The best-known evangelical interpreter of revivals, Jonathan Edwards, taught that no one can judge a revival secondhand. Edwards lived prior to telecommunication, but I think he would have said that the spiritual reality of a revival is not available remotely, however technologically sophisticated the transmission might be. The image of the thing is not the thing itself.

So five years after I went to Asbury University to lecture on American religious revivals, I went to see one.

Many believers can recall an exceptional moment in the life of their congregation—perhaps during an unusual sermon, the sort that many preachers offer only once, or a time of great blessing or affliction affecting everyone. On such occasions an entire congregation is united in its clarity and focus on God, and it becomes “one-hearted” or homothumadon, to use the Greek term from Acts of the Apostles.

Remarkably, this congregational feeling—expressed in song and worship, reinforced by short Scripture readings and brief testimonies—is now happening not only at Asbury but also at college chapels across the country. Students and visitors come and go, but the newly gathered experience a sense of “one-heartedness.”

The English word revival denotes a period of time in which a Christian community undergoes revitalization. It has been defined as “a period of religious awakening: renewed interest in religion,” with “meetings often characterized by emotional excitement.”

To call a gathering a revival suggests that an intensification of experience has occurred. A gathered multitude does not constitute a revival. What distinguishes a revival is a deepening of spiritual feeling and expression.

Revivals are corporate, experiential events. There is often a spiritual contagion, causing one person’s experiences to cascade onto others. The term renewal is not as well defined as revival, yet it suggests a return of zeal or vitality to a group of Christian believers who have declined in their devotion.

Since the mid-1700s, reports of Christian revivals from differing regions and cultural groups have shown common themes. Participants speak of their vivid sense of spiritual things, great joy and faith, deep sorrow over sin, passionate desire to evangelize others, and heightened feelings of love for God and fellow humanity.

In times of revival, people may crowd into available buildings for worship services, filling them beyond capacity. Services may last from morning until midnight. News of a revival usually travels rapidly, and sometimes the reports—in person, print, or broadcast media—touch off new revivals elsewhere.

Article continues below

Sometimes people openly confess their sins in public. Another mark of revivals is generosity—individuals willing to donate their time, money, or resources to support the work. Revivals are often controversial, with opponents and proponents criticizing one another. Anti-revivalism arises in the wake of revivals.

There may be unusual bodily manifestations, such as falling down, rolling on the ground, experiencing involuntary muscle movements, laughing, shouting, and spiritual dancing. Another feature may be so-called signs and wonders, such as the healing of the sick, prophecies given, visions or dreams revealing secret knowledge, deliverance from the power of Satan, and speaking in tongues.

Past revivals established new forms of community as well as practical, activist expressions of faith. Revivals refashioned social and ecclesial structures by transferring power from the center to the periphery. People not previously given a voice or a chance to lead have been thrust into the limelight. Women, people of color, the young, and the less educated have all played major roles in modern Christian revivals.

Revivals provoked debates—over genuine versus counterfeit spirituality, the activity and effects of the demonic, the peril of religious fanaticism, the ministry of laypersons, the role of women in the church, the need for new associations among the faithful, and calls for social reform and social justice.

Over the last century, the global church has mushroomed through religious revivals or, as author Mark Shaw calls them, “charismatic people movements.” Such movements stir up vision for the future and what Shaw calls “optimistic fatalism,” that is, a confidence that no problem—personal, familial, or political—is too big or too difficult to resolve.

The common question posed by observers—Is this really a revival?—may not be the best one to ask, since it implies that there is a single yardstick against which every new spiritual movement must be gauged. (Some at Asbury prefer outpouring to revival, thus avoiding any limiting associations of the latter term.)

Because the Spirit is God, the Spirit is infinite—and this means there are infinite ways in which the Spirit may find human expression. Winkie Pratney compared revival to romance. Just as someone who has been in love before may find that being in love with a new person is a new experience, so too the romance of the Spirit will never be exactly the same on any two occasions.

Article continues below

The revivals emerging between 1900 and 1909 in Wales, India, the United States, Korea, Chile, and elsewhere were linked yet showed local variation. People in Wales sang hymns, and many were converted. Those in Los Angeles spoke in tongues. Schoolgirls in India publicly repented of their sins, as did many in the Korean revival. Worshipers in Chile had visions of heaven.

Who can say why one manifestation of the Spirit prevailed in this locality but not that? Scripture says: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. … To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4, 7, ESV).

A better question to ask than “Is this revival?” might be “Is this the Spirit?” A recognition of the Spirit’s diverse work should deter us from spiritual snap judgments and from reliance on our own experience as the measure for evaluating everyone else’s.

Spiritual discernment, as Jesus taught, requires us to distinguish “by their fruit” (Matt. 7:20) the genuine from the counterfeit. In his treatise Religious Affections, Edwards made “holy practice” his foremost sign of true spirituality. The problem is that “holy practice” becomes evident only over time, while our trigger-finger Twitterverse passes judgment within seconds. We must engage in patient, prayerful reflection and refrain from snap judgments if we are rightly and biblically to discern.

Four possible lessons from Asbury

Asbury is a revival that’s hard not to like. While there, I saw nothing extreme, outlandish, or cantankerous. People waiting in line for hours were unfailingly polite. Inside the sanctuary, I saw none of the attention-getting behaviors that have often attended revivals of the past and have engendered controversy.

As we sang favorite worship songs such as “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “Revelation Song,” “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord),” and “No Longer Slaves,” I was reminded of stories from the Welsh Revival of 1904–05, featuring hours-long services of congregational singing, without any conspicuous human leaders, and without much preaching—yet with 100,000 converted.

A Chilean woman, speaking through an interpreter, said that the news from Asbury had electrified Latin America. The leaders told us to stand and stretch out our hands toward the south to pray for revival in Latin America. I was reminded of the request sent in 1905 from believers in Los Angeles to Evan Roberts—leader in the Welsh Revival—that he and others might pray for revival in California. He wrote back, assuring them of his prayers. Pentecostals regard the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, at least in part, as an answer to those petitions to God offered up more than 5,000 miles away.

Article continues below

The Asbury leaders confess that they don’t know where things are heading next, but the spiritual DNA of the recent revival points to a few preliminary takeaways:

1. Rejecting the cult and culture of celebrity revivalists

As media evolved over the last century, so too did the celebrity revivalists. Such persons were reputed to be so anointed and Spirit-endowed that their words or physical presence would alter the spiritual atmosphere and usher multitudes into soul-transforming God encounters.

Yet, all too often, the celebrity revivalists failed to live up to their billing. Others showed early promise but later fell into sexual or financial compromise that put an end to their ministries.

But what if there were a spiritual awakening without celebrities? The prince of darkness might become perplexed. How can he undermine a revival in which the leaders eschew the limelight and serve humbly and anonymously for the common good of all? Without a standout leader to corrupt through pride, greed, or lust, how can he scandalize the public?

From the stage at Asbury, leaders spoke out to say, “There are no celebrities in this. The only celebrity is Jesus” and to urge the church to “wake up to the fact that an emerging generation hungers desperately for the supernatural and rebels against any form of religious entertainment.”

2. Rethinking the relationship between spiritual life and digital media

Descriptions of Asbury are likely to sound prosaic: People gather, they sing, they read Scripture, they tell of God’s work in their lives. Isn’t this what happens in countless churches every week? The elusive quality of the Asbury experience will make sense only to someone who has been personally present.

This intangible element—the je ne sais quoi of divine presence and congregational feeling—cannot be transmitted electronically, even if those leading this movement desired to do so.

Article continues below

Asbury is thus a coup for embodied spirituality and against disembodied mediatization. Don’t think that YouTube, Facebook, or TikTok will give you the same experience.

This message may not go over well with everyone. It conflicts with the widespread notion that everything humanly important is electronically transmissible. Asbury is saying, It’s not, and don’t try.

3. Reconciling Calvinist and Wesleyan-Arminian approaches to revival

From the early 1800s onward, Calvinists perceived the specter of Pelagian heresy in the revivalistic focus on human personalities and emotional techniques. Applied to Christian revival, the Pelagian attitude is that “if we ought to have a revival, then we can.” This premise leads to a focus on technique and the methods to make revival happen.

In contrast to revivals “worked up” by human effort, energy, and manipulation, New Light Calvinists conceived of revivals as “sent down” by God’s sudden and unexpected grace. According to a common analogy, a farmer might plow the soil but had to wait for heavenly showers to water the crops.

For Calvinists, the techniques supposedly guaranteed to effect revival were not only mistaken but also akin to blasphemy, since they suggested that something supernatural—God’s holy presence—could be humanly manipulated. Conversely, Methodists and other Arminians often saw the Calvinists’ argumentation as a cloak for complacency or fatalism.

Yet the contrast between Calvinist “revivals” and non-Calvinist “revivalism” is exaggerated. Arminians, who supposedly “worked up” their revivals by human effort, did a great deal of seeking, praying, and waiting on God. Calvinists, who supposedly did nothing but seek, pray, and wait for the “sent-down” revival, labored to kindle into flame the little flashes of grace that appeared among them.

Nothing about Asbury corresponds to the familiar critique of human-centered revivalism. Despite its happening on a Methodist campus, the Asbury revival displays the marks of spontaneity and fidelity to Scripture that Calvinists say are prerequisite to recognizing a “move of God.” (As a Calvinist, I hope that my fellow Calvinists will not oppose it. At the least, I hope that they accept Edwards’s advice by visiting it before passing judgment on it.)

Article continues below
4. Bridging Pentecostal-type revivals and anti-Pentecostal critics

Some evangelicals define revival as “an extraordinary blessing of the ordinary means of grace.” That’s Asbury. The “ordinary means,” such as congregational singing, Scripture reading, and prayer, are reaping “extraordinary blessings” during this season of grace. The Methodist revival tradition might become a balm to help heal the disastrous Pentecostal versus anti-Pentecostal rift.

Methodism sits in a mediating position, situated almost halfway between the furthest fringes of the independent charismatics and the unrelenting anti-revivalism of some confessional Protestants. John Wesley was open to unusual spiritual experiences yet intolerant of disruptive spirituality, strange doctrines, and recalcitrant evangelists who refused fraternal correction.

This Wesleyan attitude of openness with caution may allow for the Asbury revival to bridge a chasm among Christians on revivals. Asbury could encourage Pentecostals and anti-Pentecostals to meet in the Methodist middle and to open their hearts and minds to one another.

As a charismatic, I see a special lesson for my fellow Pentecostals and charismatics. Some parts of the Spirit-filled movement today have drifted from such basics as the Bible, the salvation of the lost, repentance, obedience, and the cross of Christ in favor of throne-room visions, angelic encounters, and end-time speculations. This needs correction, and Asbury suggests how to do this, without turning anti-Pentecostal.

Today it is no longer just the anti-Pentecostals who are limiting the Spirit. When charismatics treat spectacular experiences, or the 1 Corinthians 12 list of charismatic gifts, as the only supernatural phenomena, then this omits a great deal. Scripture teaches that the Spirit is the Convicter, the Converter, the Comforter, the Sanctifier, and the Spirit of Truth, just as he is the Healer and the Gift Giver.

Asbury is a reminder that salvation is supernatural. God’s Word is supernatural. Conviction of sins is supernatural. Compassion for the suffering and the lost is supernatural. We need a broad bandwidth and full-spectrum picture of the Spirit’s works.

A new paradigm for the future

An intriguing author on revival is the social scientist Anthony Wallace. In Mark Shaw’s presentation of Wallace’s theory, “revitalization movements” come in three phases—a problem, paradigm, and power stage.

In the problem stage, people feel that their maps of reality no longer work. The old roads have led to dead ends. In the paradigm stage, a leader or group of leaders emerge who are neither reactionary (clinging to the past) nor radical (rejecting the past). In the power phase, the new paradigm becomes a mass movement.

Article continues below

If we apply these insights to the present situation in the global church, then one might argue the following:

The church needs renewal and reform, yet we are stuck in the problem stage. The old roads have led to dead ends, including the seemingly irresolvable divisions—Calvinist versus Arminian, Pentecostal versus anti-Pentecostal—that sap time, attention, and energy away from a focus on God and the call to evangelism and disciple making. One sign of being in the problem stage is that arguments over revivals have become stale and predictable.

The Asbury revival might represent the paradigm stage. A new paradigm, as Wallace described, will not be wholly new but be a reworking of earlier patterns. In line with this theory, the Asbury approach is neither reactionary nor radical.

The paradigm stage involves leaders rediscovering the New Testament and the roots of their own ideas and practices. Like a tree, the emerging paradigm needs to sink its roots down deep before it can begin to spread its branches.

Challenges to a new movement will come especially in the shift from the paradigm stage to the power stage, when a movement begins to challenge the status quo. Opposition in the power stage will come both from conservatives and from radicals.

If the new paradigm for spiritual revitalization can remain steadfastly centrist—and avoid being captured either by conservatives or by radicals—then there is hope that the new paradigm will become a dominant paradigm, and then widespread and systemic revitalization and reformation in the church may become possible.

Revival advice

As we wait to see what new paradigms may come, let me close with some revival advice, from someone who spent years reading and writing about Christian revivals and who has had opportunity to observe what is happening at Asbury.

If you are a believer and hear reports of renewed experiences of God’s love among God’s people, as well as a deepened desire among them for prayer and worship, then rejoice. Our default reaction—before anything else—should be joy.

Be wary of people who present themselves as experts on the Holy Spirit (even people like me, who write articles like this). No one has the Spirit figured out. Each of us is a learner.

Article continues below

Allow God to guide you and give you discernment, in reliance on Scripture and in conversation with a pastor and other spiritual friends. The Lord desires for you to “discern what is best” (Phil. 1:10). He will not fail you. Recognize that spiritual events, unlike physical, are not accessible to the five senses. Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned—which means discerned through their effects gradually disclosing themselves over time.

Pray for the leaders and participants in revivals and for revival in your own heart. Join together with other believers to pray fervently for revival in your own community. Make common cause with like-minded people from other races, ethnicities, social groups, or denominations. Greater unity with them may be a part of God’s plan.

Following the Asbury model, bring together younger Christians with more experienced leaders. The fire of youth and the wisdom of age are a potent blend.

Michael McClymond is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University. He was the sole editor of the Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, 2 vols., and coauthor (with Gerald McDermott) of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. His latest book is Martyrs, Monks, and Mystics: An Introduction to Christian Spirituality (Paulist Press, fall 2023).

[ This article is also available in español Français, and Indonesian. ]