Do you have revival amnesia?

Revival tourism is a thing. Scenes of revival receive a constant stream of visitors. People want to step into the pulpit in Sandfields, South Wales, where Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones exercised a powerful ministry that ushered in revival to that blighted working-class community. In Dundee, Scotland, the grave of Robert Murray M’Cheyne beside St. Peter’s Church has been a veritable pilgrimage destination for hundreds if not thousands of people over the years. There is an irony in that men who lived by the maxim that they would only give the glory to another bask in unwished-for, postmortem glory.

Revival is also an obsession with some. There are conferences and ministries dedicated to the celebration of past revivals. Now, it is a good thing to think of days of old. In an age of chronological snobbery, we need more reflection on past events rather than less. A walk to the Northampton, Mass., of Jonathan Edwards in the 1740s would take us to the rarefied atmosphere where God was at work in a powerful way. One account tells us that children and teenagers spoke about God to such an extent that “religious subjects almost wholly took up their conversation when they were together.” This is unbelievable from the perspective of an age where young and old are welded to cell phones and obsessed with social media in its various forms.

However, there can be a problem with this mind-set. The contemporary evangelical is always on the lookout for the silver bullet, that one idea, program, or concept that will transform both the local and universal church. Revival is good, but an obsession with revival to the exclusion of the ordinary work of God is a sign of dysfunction. It breeds a type of believer who is permanently despondent because there is no midway point between spiritual deadness and revival.

The prevailing problem, I suggest, is not revival obsession; it is revival amnesia. Talk of the possibility of a new awakening is rare. But one suspects that the problem goes beyond a mere lack of memory to an absence of appetite.

Where is the evidence?

I think we can start with public prayer. Perhaps my experience is unusual, but I find myself more and more in sanitized prayer meetings. They manifest all the passion and zeal of a weather forecaster on an off day. It has been a long time since I have experienced or witnessed tears for the state of the world and a desire to see the glory of God manifest in the culture. We are a long way from Isaiah’s cry: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when the fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence” (Isa. 64:1–2). When did we last see men and women in a Jacob-like, arm-to-arm struggle with the Most High, holding on to Him with the plea, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26)?

I wonder if we have confused cessationism with a practical Deism—He is there but He is silent. God is inert, at least in our hopes. God is still a God who works, and there is no greater work than the liberation of a soul from the bondage of sin to freedom in Christ. The sweetest cry on earth and in heaven is that of a newborn soul uttering its first genuine praise to God. What the angels rejoice over in heaven seems to many of us an event that is so rare that we have forgotten its import.

It’s hard to get evidence for expectations. I write from a Scottish perspective, and I know that our readers are largely North American. The facts are that genuine, Spirit-wrought conversions are rare in our context. The relevance of this is that revival is simply the multiplication and increase of what ordinarily happens in the life of the local church. In revival, many people are converted. The First Great Awakening, in its very name, gives us a clue to the effects: this awakening was not minor in any way. In 1734, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “By December, the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in. Revival grew, and souls did as it were come by floods to Christ.” Over a six-month period, Edwards recorded three hundred conversions.

The ordinary means of grace are the bread and butter of daily discipleship lived in the world and empowered by the local congregation of saints.

Let’s be honest about our expectations. Forget about church growth being about getting better preaching, facilities, and programs to win the local sheep over to your pasture. Don’t get me wrong; there is a place for that, especially in an age of emaciated teaching and general disdain for sound doctrine. Yet the real challenge to even the most Reformed of us is to really believe that God is sovereign and that He can and will bring even the hardest rebel to obedience to Christ. Conversions are so rare that we are in danger of amnesia. In a context of spiritual poverty, perhaps we are content with too little. Crumbs satisfy because we believe a feast is no longer possible.

Revival amnesia is seen in one other area. We are so far removed in time and in experience from real revival that poor-quality reproductions seem to satisfy. Let’s not talk about the smoke machine–enhanced, trendy worship leader. As far as generating faux excitement through emotional manipulation, we let the dead bury their dead. In our circles, the problem is that we see the ordinary means of grace as, to be frank, having no extraordinary power. The ordinary means are the bread and butter of daily discipleship lived in the world and empowered by the local congregation of saints. If there has ever been a misnomer, it’s calling the means of grace “ordinary.” There is nothing ordinary about the Word of God being opened and released with the accompaniment of the Spirit’s power. Things happen when the Word is released: consciences are stirred, lives are changed, and the spiritually dead receive new life. The dungeon does indeed flood with glorious light. Think also of that moment when the Lord’s Supper is taken: in that solemn silence, the real presence is not in the bread; it fills the room. Remember also that moment when a covenant child is received into the visible church by baptism or the former pagan drug addict goes through the waters as an adult.

In revival, we witness enhanced solemnity. One of the features of a revival is that it spills over into the surrounding culture where there is a sense of the power of God. Contrast that with our hermetically sealed faux solemnity often manufactured through dress codes and social manipulation. In Wales, it was said that even the ponies used in the coal mining industry changed their demeanor after changes in their masters. After the revival in Nineveh, the cattle were clothed in sackcloth and ashes.

Should we desire revival? Of course! Our desire is to see the worship of Jesus spread across the whole world. Church life does not stop when the temperature is at normal operating levels. My plea is that we do not forget the possibility of the extraordinary in our satisfaction with the ordinary. Revival is not ours to give. I watched some YouTube videos recently by a fervent young preacher who called himself a “revivalist.” Frankly, the banality of his material made it difficult to listen to two minutes of his presentation. Your domestic cat is no lion; your purring ball of fluff is no Aslan. A loud voice and a few hundred views is hardly the valley of dry bones coming alive.

Although revival is a sovereign act of God that He gives or withholds according to His wise decision, it is ours to receive. Let’s get it back on our agendas. Talk about it. Read about it. Write about it. Preach about it. Pray for it. The church is no island. If it is asleep, then the world suffers. As Andrew Bonar said: “Revivals begin with God’s own people; the Holy Spirit touches their heart anew, and gives them new fervor and compassion, and zeal, new light and life, and when He has thus come to you, He next goes forth to the valley of dry bones. . . . Oh, what responsibility this lays on the Church of God! If you grieve Him away from yourselves, or hinder His visit, then the poor perishing world suffers sorely!”

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