Ever since I can remember, I’ve gone to revival meetings. I heard Vance Havner say, “Churches talk about holding a revival. I’m ready for someone to turn one loose.” I must admit I’m fascinated by revival. I grew up during the time of the Jesus Revolution and had a taste of it. I’ve read dozens of books on revivals and awakening.
Again quoting Dr. Havner, “Sunday morning Christianity is the greatest hindrance to true revival.” Dr. Havner was a 20th century prophet and revivalist. He preached in my home church in the early 1970’s. Over the last fifteen years of his life, he and I corresponded and he mentored me. Shortly before he died, he and I had a meeting in his home I will never forget. There, in his living room, he laid hands on me and prayed for a portion of his mantle to fall on my life. Even before that day, I had a passion for revival and awakening. It only intensified in that moment.
You would be hard pressed to find a preacher that didn’t want revival in his church. We like to think it’s just around the corner and when it arrives it will cure all that ails us. The reality is, revival brings it’s own set of problems. It stirs up the devil, disturbs the carnal and sometimes brings heartburn before you hear a hallelujah.
In recent months, our staff has been gathering one morning a week to pray for a spirit of revival in our church. Revival is a strange thing. Sometimes it comes in like a tidal wave. At other times it comes in like the tide. You don’t see it at first, but you wake up one day and realize you are living in a state of revival. Things have changed – not suddenly, but they have changed.
Why do we want revival? We want the church to get back to the book of Acts when there was power from on high. We want our people ignited to go and tell. We want a return to holiness in this world of relative thinking. It’s not a cure all, but it would certainly go a long way to getting us back on track. Like a bath, it’s only temporary, but it is a blessing to you and those you come in contact with. While revivals do not last, their effects impact every element of society. Out of times of spiritual awakening have come great social changes in America.
Much of what we call revival is nowhere near the Biblical picture of revival. Geoffrey R. King says, “Revival is a sovereign act of God upon the church whereby he intervenes to lift the situation completely out of human hands and works in extraordinary power.” The temptation we face is in trying to get the results of revival without paying the price of revival. We must be careful lest we become so desperate for a visitation of God that we accept a manufacture substitute. The woods are full of imposters.
Read carefully these words by Dr. Havner, “The Spirit blows where He will, and God is not bound by our grand ideas. The great Welsh revival was accomplished without preaching, without choirs, without hymn books, without organs, without publicity and without offerings. These things are not evil, but God can do wonders without what we think He must have. A lot of our activity often mistaken for revival is just the church turning over, but not waking up. Turning over is not getting up, and waking up is not getting up.”
My favorite Havner quote on revival is this one, “If I were an unbeliever and dropped into the average church during a so-called revival and saw a fraction of the membership trying to get more recruits to join the army of the Lord while most of the outfit had already gone AWOL, I would suppose that Christianity is not what it is supposed to be or that we have been sold a watered-down, cheap and easy brand; that we have been inoculated with such a mild form that we are immunized against the real thing.”
Revival is an invasion of God that brings us into a conscious awareness of our sin and His holiness. Some have tried to make big events a sign of revival. While I was blessed by seeing hundreds of thousands of men at Promise Keeper rallies, I can’t say that we are any closer to revival today than before Promise Keepers started. I’m grateful for anything that makes men stand up and be accountable, but what we need is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival.
The rise of the mega Church has not ushered in revival. We have churches that run tens of thousands of people, but our land is darker today. A large church is no sign or guarantee of the presence of God. I once heard the late Manley Beasley compare two churches, both mega churches. He said, “One reminds me of the New Jerusalem and the other one reminds me of Disneyland.” Bigger doesn’t mean better or more like Jesus. Dog and pony shows, entertainment of various kinds can draw a crowd. Jesus had his greatest revival in Samaria and never had a meeting in a synagogue, it happened at a well. It only takes one to start a revival. Paul talked about people whose ‘god is their belly and their glory is in their shame.’ Sometimes, when I see the stuff that churches do to draw a crowd I’m nauseated.
The emphasis in my denomination on planting churches hasn’t led to revival. In fact, we might be closer to revival if we killed off a few of the anemic and dying churches in our communities. For some churches we don’t need to throw out the lifeline, we need to pull the plug. One more small church in a society where people want multiple ministries for the whole family is only going to wear the pastor out. I’m not opposed to church planting, but it’s not revival.
All the preaching on television and radio hasn’t produced revival. The airwaves are blanketed with preachers, and a lot of sloppy exegesis of the Word. I’ve watched more than my share of preachers change the sermon and water down the text to keep a crowd and reach their felt needs. If I hear one more ‘How To…’ sermon, I may have to turn off the television. Nothing wrong with ‘How to…’ sermons but when’s the last time you heard one that said, “This is the way to God. Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” I spent some time with a famous, successful religious leader back in the 1980s. We were talking about the scandals among evangelicals. I’ll never forget what he said, “I’m praying for the day when we won’t have religious television. We can’t make up for 166 hours of bad theology with two hours of good preaching.” While that may be an exaggeration, if you’ve listened or watched what’s happening, you can see where he’s coming from. Let’s be honest, there are media ministries that aren’t interested in giving life to people – they are only interested in getting people to give so ‘we won’t be off the air in your area.’ God’s work, done God’s way never lacks God’s resources. The day you start begging, you lose the potential for revival.
We’re buried under a pile of Christian books. Some of them have become best sellers. Some are called Christian fiction. While a recent series has captured the imagination of millions regarding the second coming, it has not led to repentance and revival. Most of the folks I hear talking about these ‘end times’ books are fascinated but do not have a sense of urgency that the time is short and His coming is near. If they did, we could have revival.
Contemporary Christian music is a multi-million dollar industry. We even have our own awards show. Most of what I hear now is watered down, hoping for a crossover audience. You may have revival if you cross from death unto life, from the wilderness to the promised land, but not if you water down the truth so it doesn’t offend a pagan disc jockey.
We’ve seen the church growth movement hit its stride and fall into the pile with all the other movements that have failed to bring revival. In the 1980s, I pastored the only church in history that had a ‘Friend Day’ that was an absolute disaster. The members stayed home if they didn’t have a friend because they didn’t want to be embarrassed.
We’ve seen a resurgence of the gifts since the late Nineteenth century. We’ve seen explosive growth in charismatic churches. In recent years, we’ve heard about holy laughter, being slain in the spirit, people barking like dogs and other ‘manifestations’ but where’s the revival? Revival, I mean a Biblical revival never draws attention to the believer, it focuses attention on the Lord. Feelings and signs are not necessarily an indication of revival.
Nor has revival come through increased publicity, billboards, web sites, television spots, newspaper ads (I love the ones where the pastor buys an add to tell folks what he’s preaching on Sunday). I doubt seriously if one-hundredth of one percent have ever prompted a person to get out of bed on his day off and make it to church.
We need revival. We say we want revival, but church attendance has been going down over the last few decades. Something is missing. Something is out of whack. We’re off track some where. Churches are canceling Sunday nights because no one comes. Prayer meeting has been replaced with a mid-week Bible Study.
According to findings by George Barna, every age group is showing signs of decline in involvement in church. If we were living in revival, the reverse would be true. We’ve had what one writer has called a “major national collapse in church attendance.” This writer goes on to ask a searching question, “In putting Christian commitment 101 on the lower shelf for the seekers, have we succeeded in making seekers out of our formerly committed people?” You never have a revival if the membership is lukewarm. If standards of holiness are compromised, if sin is tolerated, you won’t have revival, you’ll have the church at Corinth or Laodicea and we know how the Lord rebuked them.
The reality is, we can’t orchestrate or organize a revival. The wind of the spirit blows where it wants to blow. But, we can set our sails to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and allow Him to move us along. Revival can’t be planned, it is a divine interruption. It’s time for God to interrupt our services, disrupt our calendars and move with power among us. Will anyone out there agree with me that “it is time to seek the Lord” while we still can?
Note – I’m indebted to Keith Drury whose article inspired me to write this.
©2001 MCC This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use.
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Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.