Earlier this month, students at Asbury College in Kentucky arrived for their morning chapel service—but they didn't leave. In fact, it was days before everyone left the building. In the meantime, the chapel was filled with singing, prayer, and worship. One participant said, "Those days and nights in Hughes [Memorial Auditorium] provided a catalyst for renewal, for freedom, for seeking the heart of God."

Christian colleges provide the tight-knit community that many revivals require, says Timothy Larsen, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. Larsen is most recently the co-editor ofReading Romans Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barthand author ofContested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology. CT online associate editor Rob Moll spoke with Larsen aboutrevival and what brings it about.

How do revivals get started?

First, I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit and that revival is the work of the Holy Spirit. So nothing I say is in opposition to that. I am a charismatic myself, and I allow a large space for God intervening in dramatic ways. But, thinking about it as a historian, a hidden determinant is that for revival to happen, you have to have a sufficient cross-pollination within the community. It has to be a community where people are in one another's lives very thoroughly. If you look at the history of revival, they happen in pretty homogeneous communities. And if you look at the history of revival in Britain, which I know best, they tend to push out to the periphery. You have the great Welsh revival, around 1906, because Wales is still the kind of place where neighbors know one another.

For revival to have that kind of dynamic, it has involve people talking to one another, and they have to be bumping up against each other in a way that you can affect the whole community. That is harder to do now on a town level or a city level in most of the modern world. People run along networks; they don't run across a neighborhood.

A college campus gives you a community where people know each other and are interacting with one another thoroughly. It still has a small-town feel to it. It's possible to create that dynamic on a college campus in a way that is more difficult to create in a major city.

How does the Azusa Street revival fit into that, because that revival was cross-cultural and in a major city?

We can see Azusa as the first network revival as opposed to a city revival. Azusa is extraordinarily effective, but it is effective along lines of networks. So people are literally affected by Azusa Street in India and Norway before other neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

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It goes straight down certain Christian networks, and it spreads rapidly through those networks. You have ministers coming to Azusa Street and going back, transforming whole denominations. You have missionaries coming in and transforming the settings of their work. You have people reading the newspaper and starting a revival prayer meeting with their contacts halfway around the world and finding a similar event happening with them. So Azusa is very dramatic and effective as a revival, but is not a Los Angeles revival. It is a kind of fire spreading along trenches that have already been dug.

Were you at Wheaton during the revival in 1995?

No.

At Wheaton today, do you see any lingering effects from that revival?

I think things are still different because of the revival. It is kind of the chicken and egg question there. I see our students as very spiritually earnest and dedicated. I think that is both a fruit of the revival, but also a kind of building of consciousness that made the revival possible.

I think that consciousness is still here. I was a student in the '80s. I think students at that time were much more likely to be distinguishing themselves from their parents by being cynical about evangelicalism. Today, I sense students are hungry to express their faith in a full way. I would not be at all surprised for that to manifest itself in a revival atmosphere at any time at Wheaton.

The revival that happened in the '90s, I did follow that and correspond with some of the people that were involved in it. That was a holiness revival as far as I can tell. There was a deep sense of dealing with personal sin. That is a reflection of students who are serious about their faith and want it to effect the whole of their lives. I see that being the kind of students we have now.

As far as Christian higher education goes, is revival something that happens frequently?

I wouldn't know how to measure that, but it wouldn't surprise me at all. Growing up, I went to a small Christian school, and we had revivals there. For me it was a dynamic where you could effect one another quickly.

It wouldn't be easy to have a classic revival in a heavily commuter school, and it would be quite easy to have one at a residential school. That creates a context where people don't go back to their homes, where it would dissipate into a personal experience. They go to the dorms and tell their roommates, and on we go.

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We think of revivals as being something spontaneous, but on the other hand, there is often a lot of preparation that comes previous to a revival. To what extent is revival caused by human actions versus the Holy Spirit?

There is a sense in which people are conditioned to respond in certain ways. They understand the response that is wanted and duly respond in ways that are socially appropriate. That is true in all religious contexts.

Every Christian tradition has classic touches of the supernatural that happen within them. That becomes a narrative of what's possible. Eastern Orthodox people tend to glow. Roman Catholics get the stigmata. And charismatics, we tend to fall down for no apparent reason. Cessationist evangelicals tend to give a lot of money. This becomes, in the imagination of people, how God works. These become in some ways self-fulfilling.

You can certainly create that kind of atmosphere, but I wouldn't want to be overly cynical on that, because people are pretty clever as well. I can set up all the right conditions and nothing can happen. It creates a kind of diminishing return. People have to have that flame in their hearts. They're excited, and that's why it's working. It doesn't work because some administrator thinks it's a good idea. You can raise expectancy, but that expectancy in the end has to be tapped into something real in people's lives.



Related Elsewhere:

More about Asbury's revival is available from the college's website.

Charisma's J. Lee Grady commented on the revival and compared it to an earlier revival at Asbury in 1970.

The Wheaton College archives include a history of revivals at the institution during the 20th century.