A revival historian looks at four possible lessons from 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.
So five years after I went to Asbury University to lecture on American religious revivals, I went to see one.
Many believers can recall an exceptional moment in the life of their congregation—perhaps during an unusual sermon, the sort that many preachers offer only once, or a time of great blessing or affliction affecting everyone. On such occasions an entire congregation is united in its clarity and focus on God, and it becomes “one-hearted” or homothumadon, to use the Greek term from Acts of the Apostles.
Remarkably, this congregational feeling—expressed in song and worship, reinforced by short Scripture readings and brief testimonies—is now happening not only at Asbury but also at college chapels across the country. Students and visitors come and go, but the newly gathered experience a sense of “one-hearted-ness.”
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.