If you’re over the age of 40 like me, you probably have a distant memory of revivals. They were about a week long and often involved a traveling evangelist who came in specifically for the saving of souls. He’d talk frequently about hellfire, and the need to have a sufficient reply to God when you die and face him.
Is Revival So Out of Fashion That It Can’t Happen?
“You’re standing before the Lord God Almighty, the maker of Heaven and all the Earth, and what is your answer?” he’d ask in a high pitch, maybe even a yelling voice. “If you’re going to tell him you lived a good life, if you’re going to tell him you’re special and everyone knows who you are, you’re going to go straight to Hell. Did you hear me? You’re destiny is Hell right now. The only answer is Jesus! His death and resurrection brought you close in to God’s kingdom, but you’ve got to accept it! You need to accept Him tonight.”
The preacher would invite anyone up front who wanted to make a decision to follow Jesus. There was a felt need to make it public before the whole congregation so that it would be real, that it would stick. Sometimes the altar call would last well past the allotted time as more and more people came forward to freshly follow or rededicate their lives.
Why is revival so distant from many of us today? Is it so out of fashion that it can’t happen? How can we claim it again? Here are several observations that might be helpful as we think about revival and what it could mean in our churches.
We Are So Distracted
Satan has done well in completely distracting our communities. Devices, entertainment, appointments, and deadlines are all contributing factors. We know what I Corinthians 3 says. We can’t, “lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work” (11-13). Our distractions are Satan’s tools to draw us away from our real purpose and mission. C. S. Lewis reminds us in Mere Christianity that God is making us into saints. He wants us to be obedient and that takes work and pain. “On the one hand we must never imagine that our own unaided efforts can be relied on to carry us even through the next twenty-four hours as ‘decent’ people,” he says. “If He does not support us, not one of us is safe from some gross sin. On the other hand, no possible degree of holiness or heroism which has ever been recorded of the greatest saints is beyond what He is determined to produce in every one of us in the end. The job will not be completed in this life; but He means to get us as far as possible before death.” Let us therefore not be distracted.
We Like Happy Endings
Jesus says in Matthew 7:13 to, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” Many in our congregations attend church to be encouraged, to uncover practical ways to live better, and to find community. These are all excellent reasons to be involved in church. However, when it comes to the nature of human beings, we are utterly and completely sinful. There is no happy ending for many in our world because they are heading straight to Hell, and that includes some who worship with us week in and week out. The way to Hell is broad and many go down that path. How often do we include Hell in our sermons? We like happy endings and Hell is certainly not one. But Jesus certainly uses it as a warning and a Truth to motivate his hearers to turn away from their sins. Helen Lemmel’s 1922 hymn calls out, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” Maybe Hell is a warning to produce in us something joyous.
We Don’t Believe He Will Come
Will the Holy Spirit show up if we schedule a revival? How does that even work? Shouldn’t a revival be spontaneous? These are valid questions and there’s not a straight answer. Any of us who plan events are conscious of the turnout. We weigh so much of our success on numbers, and that’s a very human response. It’s a tangible way to count and celebrate success. But it’s not always the economy of God. Our concentration on numbers is part of looking on the outside of things. However, we know that God looks on the inside. He will be faithful. Our task is to pray and be focused on the mission: to preach the good news and make disciples. The movement of the Holy Spirit is a given where two are three are gathered. Acts 2:38 says it plainly – “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Let’s be confident he will be among us as we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.
We Hide Behind Smoke And Mirrors
Our congregations are savvy consumers. They shop for the hippest stores, motivated by targeted ads that cost millions of dollars. They have style and step into church for… what? Why do they attend? Do they attend for all the razzmatazz we might provide them? Perhaps, but do we want them to stay there? Are we creating a consumer-driven church and hide behind smoke and mirrors as if we’re offering magic tricks to a waiting audience? Our intentions shape our answer. Remember that God is shaping us into saints, ready to enter his kingdom. Revivals in the past have been linked in and around the truth of Romans 4:4-5: “ Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” We are not producing a show for the Holy Spirit to enter as the star. We are falling headlong into Jesus Christ.
We Are Naval Gazers
Smartphones have selfies galore. We create playlists to get exactly the music we want to hear. We are particular in our coffee order and attend to the mirror often. We are navel-gazers. Our habit is to watch out for yourself. Our hope in the Gospel is that we will break out of this comfortably smug place and be broken. We may still enjoy selfies and selected music and lattes just so, but maybe not. We are either moving closer to Jesus or we are moving closer to ourselves. Jesus might not be safe, as Lewis says infers through Aslan in Narnia, but he is good. We might be a safe, sure bet (so we think), but we are not good.
So that’s some of the negative reasons why I perceive revivals are far from our desires. We are distracted, we lack faith, we exchange worship for entertainment, we don’t use Hell as a threat, and we love ourselves far too much. These also help exaggerate the positive reasons for revival. If we stay stagnant and self-absorbed, we won’t have our candles ready when the bridegroom comes. Right? We are so easily charmed by so many futile ventures, and don’t always realize what God has called us into – to be fishers of men and women, to call them into discipleship, to warn them of the Hell they will go to if they don’t follow Jesus, to go and not look backwards.