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.