I was very glad to see the new book by Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir, because a generation ago there was far more interest in and desire for revival than there is now, though everyone had somewhat different conceptions of it. For many in the Baptist and Methodist tradition, "revival" meant a season of vigorous activity for the purposes of prayer, renewal, and evangelism. For Pentecostals and charismatics, it meant a time in which the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were evident. For those in the Reformed-Puritan tradition who looked to Jonathan Edwards' theology of revival as definitive, it meant an intensification of the ordinary means of grace and a great wave of newly awakened inquirers, soundly converted sinners, and spiritually renewed believers.
When my wife and I got to Gordon-Conwell Seminary in 1972, we had both seen, on our respective campuses, an extraordinary year of spiritual renewal. (Kathy went to Allegheny College in Meadville, PA.) Before 1970, the InterVarsity fellowships of central Pennsylvania campuses were all small and sleepy. At my campus, Bucknell University, IV had consisted of 5-15 students for a number of years. Then during the 1970-71 school year there was an explosion of spiritual interest, and by the end of the year we had about 100 students attending meetings, even though there had been no 'outreach' programs to speak of. I also remember that spring that we went to the central Pennsylvania area retreat and discovered that the same thing had spontaneously been occurring on most of the other campuses.
When we got to Gordon-Conwell we took a course with Richard Lovelace called "The Dynamics of Spiritual Life" and the next semester I took his course on the history of revivals and awakenings. There I read deeply in Edwards and also met his "modernizers" D.M. Lloyd-Jones and J.I. Packer, and Lovelace himself, who distilled Edwards in his classic, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life. Their descriptions of revival were an enormous help in understanding what I had seen, albeit briefly, on our college campus. After seminary Kathy and I went to a small church in Hopewell, Virginia, where we saw solid growth and some wonderful individual conversions, but where we wouldn't say we saw the things usually described as revival. Later however, during the first 18 months after the founding of Redeemer here in New York City, we again saw the "spiritual dynamics" we had seen on our campuses twenty years before. Manhattan at that time (1989-1991) was very crime-ridden and was going through a recession. There were very few evangelical churches in the whole metro area, and Christians were not moving into the city, only out of it. Yet we saw probably a hundred people come to faith and a church grow from zero to hundreds in attendance in just a few months, all in a location where absolutely no one said it could happen. In my reading of Lloyd-Jones's life, it appears he had the opposite experience to mine. Originally he pastored a struggling mission work in a small town in Wales, Aberavon, where he saw many conversions and growth to an attendance of almost 900 after a few years of ministry. That was simply unheard of in that time and kind of place. However, he did not see the same kind of revival dynamics in his church or in his city during his later center-city ministry at Westminster Chapel in London.
What I learned was this. Revivals can be longer, lasting several years, or shorter, enduring only a few weeks; they can be more widespread, affecting a whole town or region or country, or more narrow in scope, such as just one congregation. But they are seasons in which the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit are intensified many-fold. "Sleepy" and immature believers become electrified through joyful repentance and put Christ in the center of their lives. Nominal Christians within congregations get converted and testify to the fact, which leads to more sleepy believers waking up. In turn, non-believers are drawn in to the beautified Christian community and begin embracing Christ in numbers that defy normal explanations. The "church growth" can't be accounted for by demographic-sociological shifts or efficient outreach programs in such cases. Most telling of all, the corporate worship gatherings are thick with a sense of the presence of God that is not orchestrated by the presiders.
What brings about such seasons? Is it even right to talk about ways and "means"? We'll look at that in another blog post.