Revival at Asbury: A Cold Take

It seems to me that news of an outbreak of revival is best met with a guarded optimism. We don’t need to be naive but also don’t need to be incredulous. And if that revival begins in a tradition very different from our own (though of course one that acknowledges the gospel) we should perhaps be especially glad and hopeful, for it is good to be reminded that God is at work in many different places and through many different people. 

The revival at Asbury has already come to an end. What began as a brief and simple chapel service turned into a weeks-long worship event that drew tens of thousands of participants and elicited tens of millions of opinions. Only now have I gathered my thoughts and bundled them into this “cold take.” I trust you won’t mind that I’ve chosen to share it as a series of short thoughts rather than a single essay.

Some things may be wrong or misguided, but not particularly dangerous. A small revival (or purported revival if you prefer) at a small college far away does not necessarily demand a great deal of scrutiny by those who have no connection to it. While it is good to have “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14) there is usually little need to put the effort into what does not intersect your life and what is unlikely to cause anyone any great harm. Those biblical calls to discernment ought to be considered alongside the exhortations about meddling in affairs that are not your own.

Revival is not a clear biblical category like, for example, deacon or baptize. It’s not a word we find in the New Testament, and it does not tell us to try to generate revivals or be on watch for them. It doesn’t even instruct us to pray for them, though that may be a very good thing to do. It’s clear that God sometimes chooses to work in ways that we choose to label revival, but God’s greatest and most consistent work is through the ordinary means of grace within the local church. Because the Bible does not define revival, it may be difficult to know exactly what one is and exactly when one is happening. It may describe a range of circumstances and experiences.

The New Dictionary of Theology offers a helpful definition of revival: “God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives. It is essentially a corporate occurrence, an enlivening of individuals not in isolation but together.” If this is an appropriate definition, then examples abound in Scripture and church history. And if this is an appropriate definition it does not set the bar all that high—where we see God quickening a number of people all at once, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace, there we may have a revival. A revival does not need to sweep over the globe or impact millions to be genuine.

When revival breaks out, we need to guard against treating it as something that has an almost mystical or mythical quality to it. God’s plan for the world is centered around the church, so we should be careful not to inadvertently disparage his “Plan A” which is—and always will be—the church. Of course we should also hesitate to treat revival as if it is nothing or to speak ill of what God may be using for his glory.

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