by Henry E. Neufeld
Copyright 1997, Henry E. Neufeld
The following essay contains some of my thoughts on revival. I will not be citing all of the Biblical background used, but I will reference some of my other materials available on the web. In particular, refer to my paper Inspiration and Sources of Authority for the Christian which contains and documents much of my belief not only about inspiration but about the work of the Holy Spirit and how it relates to the mind.
This essay is not intended as a scholarly summary of debate, or as a response to a particular revival movement. I personally have the experience of seeing many small revivals, and also of observing the Pensacola Outpouring at Brownsville Assembly of God close up. Those experiences as well as my study of the Bible and history have informed these thoughts.
Table of contents
There is a significant amount of debate about what a revival is, how one can tell if revival is in progress, and how one can distinguish a true revival from a false one. I would like to simplify these definitions. I am not under any delusion that these definitions will be acceptable to a broader range of people than any others will, but at least I must present a clear concept of what I am discussing.
A revival, in my view, is very simply any process that brings to life. There is no set of manifestations, no specific set of actions, and no specific set of doctrines, except that all of the manifestations, actions and doctrines will tend to lead toward life. (I will discuss what I mean by “leading toward life” in the next section.) The best way to judge whether this is taking place is by observing where those actions actually lead. While Jesus tells us not to Judge (Mt 7:1), he tells us to inspect the fruits (Mt 7:15-20). This process of fruit inspection is the best way of determining the truth of doctrine and also of a revival.
It is rather easy to misjudge motivations. It is equally easy to misjudge the results of belief in particular doctrinal structures. For example, I come from a tradition of Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine. To me, it appears that a belief in an elect predestined to salvation obviates any motivation for evangelism. After all, God has already taken care of all that. If I simply base my view on a study of the doctrine and how that doctrine would impact me, I would conclude that Calvinists would never evangelize. But if I observe actual Calvinists, as opposed to my imaginary ones, I will see that they do witness for their faith, and are often among the most vigorous evangelists. My theoretical judging (Mt. 7:1) has been overcome by my fruit inspection (Mt. 7:15-20).
A revival may take many different directions. The direction a revival will take is determined simply by the prior state of those being revived. One thing we commonly forget is that a journey is as much determined by its starting point as by its destination. The same journey may be taken by horseback, car, bus, train or airplane, and yet arrive at the same destination. The vehicle itself doesn’t determine the nature of the journey. Let me stretch this analogy just a little further, however. The vehicle may play a serious role in whether one makes the journey successfully. Saying that different vehicles may be employed doesn’t mean that all vehicles will be equally successful. Some may fail entirely.
Looking at some Biblical revivals, I believe we can point to some common points that characterize them. I am only going to do this briefly, but you can find the individual stories. Among those events that I would characterize as successful revivals in scripture are the exodus from Egypt, the establishment of the Davidic monarchy, Jehoshaphat’s reform, Hezekiah’s reform, Josiah’s reform, the return from exile, and the beginning of the Christian movement. Among those I would characterize as unsuccessful are the preaching of Noah, of Elijah and Elisha, and of Jeremiah. I am using the term “successful” even of temporary success. There are many more in scripture which could be recorded as a temporary success, including many instances in the time of the judges. There has never been a permanently successful revival.
Amongst the common things about these revivals, I would note the following:
1. The people of God, whose aim is to worship God truly, begin a revival in a state of distress
2. There is a leader or leaders who provide an impetus and a direction
3. The aims of the leader, and the extent to which he or she leads the revival may differ. Jehoshaphat’s revival did not go as far as that of Hezekiah or Josiah.
4. Great enthusiasm may be lost when the leader is gone
5. Revival and reformation are not too separate processes, but are two parts of the same process
I want to emphasize this last point. I think of revival as the impetus and reformation as the shape of revival. In a steam engine, a piston is driven by steam. The steam is like that which drives the revival, but the shape of the chamber controls and channels that steam and makes it accomplish a particular goal. The steam by itself has just as much energy as when it is contained, but it accomplishes nothing. The piston and the cylinder are just a virtuous of devices in every measurement without the steam as they are with, but they do nothing without the energy. One could also take the analogy of an electrical circuit. I can examine a simple circuit, measure the parts, check the individual connections, and tell you what it would do if the power were connected. It is just as correct of a circuit without the power hooked up, but it will do nothing. The battery by itself is an excellent source of power, I can measure it, examine its qualities, and imagine what it could accomplish. But all will remain just imagination unless that power is hooked up to a working circuit.
I see the relationship between the power of revival and its doctrine, or the revival and the reformation, which must follow, as very similar to that of the power source and the circuit. I say similar to because there are some key differences as well. Most importantly, people cannot be classified into bins in the way that electronic parts can be. People are distinctive and individual. They have different personalities. If we look at the heroes of the faith celebrated in Hebrews 11, we will see that the Bible writers celebrate these differences. They do not try to put people into a single mold. I recommend reading Hebrews 11 with either a good set of marginal references or with a concordance at hand, and as you read each name, shift and read the story of that person as told in Hebrew scripture. You will find it enlightening to see the variety of people whom God has chosen to celebrate!
While the doctrinal content of a revival is not determined with the type of precision used for an electrical circuit, it is nonetheless a real and vital issue. There are reasons why sometimes the word takes root and sometimes does not. As another exercise I would suggest serious meditation on Matthew 13, combined with consideration of those you have known in your life who have done something good with the gospel message and those who have not.
I believe it is clear that even good preaching can be like a puff of steam, which will then disappear, having accomplished nothing. There must be more to a revival than a quick breath. The breathing must be nurtured and sustained. Thus I would only call something a revival in the full sense of the word which combines itself with a reformation, creating a new state of the community that is better than the old. Otherwise all we have seen is wasted energy.
One of the things that disturb me greatly about revival theology is an “ignoring,” or perhaps actual ignorance of the state of the church outside of revival. People enter revival wanting something, but are not quite certain what it is. They know that what they have received has failed to hold their attention, but they aren’t certain where they want to go, except that it must be somewhere else. This attitude can result in an acceptance of everything that appears, claiming it to be the work of God. The mere state of revival is exciting. They may not want to be revived, but may rather want to be constantly being revived. This results from a lack of a vision of what the church should be. One can be impressed at the sheer power of the steam, though no work is being accomplished.
Often those who have been in the church the longest, and have managed to survive storms and difficulties, cannot respond to this state of affairs because they know in their hearts what the church should be, but don’t know how to express it. I have often found in my work that often the people who can do a task the best cannot express what they are doing, and will become quite frustrated at the demand. Steps? There are not steps! Procedures? Who needs procedures? I just do it! These people will often feel something is wrong, but be unable to express their views in a way that someone else can comprehend.
Let me reiterate Jesus’ vision for the church as portrayed in the gospel according to John. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34 NRSV). This verse, and many others (1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 4) describe the proper state for the church. If we are heading for this state, then we are going the right direction.
But more importantly, if we are aiming for the church that Jesus called for, we must be prepared to cross chasms of misunderstanding. No matter how far we reach to cross the gap we perceive between another person and ourselves we can know that we have crossed a gap less than the one between God and us. That means that in the normal state of the church we should be constantly willing to close these gaps of communication and come closer to one another. Only in coming closer to one another can we know that we are coming closer to God (1 John 4:20).
One issue that comes up in discussing the current state of the church is that of miracles. Should there be daily signs of power in the church? Should individuals be manifesting the various gifts of the spirit? Should you find someone in your congregation who can lay hands on you and heal you?
I believe that we look for these blessings in the wrong order. We want the miracles to confirm for us the validity of the events or teachings, and the life of our church. But the Bible often speaks of signs and wonders carried out by those who are not on God’s side. I believe that we look for the wrong set of signs in determining the life of the church. In Ezekiel 36:23, it says: “. . . and the nations shall know that I am the LORD when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.” (NRSV). We are looking for the wrong sign when we ask for a confirmation of the message through miraculous signs and wonders. The confirmation should come through holiness, and what better definition of holiness do we have than to behave as Jesus instructed in John 13:34?
What then are the potential benefits of revival?
First, the church has never been in the state I have described above, at least since the apostolic age. Likely there have been pockets of such love for one another in various places, but as a whole we have fallen much short of that goal. In fact, the picture of the church, when measured against the standard of John 13:34 is rather grim.
So a revival results in new energy in the church, new activity, and new action.
It can also lead toward a new unity, as people focus on God as opposed to their own differences. If people are careful to avoid spiritual pride, as discussed below, walls between groups and denominations can be broken down.
The dangers of revival are simply the dangers of the ordinary Christian life, but magnified a many times.
The most important of these are:
A revival is not an unmixed blessing. As with the sower and the seed, not all of the seed falls on good ground. One of our mistakes in dealing with revivals is to make a doctrinal checklist and look for the perfect revival that contradicts no point. There will never be such a revival. What we need to do is employ our minds to make the best use the energy that God has provided along with the guidance he has provided to bring about the truly normal state of the church. It is when God is showing his holiness through us that we will be providing a true witness to the world.
I will keep this section short and to the point. We must recognize that people are different. When a church enters into a state of revival there will be members whose relationship with God is very close and others for whom church is just a social ritual. What revival does to each will be as different as their personalities and their spiritual condition. We tend to look at other people as though they viewed life the way we do, and their needs are the same as ours. But that is not true. People are individual.
To carry out Jesus’ command to love one another (John 13:34), and the golden rule (Mt 7:12), we need to be willing to stretch and to learn how others feel, even when we are certain their feelings and views are wrong or unjustified. A little bit of stretching to cross the gap can be tremendously constructive. Our focus must be Matthew 7:1–as soon as we begin to judge, we are in trouble.
Remember that the church needs both the energetic and enthusiastic people as well as those who are more stable. God gave not just gifts of preaching and prophecy, but also of administration. If we can see each of these people as God’s gift to the church, we can bind them together into one body in which each is respected for his or her gifts and contribution.
For those who believe that there is more danger than benefit in a particular movement I would suggest a positive presentation of your own doctrinal position and an effort to teach and to disciple those who have accepted Jesus Christ as a result of the movement. Responding positively will accomplish more in the long term than becoming a critic. When you feel you must criticize, try to focus those criticisms on specific teachings rather than on individuals or an entire movement.
Revival is never easy because change is never easy. We would not have any revival if we did not have a current state of the church that needed change. While a revival acts as an agent of change, its results are not entirely positive. They are also not entirely negative. The question is what we will do with the energy generated. If we focus on the wall-leaping love of Jesus Christ, we can take that energy and use it to shape a church through which God’s holiness can be displayed. If we do not shape it, it will be gone and become part of the history of revival and disillusionment in the church.