Different groups of pastors often have their favorite books. Sometimes those books provide the vocabulary for how those groups talk and think. Folks in my circles often use the language of revival versus revivalism to describe two different ways of doing ministry. We take it from Iain Murray’s 1994 book Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750–1858 (see our summary and review here).
Murray characterizes America’s First Great Awakening by the kind of revivals we find in the Bible (on understanding revivals biblically, see Sinclair Ferguson’s article). Murray borrows Solomon Stoddard’s definition: “Some special seasons wherein God doth in a remarkable manner revive religion among his people” (xvii). Biblical revivals of this sort depend instrumentally on the ordinary means of grace, but ultimately upon God’s decision and action. Churches will do what they always do: proclaim the gospel, confess their sins, and pray for God to save sinners. Yet God decides to act in a remarkable manner—“The wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8). True revivals are always “surprising,” to borrow a word from Jonathan Edwards.
Yet in the last forty years of the nineteenth century, says Murray referring to the latter parts of the Second Great Awakening, “a new view of revival came generally to displace the old.” He continues:
Seasons of revival became ‘revival meetings.’ Instead of being ‘surprising’ they might now be even announced in advance, and whereas no one in the previous century had known of ways to secure a revival, a system was not popularized by ‘revivalists’ which came near to guaranteeing results. (xviii)
This new view Murray calls revivalism. And the long and short of it from our perspective is revivals are good; revivalism is bad—bad for producing true conversions and bad for the long-term good of churches.
Though history is a little too complicated to say the First Great Awakening was characterized entirely by revivals, while the Second Great Awakening was characterized entirely by revivalism, as Mark Rogers will argue in his piece, the language of revival and revivalism does provide two poles for how to do ministry.
Revivalism, built on non-Reformed assumptions about depravity and regeneration, treats people as drowning. Sinners are “dead” in trespasses and sins, but not so “dead,” apparently, they cannot hear the person in the boat saying, “Grab my hand.” The person in the boat, meanwhile, should do everything possible—argue, persuade, cajole, even manipulate—to get the person to grab the outreached hand. Use psychological pressure. Use social pressure. Get the cool kids to set an example. Talk about city-wide “tipping points.” Whatever! Just get people to grab the hand.
Revival, built on a reformed understanding of depravity and regeneration, treats people not as drowning but as drowned. To say people are spiritually “dead” means they’re spiritually “dead.” As in, not breathing. As in, lean over the boat and scream all you want, the person cannot hear you. Only when the Spirit comes and regenerates can a person hear and respond. Word and Spirit must work together, like Ezekiel in the Valley of dry bones. Ezekiel’s preaching isn’t enough. The ruach—breath, wind, Spirit—had to blow (Ezek. 37:8-11).
Where revivalism depends on God’s Words plus our methods, revival depends on God’s Word.
Or to unpack that: where revivalism depends on extraordinary means of human ingenuity, revival depends on the ordinary means of grace prescribed in the Bible, like preaching and praying. Where revivalism relies on the powers of human psychology and sociology, revival relies on Word and Spirit. Where revivalism emphasizes creativity and charisma, revival emphasizes contrition and submission. And, therefore, where revivalism tends to bring glory to our innovations, revival brings glory to God.
Revival’s emphases, mind you, don’t decry the use of means. Preachers must study, work hard, master languages and grammar, devise sentences and paragraphs, and engage in a whole host of everyday, human activities. It doesn’t say all creativity and charisma are bad. God will use such gifts, even as he uses various psychological and social forces. The question, pastor, is what are you actively seeking to build on? God’s Word or God’s Word plus your methods?
If the latter, you may have forgotten what makes Christian disciple-making unique relative to every other form of disciple-making—it aims to accomplish something that simply is not within our power to accomplish: giving life to the dead, or causing people to be born again. When we evangelize, says Mark Dever, we’re evangelizing the graveyard.
Three lessons result: One, all our disciple-making is dependent on God in a way nothing else is. Two, the best means are only those means he prescribes in his Word. Three, we must never idolize the human actors even when God uses them mightily, as made evident by the complicated legacies of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, who sinfully and tragically affirmed race-based slavery.
Yet these are lessons we quickly forget, which is why so much ministry today, whether on college campuses or in church services, ends up being revivalistic. Pastors plant church members in the audience who will walk forward during an altar call so that others will follow. Writers argue that if 12 percent of New Yorkers come to know Christ, the city will have reached a tipping point and the dam will burst. Professors devote entire chapters to the value of creativity in books on church structure. Preachers employ heart-gripping illustrations or heart-harrowing statistics and then lean into the imperatives for what people must do. Worship leaders cycle choruses round and round until the swell of emotion creates a new sense of intimacy with Jesus.
Our goal with this Journal is to help you as pastors, ministry leaders, and missionaries better recognize these two ways of doing ministry, that you might better rely on the Lord as you serve the Lord. Revivalism, which depends on our ingenuity and energy, brings short-term gains. It looks fruitful. It appeals to our yearning to see the results of our labors. You can watch the numbers explode.
Yet often that fruit is fake. And we don’t want you to be fooled, because when pastors are fooled, the people behind the conversion statistics gain false assurance. They walk toward an eternity apart from Christ while calling themselves Christians all the way.
Revival, however, builds for the long-term. It walks by faith. It doesn’t expect to see all the fruit of our labors now but trusts that God is doing far more than we expect with every act of ministry, like what old George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) discovers about his own work by the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
This Journal means to provide the lens for distinguishing one kind of ministry from the other. When you’re done with it, turn back to our Journal on the Ordinary Means of Grace (July 2021) to learn more about building for Revival.
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