It takes quite a while to convince the entire species of something; it takes even longer to convince them that something is specious. So here I am with a crucifix and half a gallon of holy water; the power of Christ compels me. Shall we renounce the devil and all his works?
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He goes on:
Just as we need not have a repetition of Calvary in order for atonement to be made for sinners not yet born in the first century A.D., just as Jesus need not rise a second time from the grave in order to vindicate himself and his people before his Father, neither must there be another Pentecost in which the Spirit is made available in power to the people of God. To suggest that we need revival, if revival is conceived of as being a “fresh Pentecost,” is to make hash of the words of Peter, Paul, the Four Evangelists, and anyone else who may have mentioned the cross or the Spirit in the canonical Scriptures.
However, if by “revival” they simply mean that we need Christians to be what we already are, use what we already have, and do what we are already able to do by the help of God, then I have no objections. I have no objections because there is now no “revival” of which to speak.
Of course the proper word for the activity described above is obedience. Faithfulness is supernatural insofar as it is birthed in us by grace and worked out through us by the Spirit, but it isn’t the sort of thing that requires sawdust and gospel quartets. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the real reasons that Christians have been so quick to parrot the phrase in question is that it is much easier than admitting that we are lazy. If we have a mandate, the resources, and a field in which to labor, we can’t very well blame our slothfulness on a breakdown somewhere in the supply line. We can’t blame God for not sending us the revival we needed to get the job done. As long as “we need revival” to do virtually anything meaningful for the kingdom, we are pretty much free to sit on our pious rears and pray for the kingdom to come. I say enough is enough.
I don't know enough theologically about the concept of "revival" as it is used in Evangelical experience, so I don't know how to judge Meeks's words. I would say simply that if "revival" is having our eyes re-opened to what is already there, then yes, I am for revival. (Seems like Meeks is too.) It's another way to think of Christian re-enchantment. But if we don't move from the re-enchantment/revival experience, from the hierophany to repentance, it will all have been in vain. Revival will have done its job if it sends its participants back into the everyday world of Christian life and practice with a new awareness that what we do there has everlasting meaning -- and it changes how we live. The revival is not the point; it is only valuable insofar as it leads to repentance.