Our nation is in the throes of convulsive civilizational change. Pessimism abounds about our future as a free, secure, and virtuous society. Against this backdrop, growing attention is being focused across our Convention, indeed across the entire evangelical world, in what is variously called revival, spiritual awakening, or renewal. SBC LIFE is vitally interested in revival, and judging from our mail, so are our readers. We brought together four persons whose personal and professional experience qualifies them as authorities on the subject. John Avant is pastor of the Coggin Avenue Baptist Church of Brownwood, Texas, a church that has been especially and remarkably touched with unusual evidences of revival. Roy J. Fish has lectured on, written about, and prayed for spiritual renewal over a long academic and ministerial career. He is Distinguished Professor of Evangelism occupying the L. R. Scarborough Chair of Evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Alvin Reid is Associate Professor of Evangelism and Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and has co-authored a soon-to-be-released book on the history of revivals. Avery Willis is Senior Vice President of Overseas Operations of the Foreign Mission Board and was personally involved in the Indonesian Revival which swept the mission and Christian community in that land.
Although our forum guests and other revival historians disagree about whether there are three or four awakenings in our national history, they do agree that such visitations have come, if only rarely, and when they have come, deep moral reformation and spiritual renewal have occurred. By any measure, it has been at least 90 years, and, if the lesser awakening at the turn of the century is not considered, almost 140 years since broad-sweeping spiritual awakening has come to our land. If there truly is an awakening from God, we can expect a churchly dimension, an individual Christian dimension, an evangelistic dimension, and a national or cultural dimension. In the interest of developing insight and cultivating a hunger for genuine spiritual awakening in our land, we offer this forum on spiritual awakenings. Because of the appeal and import of the subject, the forum is longer than most of the articles used in SBC LIFE.
SBC LIFE What is meant by the term "spiritual awakening?"
Fish A simple working definition I've used is that it's an outpouring of the Spirit of God, upon His people, that divinely enables them to live lives that are godly, to love each other unconditionally, to serve the Lord productively, to praise Him appropriately, to rejoice in Him plentifully, and to witness for Him convincingly. It is an outpouring of the Spirit of God upon the church which enables the people of God to live like the people of God.
Avant I see it as a great culture-changing movement that sweeps through the nation. Although the great revival movements sweep an entire nation, they each have a beginning somewhere. They may begin with personal revival in a local church or sometimes they occur spontaneously in different places and sweep together. It is a tremendous encouragement to know that at any point God could choose to use a small place in a big way.
Willis A predictable effect of real awakening will be unprecedented numbers of people coming to Christ as a result of what God does among His people. In 1949, when the missionaries were expelled from China, there were only about 750,000 Christians after at least 100 years of missionary work. Current estimates are that there are now 65 to 80 million Christians in China. This is evidence of an awakening there.
Reid It needs to be said revival is an event which begins with God's people. In the Great Awakening, they talked about "revival of religion" as the work of God among Christians and they used the term "awakening" of sinners. Today the word "revival" has come to mean "a four-day evangelistic meeting" to many.
Willis I agree that it helps to restrict the term revival to God's people. You can't "revive" something that hasn't been "vived." So if one doesn't know the Lord, he or she can't have revival. One of our big problems among Southern Baptists is we're trying to get revival among unregenerate church members, and they don't have any idea what we're talking about.
Fish When lost people are in a place of leadership, it has a serious effect in dragging us down and holding us back. A lost person can't be enthusiastic about God moving in revival. Nobody knows what percentage of people in our churches are lost; but I'm confident lost people can get into leadership positions very easily in our churches, and do great damage to the work.
SBC LIFE What are the features and hallmarks of authentic awakening?
Willis I would say an unusual consciousness of the presence of God is one of the first characteristics you look for. What happens is that Christians really begin to experience the presence of God. When we see His holiness, it so reveals our unholiness that we are brought into solemn awakening to our plight and our distance from God.
Reid There is always a brokenness over sin and a sense of humility. In reading primary sources for a survey of modern awakenings the word that I saw over and over again the last 250 years was the word "solemnity." That has made a profound impact on my life. Whether it was the camp meetings, or the awakening under Edwards, or the Welsh revival, solemnity is associated with every movement. Radical obedience is a constant in revival. Too, something sometimes overlooked is the impact and the role of youth. Jonathan Edwards said the Great Awakening was predominantly a movement among the youth.
Fish There is also a hunger for prayer. We often talk about prayer being a condition of awakening or revival; but when revival comes, God's people have a great hunger to pray.
Avant Another thing you see when there is genuine awakening is a coming together of believers across denominational lines. Spiritual awakenings occur across the body of Christ. I don't think there's ever been just a Baptist spiritual awakening.
SBC LIFE Aren't there sometimes negative reactions?
Avant It is common, indeed almost universal, for there to be opposition to it, from both inside and outside the body of Christ. There are almost always extreme and problematic elements associated with awakenings. These are from the enemy and are detrimental to genuine revival. But there are also numerous examples of opposition to genuine awakening, not just to the aberrational elements attached to it. Opposition to the revival was so great that Whitfield, as he was going into Boston, was met by clergy outside of town. They said, "We're sorry you've come," to which Whitfield said, "So is the devil."
Reid Many times it is religious people who oppose the revival. Just yesterday I read excerpts from John Wesley's journal to my students which described how he was stoned, bloodied at the mouth, and had an ox run into his crowd when he preached. This was often instigated by the Anglican clergy. Acts, which records what is possibly the greatest spiritual awakening in history, is marked not only by the outpouring of the Spirit, but by opposition and persecution. Many people today have romanticized revival and they ask God for it, but as Arthur Wallace said in In the Day of Our Power, revival is costly. One of these costs is opposition.
Fish In the first great awakening, Presbyterian "old sides," and Congregationalist "old lights" were probably saved people; but they were very resistant in their opposition to the awakening. The camp meetings engendered considerable opposition. Yet it is not always true that opposition arises in awakening. Opposition was almost non-existent in the revival of 1857-58. Nobody to any great degree, other than Roman Catholics and very hyper-Calvinistic Baptists, opposed it. So, there are times when there is not apparent opposition. But to my knowledge, of the three awakenings, this is the only awakening where there was not some opposition.
SBC LIFE Are there doctrinal commonalities in revival?
Fish Revival is doctrinally an evangelical experience; that is, there will be a strong belief in Scripture, and a settled belief that we are saved by faith in Christ through His death and resurrection.
Avant In awakenings, you find a very high view of Scripture. I can't think of any example of revival taking place where there was a low view of Scripture. Bryan Edwards, in Revival! People Saturated with God, says that God only uses men in revival who have a clear commitment to the authority of Scripture. Revivals continue by a total trust in God's Word.
Reid The predominant theme of preaching in the modern awakenings was justification by faith. Wesley, an Arminian, and Whitfield, a Calvinist, could work together because they both preached justification by faith, though they differed on other key doctrines vehemently. It is a naive idea that if all the denominations get together, we will have revival today. We can reach across denominational lines, but we don't have to blur all our distinctives before God can come in power to us. Jonathan Edwards gave five distinguishing marks of the Spirit, and the first one was doctrinal fidelity. He said a true revival stresses key evangelical doctrines.
Willis I have felt for many years that the doctrine of the next great awakening will be lordship and a sharper definition of the cross. I expect this to be the very focal point that would bring us real true life and true revival again. Finney said that revival is nothing more or less than absolute obedience to the Word of God.
SBC LIFE Some awakenings seem to have prepared the nation for hardship which would follow. Is this connection real, or is it only apparent?
Fish Some people say that the 1904-08 awakening prepared the world for the coming World War. As a general rule it is true that when God revives His church in an unusual way, it can well portend a period of tribulation or stress through which God's people will be taken in the next few years. It is preparation for the cataclysm that is to come.
Willis In the Indonesian experience, Dr. Catherine Walker, who was in China at the end of the Shantung revival there, made the statement, "Whenever revival comes, there are two possibilities. One of those is a great harvest. The other is great persecution and problems, and God is readying the church for it." The movement of the Lord in the 30's in China prepared the Chinese church for what happened when the Japanese came in World War II, then the communists' expulsion of missionaries in 1949; on through to the cultural revolution of the 1960's, and finally to the great pressure and the great harvest there today.
SBC LIFE Is there something we can do to bring about revival?
Avant I would say no. Only God can give revival. I don't think there's anything we can do to bring revival. I've seen places and people who have certainly prayed longer and harder than our church did before God moved in our church. Though I think there are conditions that God expects from His people before He sends revival, I don't find a set formula that assures revival.
Reid I agree. I'm more of a follower of Edwards than Finney at that point. I'm convinced that when a spirit of prayer develops among His people, God has initiated that. Revival is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Willis God in His wisdom does not allow us to put Him in a box, and does not allow us to have a neat formula guaranteed to work. We must look to see how God is at work. He knows what's coming and what needs to come. One of the most heartening matters to me is that what is probably the greatest prayer movement is going on right now. It seems God is preparing us for what He's going to do. From a biblical standpoint, Pentecost did not come because of ten days of prayer. That was God's appointed time for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the church. But prayer prepared the church to respond when the Spirit began to move. From the beginning, they were very Scripture-centered and prayer-oriented and responsive to the Holy Spirit. God in His wisdom prompts prayer by sometimes allowing things to happen so His people get desperate. When people get desperate enough to get to the end of themselves, then they are in a position that God is willing to pour out His blessings.
Fish I agree with everything that's been said. God's sovereignty is the basic factor in revival. A sovereign God deigns to come down, and sometimes it has caught the church by surprise. That's how the revival of 1858 began. It even caught the church leadership almost totally by surprise. I don't believe, at first, there was that much concentrated, cooperative prayer. It was just sovereignty. Richard Owen Roberts uses the analogy of sailors who set a ship's sails. Ancient sailors didn't power their ships; all they could do was set the sails. They could not make the wind blow. But when the wind blew, if they had set the sails, then they sailed. We can't make the wind blow, but we can set the sails. There is such a thing as preparing our heart and meeting certain conditions; but meeting conditions never guarantees revival. The sovereign God still has to make the wind blow. In its context, 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not speaking to revival or spiritual awakening. But when God's people humble themselves, and pray, seeking His face, and turn from their wicked ways — I would point to these as the setting of the sails.
SBC LIFE If God were to send an awakening, what should our reactions be?
Avant I think God is clearly beginning to move in extraordinary ways. It will be interesting to see what history says of a year when one-and-a-half million men fill football stadiums to worship and pray for revival. I've never seen anything like the hunger for prayer among student movements on campuses. Part of catching the wind of the Spirit is what we do when God begins that breeze blowing. That makes these crucial days. It may be that God is waiting to see how trustworthy His people are with the breeze before He sends the gale. Both 1 Chronicles 16:18 and Psalms 105:1 say, "Make known his deeds among the people." When God begins to move, we are to tell about what God is doing because that can increase the hunger and thirst for the moving of God's Spirit.
Reid Some of us are control freaks, and we say we want God to take control, what we may mean is we don't want it to get out of control. All of us have been in services where there is an outpouring of the Spirit of God. Someone described it as God-organized chaos and there's a sense in which we have to let go of the controls. You don't control it, you guide it. When we're in services that go on for hours, I do less at the invitation than usual. I just basically say, "You know if God is speaking, so you need to respond." And often people respond for hours in brokenness and families are restored. Yet, there does need to be gentle direction. We should be careful that it's leader-led, without being leader-dominated. The Jesus Movement was one of the great heartbreaks of my life because I was saved out of that movement. Had there been mature, godly leadership, could it have become a national spiritual awakening?
Willis I think leaders have been more significant in stopping revivals than in starting them. I believe that if leaders had responded to the Spirit of God in the Jesus Movement, it could have been a mighty movement of God among all His people. Because the leadership rejected it and would not allow it in the churches, then we missed out on what God might have done.
We need to see revival as corporate. The focus should be on the corporate people of God, not just individuals. Secondly, leaders need to lead in seeking. That is what we intended in 1989 with the "Call to Prayer and Solemn Assemblies." When revival begins with the leaders, it is Word-centered, changes society, and is long lasting. But when revival leadership is from the people, it tends to be experience-oriented, like the Jesus Movement, and is short-lived and divisive. What we're doing with Tom Elliff in going to the seminaries, calling the pastors to prayer, is attempting to start with leadership. Humility and repentance and turning from sin needs to begin in the lives of leaders.
Fish It is worth noting that charismatic church leadership went largely with the Jesus Revolution, and it had an explosive impact on the charismatic movement. Calvary Chapel, maybe the largest congregation in our country, came out of the Jesus Revolution. I did a sabbatical study of the Jesus Revolution, and up and down the east and west coasts, I found churches that were begun during that time by charismatic pastors who were glad to take in these converted hippies. The churches cared for them and provided an oasis for kids whose lives had been ruined by drugs. Their churches gained the reputation for caring, and the hippie culture sought these churches out. Charismatic churches are still feeling the benefit of this movement of young people today.
Reid Where Baptist leaders did embrace it, the results are still there. First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where I was saved, had a pastor and minister of music who affirmed what God was doing. They accepted the risks of joining God where He was working even though it was different than they were used to, and God just broke loose among young people in that church. Eyebrows were raised when the young people brought guitars into the sanctuary, and used contemporary music, and weren't dressed the way some of the church people would have liked; but God used the leadership who affirmed what He was doing there. A couple of decades later, God is still at work there. Pastors and missionaries, and others, including myself, all were called to ministry out of that church. To this day that church is vibrant and full of life and the impact of that movement never really died.
SBC LIFE How did the awakenings you experienced begin?
Willis In Indonesia there were many factors, but the thing that just made it explode was when the government put down a Communist coup and essentially said "these people didn't believe in God and now it's all right to believe in God." There was a great movement, a turning to God. Over the next six years, more than two million people were baptized in Indonesia which was predominantly a Muslim country. The Indonesian churches had been praying for revival before that. The people just began to flood the churches. It actually caught the churches mostly by surprise. They told the people of the villages they would come to help them start churches. There were so many requests, the preachers said, "We've gone as long as we can go," and they sent the men, and when the men got worn out they sent the women, and finally they trained the young people to go out. In one village, a sign announced it was a Christian village. When the government officials asked when it became Christian, the leader said "Well, it hasn't yet, we're just waiting for them to come and tell us how." God was just sweeping people into His kingdom.
Avant It started January 22, 1995, with a student opening his heart and from that came brokenness before God – an awesome sense of His presence, with a total loss of any concept of the length of the service. Following that was public humility, confession, restitution, and restored relationships. Following, and alongside it, was a tremendous upsurge in evangelism. The first year after this movement, our baptisms doubled and now they've basically tripled from what they were before the revival. We really haven't had a separate evangelistic program to speak of. It has been people who had their hearts revived sharing what the Lord had done. We continue to see God doing unusual things that we never saw before. We had two gang members saved two weeks ago, one from the Crips and the other from the Bloods. Last Sunday, arm in arm, they sang Amazing Grace together before two of our Sunday School departments. There is a sense of His awesomeness among our people. Now, all of our services aren't the way they were at the beginning, but I think most of our people would certainly say that our church continues in a completely different mode than before that January day.
Willis I want to make one more comment related to confession. Since the Indonesian revival, I've led confession services. Sometimes people confess and get rid of their sin, but they don't go on from there. Some may think the confession itself is the awakening. After cleansing from sin, there is the crucified life, in which one is led into a daily walk with God, and discipleship. If this doesn't happen, you've got a little blip on the screen. But if you get them into a walk with God on a daily basis, then you see continued results.
Avant Our small groups have assisted in that. The men's and women's small groups that have formed in our church have provided deep accountability for those who wanted it. The people in our church that confessed sin were not airing dirty laundry, they were saying, "Somebody in the body of Christ, help me because I'm failing." Our people have responded and said, "OK, here's a way for you to be helped," and many of them have taken that help. It's exciting to see some, who, having dealt with their sin are walking on with the Lord.
SBC LIFE One final question: Do you expect a revival that sweeps the nation in our time?
Willis Yes, I do.
Reid My answer is a qualified "yes," understanding that it is the sovereign work of God and understanding that I am biased in the hope for one. I'd say we are very possibly in the beginnings of a revival. Some of the things we see today are very similar to the things you saw in the first Great Awakening. I think the signs are there. It is almost like a dream, and seems too good to be true, but what I tell my students is that I am very hopeful.
Fish Perhaps we've been provincial in our discussion of the contemporary period, because revival is going on right now in certain areas of our world. There have been powerful awakenings for a long time in some African countries, in Korea until about 1992, and in the Philippines. It has been happening. The amazing growth of the church in the last ten years, inclusive of China, is nothing less than phenomenal, and I don't think it can be attributed to anything except a spiritual awakening. And, yes, I do believe we are going to see it in this country. I anticipate seeing it myself.
Our forum leaders were asked to name the one book on revival they would recommend to our readers.
I could name several, I think because it's fresh on my heart, I think Revival! A People Saturated with God by Brian Edwards, published by Evangelical Press. – John Avant
The book Revival Lectures by Charles Finney affected my life more than any other book next to the Bible, even though there's a lot about Finney I don't appreciate today. – Roy J. Fish
One I would strongly recommend is When Heaven Touched Earth by Roy J. Fish, published by Need of the Times Publishers (Box 458, Azle, TX, 76098). It is specifically on the effect of the prayer revival of 1858 on Baptists and would be very significant for Southern Baptists. – Alvin Reid
I would recommend Fresh Encounter by Henry Blackaby and Claude King, published by Broadman & Holman. – Avery Willis
Evangelism Profs Partner on Revival History
Alvin Reid of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Malcolm McDow of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary are co-authoring a history of revivals to be released by Broadman & Holman publishers in June of 1997. Entitled Firefall, the book will consider revival and spiritual awakening from the biblical record through current revival movements. Such an exhaustive study has not been produced in many years. Given the current interest in revival, the book should provide helpful background to students, pastors, and laypeople as they pray for another great awakening.