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  • Writer's pictureJM Zabick

Revival, Reckoning, or Something Greater?

What's going on at Asbury may have the earmarks of something wonderful. But will the evangelical church really want what that may be?

The Chapel at Asbury University - locus of the present movement.


Audio article option: narrated by the author

Church culture is a fascinating thing to study and observe … especially the various strands under the contemporary American evangelical umbrella.


And if you have not yet noticed, there is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon afoot at a particular university in the Wesleyan borough of the evangelical community. It’s a movement that is underway at Asbury University, in Kentucky.


What I find so fascinating about this “thing” at Asbury is actually NOT the movement itself.


Please know, I don’t use the label “thing” as a means of diminishing whatever this really is. Some are calling it a “revival.” Some are calling it an “awakening.” Some are qualifying it as “a move of God.” And all sorts of similar things.


As I’ve stated in prior interactions over this Asbury news:


My entire life, purpose for being, and my understanding (as limited as it may be) of the nature of God, was changed completely as a result of what I believe was a direct encounter with the Almighty at a “revival.” So, I don’t say any of what follows from a position necessarily oriented against the possibility that the Holy Spirit is really up to something there.


With that background, Asbury is compelling and intriguing to me. As a theologian, trying to understand as fully as possible what is going on is natural for me, and I guess why my feeds are full of Asbury news, being that a high percentage of those connections are theologians too.


However, as a Christian historian, I will dare say this. While not particularly frequent, these sorts of things are not wholly uncommon occurrences. If you look at the swath of history that includes the formation of American evangelical identity (evangelicalism), from the early 1800’s on, you’ll see as much.


Matter of fact, it was from out of the revivalist decades of the mid 1800’s that the Wesleyan-Holiness movement emerged to become “a major factor in the rise of Pentecostalism.”[1]


That is pertinent, because it’s within the Pentecostalist circles that we tend to see most of these “things.”


And there have been dozens of them—“revivals” and “outpourings”—several were even prior occurrences at Asbury.[2]


Here, many will assume my use of “dozens” is highly inflated.


I would argue that is due to the fact that a fair number of prior “things” happened to be of a nature that folks want to ignore and/or purge from memory.


Still, there have been enough seriously notable and deeply positive “things” that Asbury demands hopeful attention. I see it as something all Christians should be (albeit cautiously) excited over. Pentecostal, Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, unaffiliated, whatever …


Yes, even as a Roman Catholic, I prayerfully desire for this to be (and endure) as something genuine, healthy, and restorative for the broader Christian Faith.


But as is now being so frequently observed, some Christians are SO hungry and so fiercely longing for this to be the start of a long-desired revival, they simply cannot show an ounce of patience for those who are not also diving headlong (perhaps blindly) in after them.


And THAT is what I find so fascinating about this “thing.”


Not the movement, but the way it is being interpreted within the culture of the Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal evangelical spheres.


People are either ALL-IN, cut the break lines, pedal to the metal, “THIS.IS.GOD!”


For them, Asbury is the arrival of the next Azusa St., or Jesus Movement 2.0. And they’ve been sitting on their board, waiting for a while now. They are not going to miss jumping on this promising wave.


Or … they’re kind of like … WAIT AND SEE, take a breath, time will tell what fruit grows. “Let’s hope this is Spirit sustained and not emotion sustained.” They don’t want to end up with another “Toronto blessing,” and “New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) 2.0.”


It’s remarkable seeing the reaction of the former to the latter. It is as if anyone with a modicum of hesitancy over this, is being immediately cast as a naysayer, doubter, unfaithful, skeptic, and/or denier.


A tweet from a somewhat well-known evangelical labelled “these sorts of people” all that is “wrong with the church today.”


I personally engaged a professor, with a PhD from Asbury of all places, who took Scripture to those not yet lathered in his revivalist impulse, claiming they were “kicking against the goads (Acts 9:5; 26:14). And via an insinuation of their resistance to the Holy Spirit, he further reminded these Christians of their recalcitrance by citing God’s Genesis 6 warning, “My spirit will not contend [with you] forever.”


WOW! Right?


Never mind the Burned-Over revivalism that brought us Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, and other pseudo-Christian movements.


Never mind the well-established precedence of emotionalism in Pentecostalism, that brought us stuff like the alluded to NAR.


Never mind the fact that “these sorts of people” may have been spiritually set back, wrecked, or even abused, by the sorts of populist enthusiast movements that are among those aforementioned readily forgotten “things.”


None of it matters, apparently. There is (from what I am seeing) absolutely no tolerance. No tolerance for people who, in God’s honest truth, are attempting to discern it all as best they can (as the New Testament abundantly teaches them to).


For those being responded to with such hostility, I will say this. While I cannot speak for God, I suspect he is far more patient with honest inquiry and investigation, in light of all the deadly poison the reckless want of revival has left American Christianity to deal with, than the above commentators would have you believe.


I’ll go as far as to guess; his Spirit is willing to contend a tad bit longer with those who earnestly seek his Truth.


I’ll take it as solace that the current Chair of Theology at Asbury, Dr. Thomas McCall, appears to agree, saying of the events at his school:


Some are calling this a revival, and I know that in recent years that term has become associated with political activism and Christian nationalism … As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation. I come from a background (in a particularly revivalist segment of the Methodist-holiness tradition) where I’ve seen efforts to manufacture “revivals” and “movements of the Spirit” that were sometimes not only hollow but also harmful. I do not want anything to do with that.[3]

And I’ll sling some Scripture into the mix too, although I think discerningly apropos for the context, given McCall’s wisdom:


“The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Prov. 14:15).


Note how the passage doesn’t indicate the prudent never come around to believing in a good thing, nor that the simpleton is somehow virtuous for following impulsiveness that doesn’t end up stinging them.

________


As objective as I can be, I tend to think something wonderful is up at Asbury. But I recognize that it may not be objective at all, given my own transformative experiences with God at a “revival.”


So, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if this Asbury “thing” is the start of a revival, or what. But I am inclined to see this as something of divine inception.

Though, here’s the thing. The more I read, and now hear directly, accounts of this incredible happening, the more part of me wonders, maybe this is not so much revival, as it is a reckoning?


Remember how I said what’s happening there is actually not what fascinates me the most?


Here’s what I mean …


Before my return to Catholicism, I first had to go the way of the ex-vangelical road.


This, for me, entailed the process of deeply immersing myself in my evangelical identity, its theological underpinnings, and history, so as to fully come to terms with it. It was only from there, then, that I could more accurately assess if it was, at its core, something helpful or harmful to me getting in the closest proximity as I possibly could to God.


From the angle that process has positioned me, what I find so remarkable and seemingly authentic about Asbury is its connection, at an elemental level, to EXACTLY what the hesitancy around Asbury is itself rooted in.


Let me explain more carefully … for there is great irony in it all, if not an outright paradox (which is all the more reason it strikes me as God).


While the “I’m all in” crowd started throwing haymakers at those they perceived to be the “anti-Spirit contending, goad kickers,” a more discerning approach to it all was in fact being tenderly exhibited by those ACTUALLY AT ASBURY!!!


None of this is about validation for “the hesitant,” mind you, but dang …


Remember, an evangelical, Pentecostal, theologian, with boots on the ground at Asbury, shared the same careful concerns as so many of “the hesitant.” Both lines of thinking are grounded in the desire for this not becoming just the next emotion-sustained “thing.”


No one wants to see this be another movement that ends up with a few people gaining notoriety, before heading off the rails and hurting or destroying the faith of so many who leapt right in, if for no other reason than their own deep hunger for revival—for more of God.


And that is what makes the push-back against “the hesitant,” from the hyper-hungry crowd of eager revivalists, so ironic.

________


While that irony is important to note, it’s actually NOT what is most important here. What is, is what that irony signals.


From (especially) the early 1990’s onward, there remains a strong connection between the contemporary evangelical church in the U.S. and attractional, consumerist, and corporate leadership aligned and marketed strategies—the sort that speak to the individualist identity of the common American.


If they’re being forthright, this is not something of a surprise to most evangelical leaders and pastors I have met. They have the books. They’ve been to the seminars. Like me, they have been REQUIRED to take courses that promote these very things, under a very thin and curiously odd veil of being biblical, as part of the core curriculum in their evangelical institutions. In my case, healthy doses of it were smuggled along with the course load for a graduate theology degree at Liberty University. And that is not unusual to LU whatsoever.


In fact, just about any other bible college curriculum out there will likely introduce the learner to corporate aligned strategies for leadership, “mission,” strategic thinking, and “vision casting” before they are introduced to the doctrine of God—if in fact they even are, aside from session one or two in Theology 101.


It is why the Pastor/CEO model stands over the corpse of the Pastor/Theologian paradigm (once normative for lead vocational ministry in Protestant evangelicalism).


And to show for it, contemporary American evangelicalism is in the dusk of the forty-year mega-church catastrophe of an experiment, wherein these megas are structured and led to operate like corporations. Hillsong, Mars Hill (and the list goes on) pointedly showcase just what a disaster big business, mimicking church, can be like.


Tragically, as numbers became the litmus for success, smaller churches lost scores of folks to the megas (and still do). In turn, seeing that approach as the way to go, they try to imitate a similar model on a smaller scale and vastly smaller budget. Same energy, same enthusiasm, just more “intimate" I hear (aka—littler).


Thus, among the push to be the next Mark Driscoll and/or Carl Lentz (but who is actually able to both get it right and keep it righteous), where is the next A. W. Tozer to find a place in the present-day cycle for achieving the next bigger and best evangelical thing?

________


Perhaps ironically, perhaps somewhat prophetically (tongue in cheek), the very day after Asbury started, before any of us had yet heard a thing about it, I happened to post an article and some personal comments I think harken to something even more significant now, in light of Asbury.


It was about how younger generations of evangelical Christians are not at all “down” with the sort of attraction driven church their Gen X/older Millennial parents and leaders are hell bent handing on to them. To their generation, it's what makes The Righteous Gemstones seem like reality TV.


They don’t want stadium rock worship, and TED Talk messages, celebrity church culture, and a hyper-focus on “connection” with the “like-minded.”

"Big Eva" in southeast Michigan.


No, they want real meaning, substance, and genuine ethnic and diverse religious community, as the characteristics vital to them in worship and as the ethos of their dream church. And they’re starting to seek that out in more liturgical traditions—where things are traceable to the earliest saints by ancient taproots of Sacred Tradition, beautiful symbolism, and unchanged and profound meaning.


It signals a spiritual disposition in younger Millennials and Gen Z that is wholly aware that superficial attraction, keeping up with the appearances of “cool,” trends of capitalistic strategies, and a big name under spotlights at the pulpit, marks a self-defeating approach to the hope of the Gospel entrusted by Christ to his Church.


Asbury has, and is proceeding, at least for now, in complete defiance of all that. Several articles and accounts report as much. As one local professor, Laura Levens, noted, Asbury is a “revival” without a name.[4]


Speakers and worship teams rotate in and off, covering portions of time, all with a conspicuous lack of introductions. One poster who attended suggested the intentionality in this was the desire to take a strong posture against the celebrity culture that has infiltrated the church.


Apparently, some more notable, if not celebrity “Big Eva” ministers and worship leaders have offered their presence at Asbury to “help.”


They’ve been kindly turned down.[5]


“Thanks, but no thanks. Feel free to come on out and wait in the half mile lines of students from around the Country and visit. Hope you find a seat.”


Students are operating in the liminal space between host and participant, according to Leven,[6] as a collective boasting no particular one’s name or esteem.


I read a long post by an Asbury student who said that what was happening at Asbury was a rebellion against everything those sorts of things represented. Not a rejection of those people, of course, but a cautious intentionality to resist the operative and performative manner of doing Christianity.


More than a few accounts among students echo an almost urgent desire to safeguard this precious interaction with the Holy Spirit from what they see as the threat of hype and the manipulation they are so weary, and wary, of.


They don’t want anything manufactured, outside of what God himself is building through his work there.


In this respect, it seems Asbury shares the same concerns that explain why “the hesitant” are in fact hesitant—not for doubt of the Holy Spirit, but for revulsion toward all that hype, manipulation, enthusiasm, and emotionalism have wrought.


This revulsion is strikingly similar to that which led to a strong emergent movement in post-Christian Canada a decade ago. From research authored in 2014, I noted:


In many senses, younger generations of Canadian Christians see their churches have lost their disciple making focus … one where the purposes of genuine worship, nurturing believers, and mercifully and lovingly evangelizing their cultures is sacrificed for program-oriented ventures that largely measure success upon numbers “saved” and returning, over perpetuating authentic discipleship.[7]

Among these defectors from Canadian evangelicalism, it was revealed that:


[They] cringe at what they see as the evangelical church’s endeavor to instill doctrinal uniformity and encode homogenous individual and social morality and lifestyles. One pastor expressed frustration with the ―cookie-cutter, big-box evangelical church. The problem is that standardization dehumanizes people.[8]

Though a decade behind, this seems to be a point of similar concern with Asbury. As Leven tells it, “There is outright prayer over the harms committed by the church.”[9]


That cannot go unnoticed and/or stay under-appreciated. Consider why.


Of “revival,” the president of my own seminary, Dr. Tony Blair, noted, “… revival is not the ideal for our spiritual lives. It's actually a sign that something has gone wrong!”[10]


He further pointed out, “God is good and offers revivals when it's needed, like life-saving medicine to a dying patient, but it is even better to not be dying.”[11]


What is happening at Asbury may indeed be revival. But if Blair is correct, as I would argue he is, my question of whether this is actually a reckoning is warranted.


Because what this attention to the “harms committed by the church” actually presents the church, and what these students are leveling at the Christian community they are set to inherit, is, essentially, an indictment.


Asbury seems to be saying, “We need to be better. We need to be purer. Not propositionally and programmatically, but authentically—incarnationally.


Thus, we defy the emotionally and enthusiastically driven model of the populist, performative, attractional-celebrity (either real or wannabe) way of doing church.”


“Truth be told,” says McCall, “this is nothing like that [way]. There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor.[12]


In this respect, all those things “the hesitant” are taking time to “give thought to” (Prov. 14:15) are the very things the student leaders of this movement appear concerned with not having infect a moment (however long it lasts) they believe God is giving them.


Precisely because those things are toxin to whatever “thing” is happened in, around, and to them.


“To the contrary,” reports McCall, “it has so far been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable—a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom.”


I don’t know what we call that. But I think it’s pointing these young believers in the right direction. In that, I share these thoughts by Blair:


I pray that it results in long-term, transformative consequences. But I suspect we must also introspect a bit and ask what went wrong in the spiritual culture of these young people that made such a revival necessary... and how we might do better on that front going forward. Let's not just celebrate this. Let's learn from it.[13]

Maybe you disagree with me that “reckoning” is the right term. But all this makes me wonder who are the ones really “kicking against the goads” and “contending against the Spirit”?


I’ll leave that hypothetical.


To that end, of which Blair is remarking, then, let all believers hope “revival,” ends up being too small of a word for this.


What then might we one day hope to properly call it?


Wouldn’t “The Evangelical Reformation” have a nice ring to it?



NOTES [1] See Howard A. Snyder, “Wesleyanism, Wesleyan Theology,” Global Dictionary of Theology, eds., William A. Dryness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, et al, 936. [2] “Revivals,” Asbury University, accessed February 18, 2023; https://www.asbury.edu/academics/ resources/library/archives/history/revivals/. By the accounting of Asbury this is the ninth such movement since 1905. [3] Tom McCall, “Asbury Professor: We’re Witnessing a ‘Surprising Work of God,’” Christianity Today (February 13, 2023), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/february-web-only/asbury-revival-1970-2023-methodist-christian-holy-spirit.html [4] Laura Levens, “What I witnessed this week at the Asbury revival,” Baptist News Global (February 16, 2023); https://baptistnews.com/article/what-i-witnessed-this-week-at-the-asbury-revival/. Levens (ThD, Duke University Divinity School) is professor of Christian mission at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. [5] Rod Dreher, “What to Make of the Asbury Revival?” The American Conservative (February 17, 2023); https://www.theamericanconservative.com/what-to-make-of-the-asbury-revival/. [6] Leven, “What I witnessed …” [7] My words here are referencing, Steven Studebaker and Lee Beach, “Emerging Churches in Post-Christian Canada,” Religions 3, no.3 (September 2012): 868, accessed August 14, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ rel3030862. [8] This directly from Studebaker and Beach, “Emerging Churches in Canada,” 870. [9] Leven, “What I witnessed …” [10] Tony Blair, “Yay for revival!” personal Facebook post (February 20, 2023). [11] Blair, “Yay for revival!” [12] McCall, “Surprising Work of God.” [13] Blair, “Yay for revival!”

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