Why Revivalism Causes Pastors to Burn Out and Job-Hop

Article
06.14.2022

Revivalism shaped my early Christian faith. Preaching went light on the Word and heavy on coaxing spiritual decisions. Many congregations measured a pastor’s effectiveness by the number of public responses he received at the close of the service; no one ever talked about faithfulness in doctrinal exposition. Scripture was often taken out of context, and no one seemed to notice or care. Ho-hum subjects such as the ordinary means of grace, personal discipline, and perseverance resulting in Christ formed in believers by Word and Spirit rarely came on the radar of worship gatherings.

In short, revivalism was alive and well in twentieth-century pastoral ministry. Just as in the previous century, it burned over local communities and cultivated an obsession with numbers and decisions. Meanwhile, cynicism and apathy toward biblical Christianity increased, while healthy pastors and churches decreased.

I preached my first sermon at the ripe age of sixteen. I was affected by what I heard and observed as normal Christian practice in my region. My lack of biblical moorings soon sapped my spiritual life. Revivalism was a poor tutor for this aspiring pastor. I desperately needed to heed this instruction from Francis Grimké: “From beginning to end, all effective work is due to the presence and power of the Spirit in the preacher and in the people to whom he speaks. … There is no other guarantee of success. There is no other power that can bring results … and bring men to repentance and faith.”[1]

Understanding dependence on the Word and Spirit would have reoriented my entire approach to and practice of pastoral ministry. But instead, I struggled to make sense of the man-centered revivalism I’d been taught.

EVIDENCE OF TRUE SPIRITUAL WORK

Revivalism seeks to reproduce what only God can accomplish. The 18th century’s Great Awakening, under the human instrumentation of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and others, witnessed distinct evidence of divine work. Edwards identified this evidence as:

  • Esteem for the person and work of Jesus, in dependence on his redemptive work.
  • Overcoming the spirit of the world through the work of the Spirit.
  • A high regard for and reliance on Holy Scripture.
  • Hearts inclined to the truth of Scripture.
  • By the new life in Christ, loving God and man.[2]

The Second Great Awakening, which began toward the close of the 18th century, experienced something similar. There seemed to be a revival at Yale under Edwards’ grandson Timothy Dwight’s leadership. But as evidence of God’s sovereign work of revival waned, man-centered techniques stepped in to fill the void. This process was largely led by Charles G. Finney.

Still in my teens, I remember reading a slim biography of Finney. The author engaged in hero adulation, ignoring Finney’s erroneous soteriology, man-centered preaching, and negative long-term effects on the church. As I read about Finney calling people to make decisions, I fell into the same trap. Finneyism became my calling.

Finney’s plan to win converts involved contracted meetings that lasted anywhere from a week to several weeks. He relied on invitation methods to manipulate decisions and assumed professions of faith without evidence of regeneration. This led to confusion about true conversion. Steeped in these practices, my spiritual life sagged and I needed renewal. Instead of learning to grow in Christ through the ordinary means of grace, I joined my friends in flocking anywhere revivalism was happening. I didn’t know anything else.

THE HOOK OF REVIVALISM

I attended countless so-called revivals (contracted meetings) in my first half-dozen years as a Christian. Crowded altars, as they were termed, followed emotionally driven sermons. Professing Christians rededicated their lives over and over. The new birth seemed to live in the shadows of revivalism, not at the forefront. Later, it became shockingly clear to me: whenever we move away from a dependence on the Word of God and the Spirit of God for Christian ministry, we may see results, but they won’t be God-birthed results.

Those same people made decisions over and over because the gospel was not clearly proclaimed; no one wanted to be patient for the Spirit’s work. These repeated public decisions led to swelling church rolls. I knew the gospel was supposed to produce perseverance, but I was surrounded by impatience. In that era, Gardiner Spring observed, “There is one grace you cannot counterfeit … the grace of perseverance.”[3] So little was made of perseverance because it contradicted what pastors attempted to do with revivalism practices.

Why did pastors who claimed to believe the Bible persist with unbiblical methods in preaching? Why did they ignore biblical ecclesiology? It’s hard to say. But I can’t help but wonder if all the decisions and the large crowds simply appealed to their pride and satisfied their vanity. Depending on the Word and waiting on the Spirit isn’t flashy.

REVIVALISM’S PASTORAL DOWNSIDE

To sustain its adherents, revivalism demands an increasing intensity. More meetings, more emotional appeals, more extended “invitations,” and more high-profile personalities keep people engaged.

Unregenerate people, convinced they are backslidden Christians, respond to appeals to rededicate their lives at the close of a meeting. And they are freshly devoted—at least for a few weeks. But over time, without the regenerating work of the Spirit, they slip into nominal Christianity. Meanwhile, the pastor, whose gifts and pulpit skills helped to coax the decisions, may unknowingly slide into pride over his power to make things happen. As he continues to see many make decisions at his appeal, pride builds. In place of a humble dependence upon the Holy Spirit and gospel proclamation, he begins to lean on his abilities.

Over time, these practices shape a pastor’s habits. They become ingrained into his psyche. He may feel guilt, not over neglecting the Word and Spirit, but for his failure to draw a crowd and provoke enough decisions. He feels pressure from ministry colleagues to increase productivity through techniques used by other high-profile revivalist preachers. But the more responses he sees, the more he slides deeper into self-dependence. The more he falls away from reflecting the humble ministry of Jesus in John 13.

Ultimately, many pastors who depend on revivalist practices burn out because they’ve never learned to depend not on themselves but on the Word and Spirit. They burn out because they’re aiming at evident fruitfulness, not unremarkable faithfulness. Revivalist pastors burn out or job-hop. After all, once his church stops responding to his methods, he moves to another pulpit where he will yet again fail to patiently teach God’s Word.

Perhaps these reflections seem exaggerated. But consider: if a pastor fails to minister in dependence upon the Word and Spirit, then what sustains him? Whatever it is, it will fail to endure. Revivalism saps the pastor’s life because it offers only a veneer of Christianity. Only dependence upon the gospel of Christ and power of the Spirit will build churches on the power of God rather than the wisdom of man (1 Cor. 2:1–5).


[1] Francis James Grimké, Meditations on Preaching (Madison, MS: Log College Press, 2018), 2.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1984, from the 1741 edition of Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God), 109–120.

[3] Iain H. Murray, Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750–1858 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), xv, citing Gardiner Spring, Personal Reminiscences of the Life and Times of Gardiner Spring (New York, 1866), vol. 1, 217–18.

By:
Phil Newton

Phil Newton is the senior pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.