Patterns of Spiritual Renewal
Spiritual awakenings, whether in biblical or Church history, manifest patterns that are similar, often strikingly so. While all of the following elements may not be present in each instance, for the most part awakenings progress through a cycle whose phases include these various aspects of God’s working.
1) Awakenings are usually preceded by a time of spiritual depression, apathy and gross sin, in which a majority of nominal Christians are hardly different from the members of secular society, and the churches seem to be asleep.
The causes of each decline differ widely, but when the prophetic voice and moral leadership of the Church has been stilled for some time, social evils are usually rampant. Eighteenth-century England is an excellent example. Alcoholism was at an all-time high, capital punishment was used routinely for trivial crimes, slavery was practiced throughout the British Empire, the churches were out of touch. The Evangelical Awakening led by John Wesley and George Whitefield aroused the English conscience and by direct political pressure and action, cured these and many other ills.
2) An individual or small group of God’s people becomes conscious of their sins and backslidden condition, and vows to forsake all that is displeasing to God.
Christians recall past outpourings of God’s grace and power, and long to see them again. When histories of awakenings have been written in later years, it has been occasionally discovered thatindividuals at great distances and completely unknown to each other had, prior to the awakening, been praying simultaneously to the same end!
3) As some Christians begin to yearn for a manifestation of God’s power, a leader or leaders arise with prophetic insights into the causes and remedies of the problems, and a new awareness of the holy and pure character of the Lord is present.
This standard of holiness exposes the degeneracy of the age and stimulates a striving after holiness by God’s people. The leaders find that their eagerness for God’s moving is shared by many who have been waiting for God to act, and who will rise to follow.
4) The awakening of Christians occurs: many understand and take part in a higher spiritual life.
The evangelism of the unsaved may or may not accompany this renewal of Christians. (In the great revival of the Reformation, the bringing of salvation to those outside the Church was not a primary issue, whereas the spreading of scriptural doctrine was.) This is a good reason whyit is wrong to make the term “revivalism” synonymous with “evangelism.” Revival and mass evangelism are NOT the same thing.
Certainly in all genuine movements of God’s Spirit, people are converted. But if a society has been bathed in the teachings of the gospel for a long period, evangelism may not be the central thrust. This was the case in the Welsh revival of 1905.
In examining the example of Pentecost in Acts 2, we see that the awakening of Christ’s redeemed people and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit at the “birthday” of the Church (2:1–4)was followed by evangelism of the unsaved (2:5–12, 37–41). This illustrates the two aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in the awakening of the Church, but keeps them separate. We could say that an awakening is a widespread renewal that includes the simultaneous conversion of many people to Christ.
5) An awakening may be God’s means of preparing and strengthening His people for future challenges or trials.
Throughout history, renewal has often come before persecutions and severe trials that God sent to test and teach His people.
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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