When I was entering high school, I was invited to come with a select number of fellow youth group members to go to Pensacola, Florida to experience the Brownsville revival. At that point, it was into its second year, had gained national attention by church folk and non- alike, and some, including one globally-prominent minister claimed that it was the beginning of the final outpouring before the rapture.
Indeed, the revival drew a global audience. These were the years before the critical mass of satellite television and the interwebs, so the hubbub was largely church to church, and the response for that time was impressive. Considering the historical revivals, the Great Awakenings, Cane Ridge, Wales, Azusa Street, it’s a marvelous thing that with such limited communication they drew such attention. Of course, these events are sensational, not unlike riots or protests, and sensational events garner the attention of the public and media.
I would deny neither the sincerity of the seekers, nor the fact that they have encountered something spiritual. In the same breath, though, sincerity does not make something legitimate, nor does the spiritual encounter justify the end or means. Revival is not only overrated, but dangerous.
The information age has done a service in view of revival: We can explore from afar what is happening, and investigate to see exactly what is going on. The Lakeland revival generated buzz not too long ago, but then we saw exactly who Todd Bentley was and could then disregard it. Benny Hinn’s popularity took a nosedive after the folks at the Trinity Foundation exposed the varied shenanigans in and around the company. The veneer of revival isn’t necessarily that perfect, either: while I was at Brownsville, they were knocking down houses next door during the evening services. The already burgeoning church campus there had undercut their neighbors to make room for more sanctuary. I found this odd. Shortly after I returned from Florida that summer, I had found out that Brownsville had refused a request to be audited, and that members of the pastoral staff were building beachside villas.
All that, and Pensacola remained a really crusty, dirty place. The revival, aside from the chatter of Evangelicals, didn’t really seem to do much to the plethora of strip clubs down the street. And Pensacola remains a popular destination for the “Cops” crew.
All that said, it would be a strawman to kick revivals in the balls because there was some shady activity behind the scenes (or, sometimes, in the scenes themselves.) My beef with those who tend to lead revivals is separate from my problems with revival itself.
First, revival implies that the subject is dead or anemic. Neither, in any instance, is the case. When Evangelicals refer to “dead churches” it would be improper to say that a church has ceased to be animate. And, in the cases where such a pejorative term is used, it is highly inappropriate. No one holds the corner on theological truth. A more apropos term would be a sedentary church, a church inactive in the community or the world, motivated only by self-interest. Ironically, we have many churches that are sedentary, including charismatic churches that would prefer to be defined by their revivals!
Excitement is a poor trade-off for spiritual health. Consider revival to be a new year’s resolution: many say that they will lose weight. They will buy health club memberships, equipment, clothes, workout videos, and few will find that they keep on keepin’ on past January 15. Even fewer make it to February. The entire health club industry is predicated on the notion that people will sign up for contracts and never keep their end of the commitment other than monthly dues. The corollary for churches is disturbingly close to parallel.
Second to consider is the law of diminishing returns: for one to return to an established level of fervor or excitement, it takes a little more to get there. If God wanted his people to live in a revival state, wouldn’t the path be more consistent (not to be confused with easier) than it has historically been? Furthermore, what if Christians were in a constant revival mode? Would there not then be a claim for a higher yet level of excitement and zeal? Would revival then be the new status quo against which sympathetic believers would rebel?
Consider also the self-congratulating nature of revival: if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery–and this was especially true with Pensacola, where they actually encouraged people to mimic what was happening in the Florida panhandle back home–then what we have is not a people re-centered on being Christ’s ambassadors to the world, but a people who want to live in the thrill of what they experienced somewhere else, irrespective of whatever it is the Spirit may be speaking to a particular community of faith regarding the community surrounding them. This is the most troubling aspect to me, this revivolatry. The symptoms of revival have been observed in other cultures in other religious practices unfamiliar with charismatic Christianity. This does not delegitimize the charismata, but rather offers credence for it, though with a caveat: the manifestations are not spiritual, but human responses to the spiritual other. Revival’s tendency toward self-indulgence is self-indicting.
Finally, fire requires fuel. What was amazing about Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus was that the bush was on fire, yet completely intact. Nearly everyone who went to Brownsville burned out, most of them are no longer believers. Excitement fades. Honeymoons end. The soreness of exercise turns people away from exercise. Revivals create people who desire burnout, in order that they may try to get the feeling back. When we seek revival, we seek the absolute wrong thing. When we seek God for revival, I imagine God is mildly offended by such backhanded prayers.
The problem with revivals is that they provide no real commitment. It is lust rather than love, catering to our senses rather than our inner being; not even an affair, but a one night stand or a booty call.
The other problem with revival is that it stands in direct contradistinction to the covenental command of God: to walk humbly, to love justice and to be obedient to God’s leading. (Deuteronomy 10, rephrased in Micah 6, renewed tacitly in the teaching of Jesus to love God and others.) God calls us not to be undignified like David, a reference many revival-seekers improperly hide behind to justify their actions, but to welcome the sojourner and hold others in higher regard than ourselves, which would presumably preclude flopping around on the floor, making animal sounds under the power of “the spirit”, or holding meetings that regular people generally hold with distaste and disregard.
Consistency may be blase to our senses, but it is what God demands of his people. There may not be anything less congruent with his demands than what charismatics consider the high watermark of spiritual experience.
In our sincere desire to worship, could it be that we make for ourselves an abomination?