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‘No Celebrities Except Jesus’: How Asbury Protected the Revival

While tens of thousands flocked to campus, school officials met in a storage closet to make decisions that would “honor what is happening.”
‘No Celebrities Except Jesus’: How Asbury Protected the Revival
Image: Asbury University

The shofars didn’t start until Saturday. With them came the would-be prophets seeking to take center stage at the Asbury University chapel where students had been praying and praising God since Wednesday morning; the would-be leaders who wanted to claim the revival for their ministries, their agendas, and celebrity; and the would-be disrupters, coming to break up whatever was happening at the small Christian school in Kentucky with heckling, harangues, and worse.

But by Saturday, Asbury University was ready.

The school had not planned an outpouring of the Spirit. But when something started to happen in the middle of the first week of February—the middle of the semester, a few days before the Super Bowl—an impromptu mix of administrators, staff, faculty, friends, and university neighbors quickly mobilized. They gathered in a storage closet off the side of Hughes Auditorium and then repurposed a classroom to facilitate and support whatever it was that God was doing.

As word spread, the crowds came, and debates raged online about whether this was a “real” revival, these men and women worked untold hours to make sure that everyone who sought God had food and water and restrooms and everyone was safe. Part of the story behind the story of the revival is the almost invisible work that went into protecting it.

“There were 100 people volunteering at any one time, just to make these services work on the fly,” Asbury University president Kevin Brown told CT. “There was a classroom that got redeployed into almost a command center. If you walked in, there were flow charts on the wall and the whiteboards were covered with information. There was a volunteer check-in station. … It was one of the most impressive technical feats I’ve ever seen.”

The revival began at a chapel service on February 8. Zach Meerkreebs, the assistant soccer coach who is also the leadership development coordinator for the missions organization Envision, preached about becoming love in action. His text was Romans 12.

As he started, Meerkreebs told the students, who are required to attend three chapels per week, that he wasn’t aiming to entertain them. And he didn’t want them to focus on him.

“I hope you guys forget me but anything from the Holy Spirit and God’s Word would find fertile ground in your hearts and produce fruit,” he said. “Romans 12. That’s the star, okay? God’s Word and Jesus and the Holy Spirit moving in our midst, that’s what we’re hoping for.”

Meerkreebs also talked to them about the experience of God’s love, in contrast to the “radically poor love” that’s narcissistic, abusive, manipulative, and selfish.

“Some of you guys have experienced that love in the church,” he said. “Maybe it’s not violent, maybe it’s not molestation, it’s not taken advantage of—but it feels like someone has pulled a fast one on you.”

No one came forward at the end of the service, though, and Meerkreeb was convinced he “totally whiffed.” He texted his wife: “Latest stinker. I’ll be home soon.”

A Black gospel trio sang a final song and chapel ended—but 18 or 19 students stayed. They sat in several clusters: a few along the right wall, a few in their seats, a few on the floor in the aisle, a few at the foot of the stage. They kept praying.

Zeke Atha, a junior, told a documentarian a few days later that he was one of the ones who remained in the chapel. He left after an hour to go to a class, but then when he got out, he heard singing.

“I said, ‘Okay, that’s weird,’” Atha said. “I went back up, and it was surreal. The peace that was in the room was unexplainable.”

He and a few friends immediately left, sprinting around campus, bursting into classrooms with an announcement: “Revival is happening.”

The Wesleyan-movement school has a tradition of revivals and a theology that teaches people to wait and watch for a divine wind to blow. The university is named for Francis Asbury, the early American Methodist bishop who encouraged and celebrated revivals from Maine to Georgia and Maryland to Tennessee.

There are also people in the Kentucky community who have long prayed for fresh revival at the school, including a Malaysian theology teacher who sometimes walked the streets with a cardboard sign that said, “Holy Spirit, You Are Welcome Here.”

Administrators, however, did not immediately assume a revival was starting, even as young men ran around campus shouting it was. Only as the spontaneous prayer service stretched into the afternoon and then evening did school officials realize they might have to make a decision about how to respond.

Meeting in a closet

An ad hoc revival committee of about seven people gathered in the one quiet space in Hughes—a storage closet. According to several people who were there, they pushed aside a drum kit and keyboard and sat knee to knee. Someone found a dry erase board, and they asked each other, “What are we going to do in the next two hours?”

Then they started thinking slightly longer term: “Will students stay all night? What does that look like? Should we leave the sound system on? Should we let students keep bringing guitars into chapel?”

The group decided to have ministers stay in Hughes and have security watch the building but keep it open. They would let the students stay and pray and sing as long as they wanted.

Other decisions they made in the next few days seem, as the ad hoc committee reflects on them now, almost like they happened by instinct. There was no time for drawn-out discussions. They would meet in the storage closet and make decisions minute by minute. Did they want to put up screens for the lyrics of the worship songs? No. Should ministers who spoke on stage stop to introduce themselves? No. Should they put up signs asking people not to livestream? Yes.

“We were just trying to keep up,” student life vice president Sarah Thomas Baldwin told CT. “There are people and they’re showing up and they’re desperate for God. We’re just trying to stay alive and trying to honor what is happening.”

By the second day, word had spread to the seminary, about a football field away, which shares a namesake and tradition but is a separate institution. People started to come from the town of Wilmore too and then the greater Lexington area.

Alexandra Presta, editor of the student newspaper, posted a report online.

“During a call of confession, at least a hundred people fell to their knees and bowed at the altar,” she wrote. “Hands rested on shoulders, linking individual people together to represent the Body of Christ truly. Cries of addiction, pride, fear, anger and bitterness sounded, each followed by a life-changing proclamation: ‘Christ forgives you.’”

Friends from other states started texting Presta, asking her what was happening and also why. She told them she didn’t know. But God still moves.

‘All the Chick-fil-A’

On Friday afternoon, groups of students started to show up from other parts of Kentucky, as well as Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, even Michigan. Some came from Christian schools. Some from campus ministries. Some just came.

By evening the crowd had grown to about 3,000, and the university had to set up overflow rooms. At the same time, an uncoordinated infrastructure of support began to appear. An Asbury student set up a table and started handing out tea and coffee. She said Jesus told her to. A woman in Indianapolis baked chocolate chip cookies for a full day and then drove down to give them away. A professor went and got cases of bottled water.

Pizza appeared, unbidden, along with homemade potato soup, cake, a table of protein bars, and what one volunteer called “all the Chick-fil-A.” Someone volunteered to start organizing housing and put up signs with QR codes that people could scan to start the process of finding a place to sleep.

School officials didn’t have time to weigh whether they thought the ongoing, unplanned worship service qualified as a revival. Even when it was over, some would be unsure if revival was the correct word. But they did have to decide right then how they were going to respond as people kept coming from further and further away.

“We began getting reports from people seeing stuff on social media about people who were coming, not just from our region, but pretty significant distances,” said Mark Whitworth, vice president of communications. “I don’t remember who it was, but somebody said, ‘Going viral is not necessarily an awakening,’ and we all agreed with that. But the focus was on practical things. Like, does the worship team need to rest, and do we have enough prayer support at the altar?”

Several ministers at organizations that focus on revival and organize prayer meetings, including David Thomas from the Awakening Project and J. D. Walt and Mark Benjamin from SeedBed, encouraged Asbury’s administration to prepare for what was coming.

The ad hoc committee gathered in the repurposed classroom on Friday to discuss what they were going to do. President Brown told the 15 or so people in there that he thought there was one big question.

“Something really historic and really unique is happening here,” he said. “This is going to outlive us. Well after we’re dead, people are going to be talking about this. Are we going to accommodate it?”

The group quickly came to a consensus that they hadn’t started the outpouring, hadn’t planned any of this, but they were nonetheless called in that moment to be hospitable. They would work to host it and hold it, all the while keeping in mind that they were not in control.

“There was a tension,” Brown told CT, “between ‘How do we maintain orderliness?’ and ‘How do we create space for this spiritual unfolding that we haven’t planned, we don’t know where it’s heading, but we know it’s good and bigger than us?’”

Shofars, exorcisms, and angry prayers

As news of the singing, praying students ripped across social media and “takes” ricocheted around Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook, the team planned and organized, working out the details of how to deal with that tension. So when someone started blowing on a shofar—the curly ram’s horn trumpet that some charismatic Christians have turned into a symbol of MAGA politics and spiritual warfare—the chapel staff didn’t have a protocol for that exact situation, but they knew what to do. They asked the person to recognize the way God had showed up in the chapel and be faithful to the sweet, humble, peaceful spirit of the outpouring.

They did the same thing, Asbury staff told CT, when someone started praying loudly and aggressively. And again when someone started attempting an exorcism—not arguing about demonology or citing university rules, but invoking the authority of the outpouring itself.

“We want to be true to how the Holy Spirit showed up with our students,” said Baldwin, the vice president of student life. “We experienced joy. We experienced love. We experienced peace. There was lots of singing and testimonies. Those became our signposts. This is how, in front of our eyes, we are seeing the Holy Spirit come upon our students, and we want to honor that.”

Most people complied, though a few had to be asked to leave. One street preacher came wearing a T-shirt condemning gay sex and a plan, according to staff, to shout at students about perversion. He was escorted off the property. Another person wouldn’t stop praying aggressively and was told he had to go outside.

When the chapel staff opened up the microphone again for testimonies, they started vetting them first. As an added precaution, the Asbury team held on to the microphones while people talked.

“Saturday and Sunday, we were asked all day long, ‘Can I give a word?’ ‘Give a word?’ ‘Give a word?’” Baldwin said. “Well, tell us your word first.”

Matt Smith, a Wesleyan pastor from a nondenominational church in Johnson City, Tennessee, noticed the ministers holding onto the microphone when he got into the chapel on Monday, February 13. After seeing reports of the revival on social media, he, his youth pastor, and his minister father all drove the four and a half hours to see it for themselves. They were immediately hit by the sweet, peaceful presence of the place, and as ministers, they also noticed the staff working hard.

“I think most of us in the evangelical world have been in a service where someone walks off with a microphone,” Smith told CT. “At the same time, God works through people, so you don’t want to shut that down. You can’t control everything that’s said, but you have to have healthy spiritual oversight.”

Smith said he was impressed with how the ministers maintained the delicate balance. Wesleyans, however, have a long tradition of figuring out how to nurture an outpouring of the Spirit. Once in 1804, the school’s namesake had 20 watchmen carry long peeled rods to protect a camp meeting from frontier ruffians. “The work of God is wonderful,” Asbury wrote another time, when some people showed up to try and take control of a revival in Delaware. “But what a rumpus is raised!”

No celebrities here

On social media, a number of controversial charismatics announced they were headed to Asbury. Todd Bentley, who once claimed God told him to heal a woman by slapping her in the face and who was deemed unfit for ministry by a panel of pastors in 2020, tweeted out “I’m going.” Greg Locke, who found fame defying COVID-19 health mandates and spreading misinformation about the 2020 election, announced he was planning a trip as well.

The staff managed to keep anybody from taking over the microphone, though, and avoided too many disruptive confrontations.

There were also Christian leaders who went quietly, just to pray and participate without trying to take the stage. Kari Jobe, the contemporary Christian music singer who won a Dove Award for “The Blessing” in 2021, went to Asbury and went down to the altar. Several students prayed for her, according to Asbury staff, without appearing to know who she was. A leader of the Vineyard Church came and went without announcing anything on social media.

By the time the revival entered its second week, there were regular announcements made about platforming celebrities. Throughout the day, ministers who didn’t stop to say their own names or job titles would say, “There are no celebrities here, no superstars, except Jesus.” The term “radical humility” was used regularly.

There were also announcements that if people were moved by the Spirit to jump up and down, they shouldn’t do that in the nearly 100-year-old balcony.

In the midst of this, the students’ worship continued. Though the chapel could feel crowded and like they were going to be pushed aside by “revival chasers,” many of the young people still testified to the transformation they saw happening.

“I know this campus very well. It’s small,” Alison Perfater, Asbury’s student body president, told a documentarian. “And I know exactly which students on this campus hate each other. Those are the people I have seen praying together, singing together, hugging, crying. … It’s been totally life changing.”

The organization of logistics got a little easier the second week, as things got “operationalized,” according to Asbury administrators. Teams formed for each specific need, and the revival committee said yes to a growing number of volunteers offering professional services—like an event manager from Phoenix who showed up unannounced with a plan to coordinate volunteers. Staff jumped in anywhere there was a need. A human resources coordinator, for example, spent the week answering the phones, as people from around the country and even abroad contacted the school for information about coming.

Seminary students also got involved, sometimes formally, sometimes informally. Hermann Finch, a Methodist youth minister from Zimbabwe who is studying at the seminary, told CT he was asked directions to the toilet. So that’s how he decided to volunteer, pointing people to the port-a-potties for an evening.

Faithful to their part

Going into the second weekend, however, the revival committee decided they would need to announce a limit to their hospitality. The town of Wilmore was overwhelmed, traffic was impossible, and news of the revival was only spreading more rapidly. Tucker Carlson, host of the most-watched TV news show, did a glowing segment on Asbury and told viewers the next day he was “still thinking about it.” Carlson said he “didn’t understand it … but whatever is going on seemed wonderful.” On Friday, former vice president Mike Pence tweeted he was “deeply moved to see the revival taking place at @AsburyUniv!” and noted his own religious awaking at a music festival there in 1978.

Early Saturday morning the school set up two large screens in the grassy semicircle outside the chapel to try to accommodate everyone. An estimated 7,000 people showed up that day—more than doubling the number of people in Wilmore. Most had to stay outside the chapel, even though the temperature reached only the 40s. Some reports placed the total number of weekend visitors around 20,000.

In the classroom-turned-command center, the team discussed concern for students and the school’s responsibility for their education. Nurturing their spiritual experience and formation might, at some point, need to mean the school stopped welcoming people to campus.

The team also talked about the exhaustion of the volunteers. President Brown noted he’d seen one person helping out at 8 in the morning, then again at 1 a.m., and at 8 a.m. the next morning. That incredible generosity wasn’t sustainable, and they needed to find a “horizon.”

At the same time, the school was hearing reports of prayer services at other Christian colleges and universities. At Samford University, in Alabama, one student began singing in the chapel in the evening and was soon joined by hundreds. It kept going overnight and continued the next day. At Lee University, in Tennessee, students were seen running to chapel. One freshman told a local reporter she thought it was just a copycat event until she went herself.

“The Spirit was 100 percent moving in that place,” she said.

Something similar happened at Cedarville University in Ohio. And there were reports of extended prayer, singing, confession, and testimony at Baylor, Belmont, Campbellsville, Hannibal-LaGrange, Valley Forge, Milligan, and other schools.

“It reminds me of a Christmas Eve service,” Asbury spokeswoman Abby Laub told CT. “We were holding a candle, and now we’re passing it around. And that’s what you want. You don’t want to be the only one holding the candle.”

The ad hoc committee felt a sense of release. The fire was spreading, and they had been faithful to their part. They decided to announced things would be winding down. Starting on Tuesday, February 21, they would limit the service to people under 25 but livestream each night starting at 7:30 p.m. Then they would end on midnight on Wednesday, a full two weeks after a few students stayed in chapel to talk and pray and sing, and then felt a holy wind.

On Wednesday night, a staff member at the front of Hughes Auditorium greeted the room full of students born after 1998. “Welcome to the move of God,” he said.

A few hours later, as midnight approached, a young woman in an oversized gray sweatshirt that read “Zionsville” raised one hand to heaven and led the students in singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God.”

“The Godhead three in one,” she sang. “Father, Spirit, Son. … How great is our God? Sing with me.”

More than 1,000 students did, raising their hands and lifting their voices. The surge of their worship filled the chapel to the rafters, overwhelming the thin audio of the livestream.

“How great is our God,” they sang. “All will see how great, how great is our God.”

[ This article is also available in Português 简体中文 Indonesian 繁體中文, and 日本語. ]

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