I count three experiences that had the biggest impact on my understanding of revival and spiritual growth.
The first one was a revival (or maybe a series of revivals) that came through my church and school when I was in high school and into college. If you’re familiar with the Toronto Blessing, there was a connection to that. But it was a tradition of revival that can be traced back at least as far as the Azusa Street and Welsh revivals at the beginning of the 20th century: The Holy Spirit moves on a people, and people respond with extra church services and prayer meetings. These meetings are characterized by profound spiritual experiences and a huge emotional impact. These experiences result in changed lives. People pray for this kind of revival. We acknowledge the value of quiet seasons in our spiritual lives. But the ideal state for the church is revival, and if it’s been too long since the last revival, that’s a sign that something may be seriously wrong – which again is a cause for prayer for revival.
Under this mindset, the most unaccountable thing is when people in the leadership decide to stop the meetings, curtail emotional outbursts, and turn people’s attention back to daily life. Every time that happened, we were perplexed, and sought answers why anybody would ever want to do that. Is the pastor afraid of people who don’t want the revival? Doesn’t he understand God’s work?
Just as often, we took the revival underground. Nobody can stop private prayer meetings, can they? So my friends and I – high school students – held meetings in each others homes, where we prayed for revival and prayed for each other. We crashed youth group prayer meetings of other churches. And eventually, our church would have another set of extra meetings.
When I went to college, I took the revival with me. My roommate and I hosted meetings around the Prayer Tower at ORU. We prophesied over each other. We expected our little revival to overwhelm the chapel schedule and even take precidence over classes. And to a certain extent, it did. Meetings, ours and others’, grew and multiplied. Meetings of 50-100 students around the prayer tower were common. Worship services broke out in the dining hall.
And then it waned. People went back to classes, went apostate as they gave priority to study over prayer. Mandatory chapel services were not allowed to lapse into a free-for-all. And we, the local revivalists, were scandalized. Why would anybody ever want to do that? Don’t they understand God’s work?
I have to confess that there was a personal advantage to these revivalistic meetings: they made me normal, maybe even cool. It would take a long pile of introspection to analyse why that was, but it should suffice to say that, the more revivals there are, the more friends I have, and the more impressive I appear. So not only did my worldview push me toward these kinds of meetings, so did the part of me that likes to be flattered.
The second experience came right on the heels of the first: I dropped out of school and moved across the country to go to a school at a church where the revival never stops. Okay, there were other factors involved. But for the purposes of this essay, I went there, and one of the deciding factors was to learn about ministry at a place where they do it right, with “right” being defined as “the revival never stops.” A place where the leadership doesn’t get distracted from what really matters.
There was a lot of other stuff going on in my life, but eventually one thing started to really stand out was that the revival didn’t accomplish anything. We had the music and the meetings and the powerful spiritual experiences. We had conferences and guest speakers. We had numerical church growth. But we didn’t have much in the way of conversions, or discernable spiritual growth. We had kids who became teenagers and then adults, but life was life. Even with all the meetings, everything was fundamentally the same.
Around my second year at MorningStar School of Ministry, I overheard a conversation. A lady was telling her friend that she had dropped out of the school because she was seeing negative spiritual development in her life. The implication was that, somehow, pursuing the things of the Spirit in this way had caused her to decline spiritually. I was scandalized. And I think I was scandalized because I could see similar effects in my own life.
Another conversation that stands out to me was a phone call I made to my old roommate back at ORU. He was still eagerly expecting the coming revival that was going to sweep through the town. They had had many false starts, but it was coming soon. My gut reaction was: so what? What will you do then? Because my church is pretty much vived, and it doesn’t seem to make any difference. It was exciting, but so is Six Flags. Some people, however, have to live there, and it doesn’t mean so much for them.
There were other things at that church that weren’t working out for me, indirectly related to revivalism as well. Many, many assumptions I had about who God is and how he works were either undermined there, or obstructed, until ultimately I fell flat. All I had left was “Jesus died on the cross for my sins” and “the Bible is true.” It was a long process putting everything back together again. Probably that was a good thing, but the experience itself was awful. I couldn’t hardly walk straight for fear that I was inconsistent with my own philosophy. Give me fear, famine, plague, and sword; take away every comfort from me; but Father, please don’t ever leave me without a cohesive worldview again.
The last experience comes much later in my life. I’d been married, had a child, gone to grad school, dropped out, been unemployed, and we were living with my in-laws. And this church we joined ! It was nothing. It was everything. In all respects, it was a normal contemporary church, slightly on the larger side. There were nice people. We made friends with them.
The best way I can put it is this: I have a short list o things I’m actually good at. Church is one of them. I can sing, and I can talk. I’m “inclined to teach,” as the scriptures say. I’m used to jumping into a church feet first. They’re always short on leaders, and I usually have something I can contribute. It wasn’t that way at Cornerstone Church of Knoxville. Within a few weeks, I knew that my place would be to sit down and keep silent. There were new converts at that church with more spiritual maturity than me. I wasn’t qualified to be an assistant home group leader. I may not be yet. Over the year and a half that I was there before joining the Army, and through my wife’s experience, longer still. I saw significant spiritual growth all around me, and an impressive array of simple maturity.
I would say that I’ve never seen anything like it, but that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen hints at this church and that, but without being a member it would be hard to say. But at this church, I was a member.
I was the slightest in the House—
I took the smallest Room—
At night, my little Lamp, and Book—
And one Geranium—
So stationed I could catch the Mint
That never ceased to fall—
And just my Basket—
Let me think—I’m sure—
That this was all—
I sat and watched, and caught the mint, and it was very subtle, but this is what I think made the difference: expositional preaching. Every Sunday, a pastor would preach a sermon from a preselected text, methodically working our way thorugh the entirety of a larger passage. Every Sunday, that pastor preached the gospel. I don’t mean that he found a way to slip in the fact that Jesus died for our sins, nor do I mean that he managed to end every sermon with a rousing appeal for conversion, though those elements were present here and there. I mean that the gospel was intrensic to the topic of the text. Somehow, every Sunday, the pastor made it plain what this psalm, or that paragraph in I Corinthians had to do with Jesus. Every Sunday it became a little clearer that everything, everything, everything was summed up in Jesus: hardship and happiness, education and healing, roles of men and women, providing for your family – everything. Every passage in scripture, either tacit or explicit, is talking about Jesus. He is the one through whom the world was made, and he is the one in whom all things will be compiled, so how could it be otherwise?
And by this thorough, detailed, explication of this gospel, like running a powerful microscope over every cell in the body, we grew. I saw my wife mature, endure hardship, and change the focus of her life, in accordance with the gospel. I saw it in my friends. I trust they saw similar growth in me.
Everything I had been hoping for in the powerful experiences of revivalism were being accrued quietly through by means of the regular expositional preaching of the gospel.
Now, I want to keep my charismatic credentials clear: I still believe in the Holy Spirit. I still believe He does things from time to time that are… less that subtle. Miracles, prophecy, all of that. But still more powerful is the regular preaching of God’s word. People have to be carefully, carefully taught. And things that you think are too obvious to mention are the things that must be eplicitly stated, or they will be abandoned shortly. Most importantly, we cannot hope to skip steps. The window into the spiritual world, against the expectations of so many, is usually through the mind. We must take down every vain imagination, one at a time.