One interesting privilege I had during the Brownsville Revival here in Pensacola was meeting groups going to and from the revival. At the time I was a member of Pine Forest United Methodist Church, and groups would stay in the Family Life Center there in order to be in range to get to the revival which was around 10 miles.
They would come by bus, or less frequently in a caravan of cars, sleep on the floor, and then get up early in the morning to stand all day in line, hoping to get into the main sanctuary for the service. Sometimes they would try to talk to some of the Pine Forest UMC staff or members who had experience of the revival to try to find out what they were about to experience.
At the time I lived in a trailer on the campus of the church. I had volunteered to check all the doors late at night. It is very rare at a church when you can’t find some door unlocked when it ought to be locked! In doing my late night check I would occasionally find groups that had returned from the revival and were trying to digest their experiences. Thus I could hear from them both before and after.
I’m going to use these experiences to make a composite picture of two different pastors with whom I spent some time talking and praying during this time frame. There were many who could be represented by each of them, but I’ve chosen the extreme set of circumstances.
The first was on a second or third visit. He reported new growth and new activity in his home church after he had visited Brownsville. “It isn’t really anything like Brownsville. It’s unique,” he told me. “But I was really blessed here, and I’m bringing others in my group this time so they can be blessed.”
The second told me that he was close to retirement and expressed desperation that he wanted his ministry to count. To him, the revival at Brownsville represented the one chance of getting something real done in his ministry. Over time, his church shrunk to nearly nothing, and he had to move on.
I am left asking just what was the fruit of the Brownsville revival. Is it best represented by the first pastor or the second? Is it represented by those who rededicated their lives to God and to service and carried it out in the way God called them to do, or those who became desperate and tried to duplicate what they saw?
Those are, unfortunately, the type of binary questions that I tend to dislike. We tend to use the “know them by their fruit” model (Matthew 7:15-20). The problem is that quite frequently both sides have good “fruit” arguments. There are people who are greatly aided or even restarted in their spiritual lives. There are also people who go off the rails in one way or another, damaging themselves or others. The more adventurous tend to blame those who take some negative path on some force other than the revival. They claim the revival is good, but if you bring something bad there, the devil will get to work and ruin the result. The more theologically and spiritually cautious note the failures and are most concerned about those who are harmed.
In my experience, however, you can say that about almost any movement and certainly most churches. I have seen the same church congregation be a tremendous blessing in one person’s life, while it becomes the very last church that some other person will attend because he has been injured in some way.
Any time you have a group of people who are active, there is going to be a mixture both of people and of results. Even though Jesus doesn’t address this all that directly, I think a better model than the fruit is the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). This doesn’t mean that one should not check the fruit, but rather that one must realize that when people are involved results will generally be mixed. I would want to have a very comprehensive knowledge of a ministry before I said that its fruit was totally bad and it should be rejected as a whole. At the same time, I think it is very important to observe danger signs and give warnings.
Amongst those things to watch are:
- A tendency to focus on visible but extraneous things such as being slain in the spirit
- Getting stuck, i.e. simply hanging around all the time “being revived” instead of finding a constructive calling and doing it
- A focus on a single person or place. Note that this doesn’t mean nobody should go anywhere to experience God’s presence. Elijah had an important experience after running to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19), surely a more daunting journey in his day than a bit of a flight to a church in Florida is now.
- Unbalanced emphasis either on personal experience and spirituality over study and community, or the reverse
- Desperation. Desperate people try to force things, and are very susceptible to pretending. If you must have a miracle, you just may invent one or see one where none exists.
- Duplication. What happened at _____ (wherever) must happen here. That’s how I’ll know God is working.
The question has been put to me by friends of whether I’ll find my way to Lakeland or at least follow it on GodTV. The answer is that this is not very likely. Is that because I have made a studied and negative decision? Well, simply the fact that I haven’t even watched it where conveniently available on TV should answer that. No, I haven’t made any studied decision. The things I have said are not, and cannot be directed specifically at Lakeland, because I have too little knowledge.
The reason, however, that I’m not involved is that I’m already involved with what God is doing in my life and in the life of the church congregation I have just joined. The Holy Spirit is moving at First United Methodist Church in Pensacola. It bears no resemblance to rumors of Lakeland. I can say emphatically that it bears no resemblance to Brownsville, with which I had some acquaintance. There are no large altar calls and nobody has fallen on the floor.
What is happening is that the church is experiencing steady growth. It is unable to accommodate all the activities of the members and the ministries to the community within existing space, and that space is not small. The ministers are preaching a strong gospel message, and people are responding. The leadership has determined that they are going to serve the community, help those less fortunate, and generally be a witness for Jesus in their downtown community. The senior pastor declared that the one and only reason for the existence of a church was to fulfill the gospel commission, or you could restate that to be a witness for Jesus Christ. I’m excited to be joining in with that in whatever way God calls me to do so.
Do I want to set one way up against another? No. Never. But it’s the latter to which I am personally called.
Peter Kirk wrote about a visit to the Dudley outpouring. I was interested in his experience. While he was unhappy with some elements he still received a blessing which he was able to bring back to his church. That is a positive testimony. He also provides a list of links to other comments on either Dudley or Lakeland.
Again, I’m struck by the “weeds and wheat” metaphor for these events. The ideal is often the enemy of the good, and I think this can be true in the case of outpourings. Unfortunately, many on either side expect one to either be wholly for or wholly against, using another set of sayings of Jesus as their model. Well, I’m wholly for Jesus and wholly against that other guy, but when a number of people are involved, I suspect the division is a little harder to make.