Editor’s Note

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Journal
06.13.2022

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.

* * * * *

Click here for the Table of Contents.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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Pursuing Revival While Avoiding Revivalism

June 2022
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Expressive Individualism in the Church

March 2022
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Sound Doctrine: The Foundation for Faithful Ministry

October 2021
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The Ordinary Means of Grace—Or, Don’t Do Weird Stuff

July 2021
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How to Build Up Your Church: A Guidebook for Members

March 2021
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Heaven: Rejoicing in Future Glory

December 2020
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Pastoring Through Political Turmoil

September 2020
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Shepherding: The Work & Character of a Pastor

June 2020
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What’s Wrong With Gospel-Centered Preaching Today?

March 2020
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Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning

Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning

December 2019
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The Heart of the Gospel: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

August 2019
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Church Membership: Following the Lord Together

Church Membership: Following the Lord Together

May 2019
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Ecclesiology for Calvinists

February 2019
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The Pastor and Pornography

The Pastor and Pornography

October 2018
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Pastoral Burnout: Its Causes & Cures

July 2018
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Church Life: Our True Political Witness

Spring 2018
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Church Discipline: Medicine for the Body

January 2018
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The Reformation and Your Church

Fall 2017
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Church Mergers and Plants

Summer 2017
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Pastoring Singles

Spring 2017
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Healthy Churches around the World

Fall / Winter 2016
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Authority: God’s Good and Dangerous Gift

Summer/Fall 2016
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The Church Praying

Spring 2016
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Confessions, Covenants, and Constitutions: How to Organize Your Church

Winter 2016
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Missions: Adding Wisdom to Zeal

December 2015
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Multi-Ethnic Churches

Summer/Fall 2015
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Expositional Preaching

Spring 2015
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Complementarianism & the Local Church

Winter 2015
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Vanishing Church?

Fall 2014
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Biblical Theology: Guardian and Guide of the Church

Summer 2014
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The Church Singing

May–June 2014
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Prosperity Gospel

January–February 2014
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Evangelism – Part 2

November–December 2013
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Evangelism – Part 1

September–October 2013
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Is Scripture Enough?

July–August 2013
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Church and Churches

May—June 2013
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Pastoring Christians for the Workplace

March—April 2013
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Lay Elders: A User’s Guide—Part 2

Jan—Feb 2013
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Lay Elders: A User’s Guide – Part 1

November—December 2012
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Discipling in the Church

September—October 2012
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Mercy Ministry in the Church

July—August 2012
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Wanted: Apostolic Pastors

May—June 2012
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The Underestimated Doctrine of Conversion

March—April 2012
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Don’t Be Too Cool for Sunday School

January—February 2012
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Revitalize: Why We Must Reclaim Dying Churches—and How

November—December 2011
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The Pastor and his Staff, Part 2

September—October 2011
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The Pastor and his Staff, Part 1

July—August 2011
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Church Membership: Holding the Body Together

May—June 2011
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Church and Parachurch: Friends or Foes?

March—April 2011
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Pastoral Moves

January—February 2011
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Book Reviews on the Mission of the Church

November—December 2010
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Hell: Remembering the Awful Reality

September—October 2010
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Pastoring Women

July—August 2010
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Journal about Deacons

Deacons

May - June 2010
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A New Evangelical Liberalism

January—February 2010

Church Discipline (Part 2)

November—December 2009

Church Discipline (Part 1)

September—October 2009

Missions

July—August 2009

Multi-site Churches

May—June 2009

Young Pastors

March–April 2009

Raising Up the Next Generation of Pastors

January–February 2009

Counseling in the Church

November–December 2008

Family & Parenting

September–October 2008

Marriage & Pastors’ Wives

July—August 2008
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Living As a Church

May–June 2008

Cooperation

March–April 2008

Corporate Prayer

January–February 2008

Church & Culture

November–December 2007

Race and Ethnicity

September—October 2007

The Gospel

July–August 2007

Preaching

May–June 2007

Elders (Part 2)

March–April 2007

Hospitality & Friendship

January 2007

Elders (Part 1)

February 2007

Biblical Theology

November–December 2006

The Church’s Mission

October 2006

The Emerging Church

September 2006

Miscellaneous Articles

December 1999