The Asbury Revival

Mar 4th, 2023 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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Interior of the Hughes Auditorium, the college chapel on the campus of Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, United States.

To fully understand the development of American civilization, one must come to terms with the strategic role revivals have played.  Colonial America was shaped and transformed by the First Great Awakening of the 1740s and the Methodist revival that followed.  America of the early national period (1815-1850) was impacted by the Second Great Awakening.  You cannot understand the energy for the abolition of slavery, the passion for women’s rights, the temperance movement and other social reform movements without coming to terms with this revival.  The Laymen’s Prayer revival of the late 1850s began to transform America’s urban/commercial centers and the southern states of what would become the Confederacy.  D.L. Moody led a spiritual awakening in the urban centers of America through his preaching and social reform work in the 1880-1890s.  Billy Graham was the face of the awakening after World War II through his mass evangelism campaigns, which affected not only America but the entire world.  Smaller awakening’s occurred in America that did not necessarily have a national impact (e.g., the Jesus Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the Brownsville, Florida revival of the late 1990s).  Finally, the 1906 Azusa Street revival laid the foundation for Pentecostalism and later the Charismatic Renewal movement, both of which continue to influence American Christianity today.  But what about what is now being called the Asbury Revival in Wilmore, Kentucky?  Is this the first major spiritual revival of the 21st century?

In a small Christian college 30 miles south of Lexington, Kentucky students have been praying, singing, confessing sin and gathering together in the college chapel.  Thomas Lyons summarizes its beginning:  “On February 8, after a regularly scheduled chapel service on Asbury University’s campus, in Wilmore, Kentucky, a group of about 20 students lingered and began to worship and pray for one another. The chapel speaker that day, Zak Meerkreebs, had exhorted the students to ‘become the love of God by experiencing the love of God,’ and closed with a prayer asking God to ‘revive us by your love.’  According to the students, as they stayed and prayed, an unexplainable, surreal peace descended upon the room. As minutes stretched into hours, many students who had gone to class returned to the auditorium when they heard what was going on. They would eventually be joined by faculty, staff, and community members who trickled in to participate in worship and prayer.”  Drawn by social media (e.g., TikTok, Instagram), Christians from across the nation have been flocking to the chapel of Asbury University to participate in this awakening.  This unplanned event has exploded across the campus and has sparked similar experiences at Lee University in Tennessee, Samford University in Alabama, and Cedarville University in Ohio.  Asbury estimates that this fervor has drown over 50,000 people to Wilmore.  [Asbury was founded in 1890 as a part of the Methodist and Wesleyan-Holiness movements of the nineteenth century.]  Historically, revivals are connected to the Holy Spirit and spontaneous long-lasting episodes of collective worship—praying, stirring music and rousing preaching.  All of these are present at Asbury.

Mike Cosper of Christianity Today makes these poignant observations about the Asbury awakening:  “I saw that the leaders had made a deliberate decision to amplify only the voices of the students and leaders on the campus.  Both well-meaning Christian celebrities and grifting hucksters were turned away.  [‘Fox News’s Tucker Carlson was asked not to come to cover the revival, because it has nothing to do with politics or business.’] There were no lights, smoke, or lasers.  There was lots of prayer, Scripture, and testimony.  Contrary to the complaints of some on social media, many spoke of God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and Christ’s saving work on the cross.  There was no talk of culture war, no indulging of identitarian hostilities.  Instead the students were crying out to God for relief from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and addictions.  They prayed for their lost friends and family members. They confessed their own sins and asked for holiness.  The word ‘humility’ came up again and again.”

So, how do we evaluate the spiritual phenomenon occurring at Asbury?  “The best-known evangelical interpreter of revivals, Jonathan Edwards, taught that no one can judge a revival secondhand. Edwards lived prior to telecommunication, but I think he would have said that the spiritual reality of a revival is not available remotely, however technologically sophisticated the transmission might be. The image of the thing is not the thing itself.”   Historian Michael McClymond argues that “The English word revival denotes a period of time in which a Christian community undergoes revitalization. It has been defined as ‘a period of religious awakening: renewed interest in religion,’ with ‘meetings often characterized by emotional excitement.’  To call a gathering a revival suggests that an intensification of experience has occurred. A gathered multitude does not constitute a revival. What distinguishes a revival is a deepening of spiritual feeling and expression.  Revivals are corporate, experiential events. There is often a spiritual contagion, causing one person’s experiences to cascade onto others. The term renewal is not as well defined as revival, yet it suggests a return of zeal or vitality to a group of Christian believers who have declined in their devotion.”  McClymond itemizes some of the characteristics of past revivals:

  • “There may be unusual bodily manifestations, such as falling down, rolling on the ground, experiencing involuntary muscle movements, laughing, shouting, and spiritual dancing. Another feature may be so-called signs and wonders, such as the healing of the sick, prophecies given, visions or dreams revealing secret knowledge, deliverance from the power of Satan, and speaking in tongues.”
  • “Past revivals established new forms of community as well as practical, activist expressions of faith. Revivals refashioned social and ecclesial structures by transferring power from the center to the periphery. People not previously given a voice or a chance to lead have been thrust into the limelight. Women, people of color, the young, and the less educated have all played major roles in modern Christian revivals.”
  • “Revivals provoked debates—over genuine versus counterfeit spirituality, the activity and effects of the demonic, the peril of religious fanaticism, the ministry of laypersons, the role of women in the church, the need for new associations among the faithful, and calls for social reform and social justice.”
  • “Over the last century, the global church has mushroomed through religious revivals or, as author Mark Shaw calls them, ‘charismatic people movements.’ Such movements stir up vision for the future and what Shaw calls ‘optimistic fatalism,’ that is, a confidence that no problem—personal, familial, or political—is too big or too difficult to resolve.”
  • “The revivals emerging between 1900 and 1909 in Wales, India, the United States, Korea, Chile, and elsewhere were linked yet showed local variation. People in Wales sang hymns, and many were converted. Those in Los Angeles spoke in tongues. Schoolgirls in India publicly repented of their sins, as did many in the Korean revival. Worshipers in Chile had visions of heaven.”

Is, therefore, Asbury a revival?  “In his treatise, Religious Affections, Edwards made ‘holy practice’ his foremost sign of true spirituality. The problem is that ‘holy practice’ becomes evident only over time, while our trigger-finger Twitterverse passes judgment within seconds. We must engage in patient, prayerful reflection and refrain from snap judgments if we are rightly and biblically to discern.  Asbury is a revival that’s hard not to like. While there, [McClymond] saw nothing extreme, outlandish, or cantankerous. People waiting in line for hours were unfailingly polite. Inside the sanctuary, I saw none of the attention-getting behaviors that have often attended revivals of the past and have engendered controversy . . . I was reminded of stories from the Welsh Revival of 1904–05, featuring hours-long services of congregational singing, without any conspicuous human leaders, and without much preaching—yet with 100,000 converted.”

It seems therefore wise for us to reach no dogmatic conclusions about Asbury right now.  The Holy Spirit is sovereign and can do whatever He desires, wherever He desires.  The Asbury leaders humbly confess that they do not know what will happen next or what the long-term effects will be.  I appreciate some of the preliminary conclusions offered by McClymond:

  1. Rejecting the cult and culture of celebrity revivalists:  “From the stage at Asbury, leaders spoke out to say, ‘There are no celebrities in this. The only celebrity is Jesus’ and to urge the church to ‘wake up to the fact that an emerging generation hungers desperately for the supernatural and rebels against any form of religious entertainment.’”
  2. Rethinking the relationship between spiritual life and digital media.  “This intangible element—the . . . divine presence and congregational feeling—cannot be transmitted electronically, even if those leading this movement desired to do so.  Asbury is thus a coup for embodied spirituality and against disembodied mediatization. Don’t think that YouTube, Facebook, or TikTok will give you the same experience.  This message may not go over well with everyone. It conflicts with the widespread notion that everything humanly important is electronically transmissible. Asbury is saying, It’s not, and don’t try.”
  3. “Nothing about Asbury corresponds to the familiar critique of human-centered revivalism. Despite its happening on a Methodist campus, the Asbury revival displays the marks of spontaneity and fidelity to Scripture that Calvinists say are prerequisite to recognizing a ‘move of God.’
  4. “Asbury is a reminder that salvation is supernatural. God’s Word is supernatural. Conviction of sins is supernatural. Compassion for the suffering and the lost is supernatural. We need a broad bandwidth and full-spectrum picture of the Spirit’s works.”

As a historian, I have studied the various revivals throughout history, but especially those within the American context.  One conclusion is certain from my study: Revivals are the sovereign work of God’s Spirit and it is impossible to put a rigid template over them and arrive at a neat set of bullet points.  It is too early to draw any significant conclusions from what is occurring at Asbury.  “Wait and see” seems wise counsel to me.  McClymond offers some additional advice, which I have found most helpful:

  • “If you are a believer and hear reports of renewed experiences of God’s love among God’s people, as well as a deepened desire among them for prayer and worship, then rejoice. Our default reaction—before anything else—should be joy.”
  • “Be wary of people who present themselves as experts on the Holy Spirit . . .  No one has the Spirit figured out. Each of us is a learner.”
  • “Allow God to guide you and give you discernment, in reliance on Scripture and in conversation with a pastor and other spiritual friends. The Lord desires for you to “discern what is best” (Phil. 1:10). He will not fail you. Recognize that spiritual events, unlike physical, are not accessible to the five senses. Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned—which means discerned through their effects gradually disclosing themselves over time.”
  • “Pray for the leaders and participants in revivals and for revival in your own heart. Join together with other believers to pray fervently for revival in your own community. Make common cause with like-minded people from other races, ethnicities, social groups, or denominations. Greater unity with them may be a part of God’s plan.”
  • “Following the Asbury model, bring together younger Christians with more experienced leaders. The fire of youth and the wisdom of age are a potent blend.”

See Thomas Lyons, “When a Christian Revival Goes Viral” in The Atlantic (23 February 2023); Ruth Graham in the New York Times (24 February 2023); Mike Cosper in (24 February 2023); Michael McClymond, “What Revivals Can Teach Us” in (24 February 2023).

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