Hey Calvinist, Enough of Your Revivalism

Article
02.04.2019

How do you grow your church? It’s a question every pastor or church leader asks, a question in which almost every Christian is interested. And let’s assume the best motive for the question, a sincere desire to see men, women, and children both knowing and growing in the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The question is how?

HISTORY OF REVIVALISM

Ever since the early 1800s and the apparent success of the Second Great Awakening, the answer for most church leaders has been the techniques of revivalism. Revivalism and revival are not the same thing. Solomon Stoddard, a Puritan minister in western Massachusetts, defined revival as “some special seasons wherein God doth in a remarkable manner revive religion among his people.” [1] His emphasis is on both the surprising and supernatural aspect of revival, and its impact on the church generally. Conversion and discipleship, growth numerically andspiritually, are the result of divinely-wrought revival. His grandson, Jonathan Edwards, a leader of the First Great Awakening and its most able theological defender, would go on to argue that a genuine work of God’s Spirit isn’t “revealed by the quantity or intensity of religious emotions but is rather present where a heart had been changed to love God and seek his pleasure.”[2] In other words, it’s the fruit of the Spirit, not enthusiasm or momentum, that demonstrates God is at work.

Revivalism, on the other hand, is a set of techniques and methods that are assumed to reliably obtain “the external signs of conviction, repentance and rebirth.”[3] As historian Iain Murray notes, while revival preachers of the Great Awakening would have had no idea how “to secure a revival, a system was now popularized by ‘revivalists’ which came near to guaranteeing results.” [4] So much so that ever since the Second Great Awakening, a “revival” could be announced in advance! Today we call it “reverse engineering” results.

From the camp meetings, altar calls, and anxious bench of the Second Great Awakening, to the marriage of emotionally powerful preaching and singing in the ministry of Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey, to the stirring rallies of Billy Graham, the style of revivalism has shifted to match the changing culture. But the techniques have remained largely the same: the context of the mass meeting to encourage a response, the deliberate use of emotion to motivate a response, and the routine of a set prayer or physical action to actuate the response. Underlying all of this is the assumption that conversion can be reduced to, or at least evidenced by, a personal response that the preacher can elicit, observe, and measure.

I don’t mean to imply that the Second Great Awakening, or the ministries of Moody, Graham, and others did not result in true conversions. They certainly did. In fact, most of us probably know someone who came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ at a Billy Graham rally. But if Scripture is to be our guide, we must never say that people became Christians because of the techniques of these ministries. After all, conversion is the supernatural and sovereign work of God, in which, through the message of the gospel and by the power of the Holy Spirit, he brings about conviction of sin, lasting repentance, and faith in the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our response of repentance and faith is the unfailing result of God’s necessarily prior work of regeneration. Unless he makes us alive and gives us the gift of repentance and faith, we will remain dead in our sins. And there’s no human technique that can either force his hand or accomplish his work. This is what it means to be a Calvinist. More importantly, this is what it means to hold the same theology as Paul (Eph. 2:1-­10) and Jesus (John 6:44­–45; 10:27–30)

However, it wasn’t long before revivalist techniques moved from the evangelist’s ad hoc “revival meeting” to the local church’s regular Sunday worship. These revivalistic flourishes have even occurred in churches that confess a Reformed, or Calvinistic, understanding of salvation. And why not? After all, it apparently produced results. If you could gather a crowd (attract), connect with them in an emotionally meaningful way (relate), and remove barriers to response (automate), then you could grow your church without abandoning your theological convictions.

REVIVALISM “WORKS”

From Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, to Willow Creek and Saddleback, to Mars Hill and Elevation, to your local megachurch, the style and music and branding has changed, but the method tends to be fundamentally the same across the theological spectrum. The pragmatic approach to church growth—attract, relate, and automate—works.

Just ask the Calvinists who pastor large, growing churches. “I like the (attractional) evangelism I do better than the evangelism you don’t do.” “Anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.” “All it takes to grow a church is good music, a great children’s program, and sufficient parking.”[5] These comments defend fundamentally pragmatic, attractional approaches to the church, despite the sincerely held belief in the sovereignty of God in salvation by those who said them.

Twenty-five years ago, theologian David Wells published No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, the first of his volumes critiquing modern evangelicalism’s love affair with modernity. [6] He concluded that as far back as the Second Great Awakening, evangelicals had begun to use the tools of modernity (marketing, technique, bureaucratization, etc.) to accomplish the work of God. The goals were noble, but the motivation was pragmatic. In the modern world, success is measured by numbers, and the tools of modernity worked. As revivalism was refined and perfected by the methods of the marketplace, churches were growing, the “unchurched” were streaming in, and multitudes were being saved. Blinded by our apparent success, however, Wells revealed what the rest of us had failed to see. The tools of modernity produce the culture of modernity, not the kingdom of God. As survey after survey revealed, our growing churches were not filled with the results of Spirit-wrought revival, genuine converts characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, but were filled instead with the results of modern revivalism, religious consumers characterized by the spirit of the age.

TRUST THE ORDINARY MEANS OF GRACE

So, back to the question: how do you grow your church? I suppose it depends on what you think a church is and who you think people are. If you think a church is just a crowd of people who are fundamentally able, perhaps with help from God, to choose to follow Jesus, so long as he’s attractive and relevant enough, then the tools of revivalism are just the ticket. But if you think a church is a gathering of people who were dead in their sins but have been born again through the sovereign and supernatural work of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, then revivalism just won’t do.

What we want is revival, a genuine work of the Spirit, not a product of human technique. From the very beginning, the work of God has been done by the Spirit of God through the Word of God in a world gone awry. [7] From the first preaching of the gospel at Pentecost, to the recovery of gospel preaching in the Reformation, to the explanation of the gospel that God used to save you, God has always worked through his Word faithfully proclaimed to bring the dead to life.

So, “Calvinist,” enough of your revivalism. Grow your church through the ordinary means of grace that God has always used to grow his church: the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the ordinances, and the right use of church discipline. Give yourself to the ministry of word and prayer as the apostles did (Acts 6:4). Stop relying on the tools of modernity to build the kingdom of God because they never have and they never will.

There’s nothing wrong with having culturally appropriate music, adequate parking, attractive signage, and a clear process for joining the church. Those are important matters to which we must attend. But don’t think those tools, and others like them, will build Christ’s church. They won’t because they can’t. It’s not our ability to design an attractive worship experience or authentically relate to people in our sermons that raises the spiritually dead to life. The Spirit alone can and will do that work, and he does it through his Word, not our techniques.


[1] Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858(Banner of Truth, 1994), xvii.

[2] Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Eerdmans, 1992), 96.

[3] Murray, xix.

[4] Ibid ., xviii.

[5] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Mission or Message(Zondervan, 1995), 219. Comments one and three from private conversations with pre-2015 Acts 29 pastors.

[6] David Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 1993).

[7] HT, David Helm.