Revivalism on the Mission Field
I have many missionary friends who are faithful ministers of the gospel. Each morning, they rise to spend time in devoted study of the Bible and prayer and then spend the rest of the day urging their national friends to consider Christ. They creatively turn conversations to the gospel. They patiently consider each person’s needs and life situation. They faithfully pray for their friends and others in their cities to be raised from death to life.
These missionary friends hear stories of missionaries in other places who have seen many people rapidly come to Christ. They know that such events are possible. After all, the book of Acts tells of 3,000 coming into God’s kingdom in a day, and another 2,000 within a short period. Church history recounts awakenings and revivals where many souls were saved under the preaching of God’s Word. These accounts burn in my friends’ hearts: they would love to see such revival among the people they serve.
But revival—“a sovereign and large giving of the Spirit of God, resulting in the addition of many to the kingdom of God”—shouldn’t be confused with revivalism.
WHAT IS REVIVALISM?
Revivalism is the practice of using methods to pursue or even cause a “revival.” It’s a relatively new phenomenon that assumes a particular view of conversion. Revivalistic practices were developed during the Second Great Awakening (1800–1825). In these twenty-five years, an extraordinary harvest of men and women responded to the gospel and were incorporated into the church. Debate ensued. Did revivalistic practices cause the harvest, or did they cause harm to the church while God gave growth?
At its heart, the issue that separates revival and revivalism is whether these large in-gatherings of new Christians are “normal” or “extraordinary” or not. Veteran pastors and preachers of the First Great Awakening were convinced that the response of the crowds during this period was extraordinary. They had good reason to think so. They knew they had done nothing different than what they had always done: they continued to devote themselves to prayer, they faithfully proclaimed the Scriptures, they urged non-Christians to repent and believe in Christ, and they served and shepherded church members to faithful obedience.
Then one day, the results of their work changed—using words like “sudden” and “unexpected,” these men described large numbers of people responding with repentance and faith to their teaching. Other pastors like Whitefield preached another twenty years after the end of the revival he witnessed. During that time, he saw a sudden decrease of response to the same preaching. Put simply, a revival happens when pastors do nothing different or more than the faithful, normal means described in the Bible—and yet, the Lord of the Harvest causes an extraordinary increase.
A few decades later, a new generation of pastors would come who tried to build on the foundations for which others labored (John 4:38). These young pastors gathered in the harvest of others’ work and began to feel they had discovered the power to sway crowds to become Christians. Revivalist preachers made bold promises: use their methods and conversions can be guaranteed. If Christians will just get to work, then they can convert the world and bring the millennium within a few years. Who wouldn’t want this to take place?
Whether or not God moved invisibly and spiritually in the hearts of listeners was uncertain. What was certain was that many people responded in a way that could be seen. Over time, this outward activity came to be understood as proof that God was at work and the listeners had been converted. By the end of the nineteenth century, the assumptions of the younger revivalist pastors had become the status quo among American evangelical Christians. Revivalist practices like “coming forward” and altar calls persisted through the popularity of later evangelical preachers, from D. L. Moody to Billy Graham.
REVIVALISM AND MISSIONS
Revivalism’s bold promises remain alluring to missionaries. I recall reading one missionary’s field report to the home staff. It revealed his strong belief in the power of revivalist practices. Before those practices were used in his area of the world, he reported no conversions. But afterward? Conversions came quickly and persistently. This was more than simply a report. It also seemed to me a subtle promise: if you want to see conversions, then you should practice these methods too.
But let the minister beware. Revivalist practices accompany particular theological and doctrinal assumptions about the nature of conversion, the relationship between proclamation and conversion, and the nature of humans.
Conversion occurs when God raises someone from death to life (Eph 2:4–9). This entails receiving a new nature, a new heart, and a new disposition from God, all of which allow a person to understand what he or she could not before. Without a new nature, we are unable to believe (John 3:3, 10:26; Acts 16:14). This change of nature cannot be caused or coerced, no sooner than we can force a leopard to change its spots. Instead, the Bible describes conversion as “rebirth” “by the Spirit”; it happens when and where he wishes (John 3:8).
Therefore, missionaries should exercise a little bit of caution before quickly assuring a new professor that they have been born again. The point here is not to wait for evidence of maturity. It’s to wait just long enough to see that an initial profession is more than just a momentary flash in the pan. If conversion comes from the Lord, what’s true today will be true in a week or in a month. If the conversion is just a passing emotion, it’s more likely to dissipate like the mist.
For instance, I once spent two hours with a Muslim friend summarizing the big story of the Bible. I showed him how a dozen Old Testament stories all worked together to anticipate the coming of Christ before I urged him to repent and place his faith in Jesus. He responded, “I want to follow Jesus as Lord for as long as I live!” A revivalist missionary would have then assured my friend that he had been converted and immediately baptized him. Kind of like they always say: “Once decided, always saved.”
I simply said what I knew to be true: “I hope so. Let’s see how you do over time!” Within one month, he sadly recanted his statement.
Another Muslim man asked a national Christian evangelist friend of mine with revivalistic tendencies what he must do to convert to Christianity. My friend responded, “Just like there’s a Muslim confession of faith, there’s a Christian confession of faith.” Instead of teaching him the depths of his sin, he taught him to confess Christ like Muslims confess Muhammad. Then he led him in a brief sinner’s prayer. And that was that! Sadly, this man also returned to Islam.
On another occasion, a Muslim friend studied the Bible with us faithfully for weeks. He loved joining us and reading Scripture. They were words of life to him. One morning as we began our study, he asked whether he could start our time by reading a prayer. He wasn’t sure that reading prayers was allowed, but this particular prayer articulated well what he wanted to say. Somewhere, in his studies, he came across a printed sinner’s prayer and began to pray aloud. At the close of his prayer, we did not declare him converted. This man, somewhere along the way, had been converted as far as we can tell. He’s still following Jesus today.
Conversion is hard. Harder than a camel going through an eye of a needle. Conversion requires power over men’s souls, and only God holds that power. Physical and emotional activity is much easier to cause than soul activity. But it doesn’t prove conversion. I might be able to convince someone to perform a physical or emotional action, but I can’t cause someone else’s conversion for the simple reason that I cannot cause my own.
If, as the revivalists taught, I could cause my own conversion through a simple act of my will, then I should use every means at my disposal to convince someone else to cause their own conversion. My job would not merely be to faithfully proclaim a message, but to coerce a decision by any means at my disposal. Of course, that’s not how the Bible portrays conversion.
To complicate matters further, a missionary has to account for cross-cultural factors that impact evangelism. For example, missionaries who serve among highly impoverished people will have to be aware of the power dynamics that may be at play when they communicate with their national friends. These power dynamics can cause difficulties in evangelism because of the perceived discrepancy of power between themselves and their national friends. Some may seem to respond to Christ when they are simply acquiescing to the suggestions of their powerful, rich missionary friend. This means missionaries need to be even more careful with conversions than other ministers.
“BUT DOESN’T THE BIBLE SAY THAT SOME WILL FALL AWAY?”
I’ve heard missionaries respond to these kinds of critiques, “If just one new believer comes into the kingdom as a result of revivalism, doesn’t that justify these practices?” After all, missionaries observe, the Bible predicts that some will initially believe and then later fall away, suggesting that their spiritual condition never really changed. Meanwhile, the argument goes, others will believe and endure. So it may be sad, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon these effective practices altogether.
To be sure, passages like the parable of the soils teach us that some professors will endure in the faith, while others won’t. Yet we should hardly construe such passages as giving us carte blanche permission to be as careless as we want in declaring assurance of salvation. Carelessly receiving people into a church does impact people’s spiritual condition. First, it risks further hardening them against the gospel once they fall away, since they now believe they’ve “tried Christianity” but found it wanting.
Second, prematurely labelling someone a Christian who isn’t can do great communal harm. In many overseas contexts, a person’s communal testimony matters more than in the West. Someone who has been baptized as a Christian and yet lives like their old selves will bring great shame to the name of Christ.
Okay, but about the one genuine believer whom God brings into his kingdom through these practices? Doesn’t he or she justify the practices that saved them? No. God will use all kinds of things for good, even evil, as he taught through Joseph; or the devil, as he taught through Job (Gen. 50:20). The mere fact that God can and will sometimes use our unwise methods doesn’t mean he endorses those methods, any more than he endorses evil or the devil when he employs them.
For these reasons and many others, churches should treat new converts carefully. The Lord Jesus told us to prepare for false conversions. Our missionary strategy should leave room for this possibility. I remember one national woman who was, in good faith, hastily baptized and added to the church. She promptly continued to live her life as if nothing had ever happened to her, even as she remained inside the community of Christians. She was promiscuous with young Christian men and was divisive through gossip and backbiting. After several years, she was eventually removed from the church, but not before multiplying sin in the community and causing much harm to the reputation of Christ.
Ultimately, the promises of those old revivalist pastors fell far short of their predictions. The millennium hasn’t come yet; awakenings are still extraordinary. After assuring his students that they could render the salvation of their children certain, one revivalist preacher later confessed that he did not know that a single one of his children ever gave “evidence of having been converted” (Revival and Revivalism, 289). Just recently, I asked one long-term missionary’s opinion of the revivalism being practiced in his area of Asia. “My wife and I are not big fans,” he said. “We’ve seen that the numbers seem to go away pretty quickly.”
These sentiments are growing. A leader of a mission agency was invited by his friend to visit a city in East Asia to determine whether he should move there as a missionary. When he visited, he witnessed large gatherings of Christians and those who were interested in the gospel. He couldn’t believe it! There was so much Christian activity that he and his wife, who didn’t want to build on another’s foundation, decided to move elsewhere. Within a few years, his friend called him and begged him to reconsider. The mission leader was shocked as his friend told him the crowds he’d seen with his own eyes were all gone. “What did we see when we were there?” He asked. His friend’s response was chilling: “Smoke and mirrors.”
I have so many stories like this. When large numbers are reported, there is so much fanfare and celebration. But the correction or retraction of those hasty reports—whether public or in-house—are all too quiet.
So let’s ignore revivalism. Let’s instead maintain our devotion to prayer. We should pray that God would move the hearts of our children and the hearts of those we serve. We should pray that he would bring many into his kingdom while we faithfully proclaim Christ. We should pray that he gives an extraordinary measure of his Holy Spirit so that many are added to God’s kingdom. There’s always the possibility of fruit and blessing while we serve Christ (1 Cor 15:58). And while he gives us the fruit of our labors—much or little—let’s make it our aim to find so much joy in him today that the normal activities of prayer, service, and evangelism are a delight!