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What is Revival? The Three Rs of Transformation

Sawdust on the floor. Benches once neatly arrayed, now pushed hastily aside, tracing a chaotic maze through the crowd of people swaying and dancing under the high-peaked tent. Light streaming from the tent’s door into the warm summer evening where more people wait for a small taste of what’s happening within. Taut ropes quivering as thousands of feet stomp to the music.

Revival has come to town.

At least, it looks like a revival. Sawdust? Check. Big crowd? Check. Dancing and singing? Check. All we need now is some preaching, confessing, and maybe a little fainting. Then we’ll be all set.

After all, that’s what a revival is. Right?

Our Revival Roots

Evangelicalism has always had a deep concern for the transformation of individual Christians and the Church itself. Drawing on currents already present in pietism and among the Puritans, early evangelicals like Jonathan Edwards, the Wesley brothers, and George Whitefield feared for a Christianity that seemed to have lost its vitality. People were just going through the motions. They attended church, took communion, and read their Bibles. But, there was no life. No change. No transformation. People, churches, and entire communities went on about their business, everyday lives untouched by the Gospel.

And, that can’t be. Jesus promised that his people would be filled with the Spirit, ambassadors of the Gospel, harbingers of his Kingdom. We are supposed to be God’s image bearers in the world, manifesting his glory everywhere. We’re supposed to be different.

Something was wrong.

So, these early evangelicals prayed, preached, worked, and hoped for something more. Real change. Their desire was that God would come and transform his people so that they would live in the world as he intended. They sought revival.

And, evangelicals pursued revival into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well. The First Great Awakening gave way to the Second, Third, and even Fourth Great Awakenings, every generation praying for God’s empowering presence to renew his people for more vital living and more faithful ministry in the world. This emphasis on “renewal through revival” is part of the DNA of evangelicalism.

Two Key Questions

But, despite this general agreement, evangelicalism has struggled to understand exactly what this means. And, we’ve had a particularly difficult time answering two fundamental questions.

Is revival lasting or temporary? Some evangelicals focus on the fact that we live in a broken world. And, in this fallen existence, we will always encounter times of sustained, spiritual dryness. The best we can hope is that God will occasionally pour out his spirit onto our dry ground, allowing the plants to sprout and the flowers to bloom for a time, before the dry heat of the desert returns.

But, other evangelicals see revival as more lasting. For them, the promise of real change isn’t fleeting. Rather than seeing revival as a sudden rainstorm, they picture it as a spring continually flowing up from the ground to sustain new life in an otherwise barren land.

Is revival “miraculous” or “natural”? A related question has to do with the source of true revival. Now, we have to be a little careful here because all evangelicals agree that true revival is “miraculous” in the sense that ultimately it comes from God. No one argues that revival is something we simply produce on our own.

But, evangelicals do disagree on exactly how to understand the relationship between the divine and the human in producing revival. For many evangelicals, revival is a miracle along the same lines as bringing someone back from the dead. The dead person doesn’t contribute much to the process. So, renewing them to life must be a gift from the outside. Others can pray, pleading with God to offer the gift. But, in the end, renewal is a miraculous gift.

Others agree that revival is a gift, but they prefer a different analogy. For them, revival is more like a plant growing in your garden. The fact that the plant exists and grows at all is a gift from God. But, to make the plant grow, the gardener needs to work hard: cultivating, planting, weeding, feeding, and watering. And, under normal circumstances, God will not withhold the miraculous gift of life when his people carry out these tasks faithfully.

Different answers to these two questions will give you very different pictures of revival. Is revival temporary and “supernatural,” like the raising of Lazarus? Or, is revival sustained and “natural,” like a farmer growing crops? And, of course, we could also combine the options and argue for something that is sustained and supernatural (like the New England Patriots) or temporary and natural (like any plant I’ve ever tried to grow).

The Three Rs

I think that a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that we’re using one term, revival, to describe at least three different things. So, it may help if we make some important distinctions.

Renewal. Nothing is more pathetic than a child’s toy when the batteries are running low: it slows down; the already annoying music turns into a mind-numbing warble; and the lights flicker erratically like a firefly with a mental disorder. I think we all feel like that at times. We run down spiritually, emotionally, physically, and even missionally, needing to be reminded and renewed so we can be reengaged in what the Gospel is all about. We sometimes need to have the “joy of your salvation” restored (Ps. 51:12) so God can continue the process of renewing us in his image (2 Cor. 4:16). Praise God for rechargeable batteries.

Renewal refers to the revitalization of God’s people for faithful life and ministry. And, in this way, it’s distinct from rebirth, which is a word that we should reserve for the beginning of one’s Christian journey. But, renewal shares one common characteristic with rebirth: it’s a gift. A battery does not recharge itself, and life does not arise on its own. Renewal, as the overall process of revitalizing God’s people, always comes as a gift of God’s grace.

Reformation. Even though renewal is always a gift, God’s people have long recognized the importance of working faithfully to address our imperfections and weaknesses. That’s reformation: the ongoing practice of bringing every aspect of life and ministry into greater conformity with the Gospel. And, whether it’s Paul calling for reform in the Corinthian church, the early church working toward reform in a series worldwide councils, the medieval church with its many reform movements, or the Protestant Reformation itself, reform efforts have always been with us. Because, of course, reformation didn’t end in the sixteenth century. It continues today as God’s people labor to address their flawed attempts at faithfulness.

Does this mean that reformation stands at odds with renewal? By no means. The Gospel of grace entails neither quietism nor passivism. We are called to action. Reformation by itself cannot produce renewal any more than going to church alone can produce sanctification. But, they are both expressions of Christian faithfulness that God uses in the process of growing and renewing his people.

Revival. If “reformation” is the active and ongoing process by which God’s people seek to live faithfully in light of the Gospel, then we can reserve the term revival for those more special occasions in which God uniquely empowers a particular group of people for Gospel-centered living.

I’ve experienced revival in my own life: on the shore of a lake at summer camp, in a sanctuary filled with God’s people singing his praises, on a sofa praying with friends. Special times of experiencing the powerful presence of God in ways that renewed and re-energized me as one seeking to follow God obediently and live out the Gospel faithfully.

And, I’ve seen the same dynamic at work in entire churches. Whether we’re talking about a Great Awakening that sweeps across an entire country, or a special work of God in a particular congregation, revival renews God’s people for carrying out God’s purposes.

Grounded in the Gospel

So, returning to the two questions I asked above. Are we talking about something that is lasting or temporary, supernatural or natural? Yes, we are. Renewal is all of the above.

And, what holds it all together is the Gospel. Overemphasize reformation and we’ll approach the church and the Christian life as a task that must be accomplished, a goal we can achieve if we just work hard enough. Down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Overemphasize revival and we’ll approach the Christian life as something that can only be truly lived during times of heightened excitement, passion, and felt empowerment, something that must be continually stirred up and sought after. And, down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Two different roads. Same tragic end.

The Gospel rejects both approaches because it recognizes that true renewal is always a gift of God, but it is one that involves his empowering Spirit and our faithful response. In the end, sustained transformation, both personal and corporate, involves our renewal through both reformation and revival.

[This is an article I’ve written for the next issue of Western Seminary’s magazine, focusing on revival in the life of God’s people. This article is supposed to set the stage for the others by talking about what “revival” is and how it relates to the Gospel. I still have time to make some final edits before I send it in, so let me know if you have any feedback.]

A call for renewal in the Presbyterian Church (USA)

A number of pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have joined together to issue a call for renewal in the denomination. Scot McKnight posted the letter this morning on his blog, and it has sparked some interesting discussion. The letter itself offers an outline for denominational renewal in general, though some of it is specific to its Presbyterian context.

I’ve posted the full text of the letter below (minus signatories). What do you think? Are “denominations” worth renewing? Can they be renewed like this? Is the letter missing anything necessary for such a renewal?

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A Letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

February 2, 2011

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

To say the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is deathly ill is not editorializing but acknowledging reality.  Over the past year, a group of PC(USA) pastors has become convinced that to remain locked in unending controversy will only continue a slow demise, dishonor our calling, and offer a poor legacy to those we hope will follow us. We recently met in Phoenix, and have grown in number and commitment. We humbly share responsibility for the failure of our common life, and are no better as pastors nor more righteous than anyone on other sides of tough issues.

Our denomination has been in steady decline for 45 years, now literally half the size of a generation ago.  Most congregations see far more funerals than infant baptisms because we are an aging denomination. Only 1,500 of our 5,439 smallest churches have an installed pastor, putting their future viability as congregations in doubt. Even many larger congregations, which grew well for decades, have hit a season of plateau or decline.  Our governing bodies reflect these trends, losing financial strength, staffing, and viability as presbyteries, synods, and national offices.

How we got to this place is less important than how to move forward. We are determined to get past rancorous, draining internal disputes that paralyze our common life and ministry. We believe the PC(USA) will not survive without drastic intervention, and stand ready to DO something different, to thrive as the Body of Christ. We call others of like mind to envision a new future for congregations that share our Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical heritage. If the denomination has the ability and will to move in this new direction, we will rejoice.  Regardless, a group of us will change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate.  We hate the appearance of schism – but the PC(USA) is divided already. Our proposal only acknowledges the fractured denomination we have become.

Homosexual ordination has been the flashpoint of controversy for the last 35 years.  Yet, that issue – with endless, contentious “yes” and “no” votes – masks deeper, more important divisions within the PC(USA).  Our divisions revolve around differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation amidst creeping universalism, and a broader set of moral issues. Outside of presbytery meetings, we mostly exist in separate worlds, with opposing sides reading different books and journals, attending different conferences, and supporting different causes. There is no longer common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.”  Indeed, many sense that the only unity we have left is contained in the property clause and the pension plan; some feel like withholding per capita is a club used against them, while others feel locked into institutional captivity by property. While everyone wearies of battles over ordination, these battles divert us from a host of issues that affect the way our congregations fail to attract either young believers or those outside the faith. Thus, we age, shrink, and become increasingly irrelevant.  Is it time to acknowledge that traditional denominations like the PC(USA) have served in their day but now must be radically transformed?

We need something new, characterized by:

  1. A clear, concise theological core to which we subscribe, within classic biblical, Reformed/Evangelical traditions, and a pledge to live according to those beliefs, regardless of cultural pressures to conform;
  2. A commitment to nurture leadership in local congregations, which we believe is a primary expression of the Kingdom of God.  We will identify, develop, and train a new generation of leaders – clergy and laity;
  3. A passion to share in the larger mission of the people of God around the world, especially among the least, the lost, and the left behind;
  4. A dream of multiplying healthy, missional communities throughout North America;
  5. A pattern of fellowship reflecting the realities of our scattered life and joint mission, with regular gatherings locally, regionally, and nationally to excite our ability to dream together.

Our values include:

  1. A minimalist structure, replacing bureaucracy and most rules with relational networks of common purpose;
  2. Property and assets under stewardship of the local Session.  Dues/Gifts for common administration should only allow and enable continued affiliation among these congregations;
  3. Rather than large institutions, joint ventures with specialized ministries as congregations deem helpful [PC(USA) World Mission may be a source of joint support, aspects of the Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Foundation, Presbyterian Global Fellowship, Presbyterians for Renewal conferences, Outreach Foundation, etc.];
  4. An atmosphere of support for congregations both within and outside of the PC(USA).

We invite like-minded pastors and elders to a gathering on August 25-27 in Minneapolis to explore joining this movement and help shape its character.  Our purpose is to LIVE INTO new patterns as they are created, modeling a way of faith: the worship, supportive fellowship, sharing of best practices, and accessible theology that brings unity and the Spirit’s vitality.

OUR PROPOSAL:

  1. A Fellowship: The most immediate change we intend is creating a new way of relating in common faith, a Fellowship (name to be determined). The primary purpose of this Fellowship will be the encouragement of local congregations to live out the Good News proclaimed by our Savior, increasing the impact of the Kingdom of Heaven.   This Fellowship will exist within current presbyteries for the time being, but energies and resources will flow in new directions.  It is an intermediate tool to bring together like-minded congregations and pastors, to enable us to build a future different than our fractured present.
  2. New Synod/Presbyteries: In the near future we will need “middle bodies” that offer freedom to express historical, biblical values amid ordination changes in the PC(USA).  More importantly, we long for presbytery-like bodies with theological and missional consensus rather than fundamental disagreement over so many core issues.  We need new processes that identify and support the next generation of leadership differently than the current model, which unintentionally weeds out the entrepreneurial persons we so desperately need in our congregations.  Many current functions should be removed; some, like curriculum and mission relationships, have become less centralized already.  We will work with the Middle Governing Bodies Commission since changes to The Book of Order will be needed to step fully into this reality.
  3. Possible New Reformed Body: Congregations and presbyteries that remain in a denomination that fundamentally changes will become an insurmountable problem for many. Some members of the Fellowship will need an entity apart from the current PC(USA). It is likely that a new body will need to be created, beyond the boundary of the current PC(USA), while remaining in correspondence with its congregations.  The wall between these partner Reformed bodies will be permeable, allowing congregations and pastors to be members in the Fellowship regardless of denominational affiliation.  All kinds of possibilities exist, and much will depend on how supportive the PC(USA) can be in allowing something new to flourish.
  4. Possible Reconfiguration of the PC(USA): We intend to continue conversations within the PC(USA), and have met with both Louisville’s leadership and that of the Covenant Network in the past few months.  We believe the denomination no longer provides a viable future and perceive that the Covenant Network also sees a broken system.  We hope to work together to see if some new alignment might serve the whole Church.

Any model that includes an entity outside the PC(USA) does mean fewer remaining congregations, pastors, and elders to fight the challenges of the current PC(USA).  Votes will swing in directions that had not been desirable before.  For many this outcome simply acknowledges that fighting is not the way we choose to proceed; our goal is not institutional survival but effective faithfulness as full participants in the worldwide Church.  We hope to discover and model what a new “Reformed body” looks like in the coming years, and we invite you to join us, stepping faithfully, boldly, and joyfully into the work for which God has called us.