Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 20: The Role of Revival and Spiritual Awakening

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series addresses biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist. The author of this post is Alvin L. Reid, who occupies the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism and serves as Associate Dean of Proclamation Studies at Southeastern Seminary.


Do We Truly Want Revival? A Look at a Great Commission Resurgence through the Lens of Great Awakenings

By Alvin L. Reid

I recently attended a national meeting sponsored by the North American Mission Board. At that meeting, attended by state convention, national, and seminary leaders in evangelism, we heard again about the need for revival in our land. Speakers reminded us how great the need is. In particular Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Seminary, told us how bleak the forecast is for the Southern Baptist Convention, arguing we are in danger today of becoming like the Methodists of the last generation, who set a record for church decline. “We have better memories of our past than dreams for our future,” he said. Kelley and others spoke of the need for revival in our day. No doubt we need a fresh movement of God. But do we truly know what it is for which we pray?

I have spent much of my adult life studying and learning from what historians call great awakenings. When we think of movements like Pietism (with Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, and others), the Evangelical Awakening in England (John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield), or the First Great Awakening (Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Whitefield), we rightly think of brokenness over sin among believers and effective evangelization of the lost as a result. But I would submit that every powerful revival in history feautured more: each in its own way was a type of Great Commission Resurgence, the very thing for which many of us pray.

In each of the movements we call revival or awakening, from larger movements like the First Great Awakening to less extensive stirrings like the Jesus Movement, you see a challenge to the status quo in the church. Again and again institutionalism gave way to fresh movements, traditionalism to innovation, while a return to orthodoxy typically lashed the timely to the timeless. John and Charles Wesley and young Whitefield were proper, Oxford-trained Anglicans. John Wesley started the Methodist Church but never left the Anglican Communion. But the movement he and others spurred challenged greatly the status quo of the church in his day.

An example: at one point in his journal John Wesley wrote that he was convinced a person could not be converted outside a church building. Yet one of the most remarkable features of the Evangelical Awakening was the field preaching of the Wesleys and Whitefield, which Whitefield continued in the New World. All of these men reluctantly took up the practice, which was begun by a man named Howell Harris in Wales. Harris was a layman, and thus could not speak from the pulpit in a “proper” church service (note: I think we are more concerned in our day with conformity than effectiveness). His zeal led him to preach in the fields, where multitudes came to hear him. The newfound passion for Christ of the Wesleys and Whitefield caused established churches to be less than inclined to utilize them. So, after a great internal struggle, each of these men began to preach in the fields as well. Imagine the idea of going to where the people are to preach the Word of God to them rather than putting up a sign outside a church building. Sounds a little scandalous, sort of like the book of Acts.

What was the result? They began to reach people, like the miners for whom the established church cared little. They developed a passion for missions, Whitefield going seven times to the American colonies, and Methodism soon spreading globally. They witnessed a church planting movement as many of the Methodist Societies eventually became churches. And they were part of a movement of God so extensive that historians use the term “great awakening” to describe it.

I for one am grateful for so many who cry for revival in our time. I would caution those who pray for God to move to consider their request carefully. Great awakenings can bring division, for challenging the status quo causes us to make hard choices–witness the Old Lights/New Lights among the Congregationalists and the Old Sides/New Sides among the Presbyterians in the First Great Awakening in the colonies. Challenging the status quo is rarely a popular thing. A movement of God, whether it be in Josiah’s day, in Ephesus in Acts 19, or the Haystack Revival of the early 1800s, will challenge the status quo. We must be careful to discern that which is timeless and must be defended and declared, like the gospel (note: the prominent theme of preaching in awakenings was not messages on “revival,” but on justification by faith!), and those which must be jettisoned, like our preferences (you know, robed choir, style of music, preachers wearing a periwig in one generation or a tie in another, etc.). A genuine movement of God will serve to bring us back to the things that matter, like global evangelization.

I came to Christ during the Jesus Movement of the 1960s-70s. One day in 1970, a group of pastors were walking down a sidewalk in Washington, DC. Dressed in suits and looking quite ministerial, they noticed some scruffy looking young people passing out Bibles and speaking to people on the street about Jesus. One of the pastors asked the young men what they were doing. “We are doing what you preachers only talk about,” one replied. Ouch. Awakenings that are real will take God’s people back to the things that matter.

So what does this say for our time? We must pray for revival. We desperately need a God-intervention in our culture, both inside the church walls and without. But we must not assume that a revival sent from the Most High God will affirm our institutionalism, our consumerism, or our love for our preferences over our refusal to engage the culture with the gospel. I meet people who truly believe that if we simply went back to where we were a few decades ago we would once again be effective in reaching America. I would answer by saying every movement of God I ever studied pushed the church to look backward theologically, affirming the unchanging Word, but pushed her forward methodologically, creating new and effective ways to take a timeless gospel to the world in a timely way. And by they way, every spiritual awakening changed the ways music was done in the church.

Look at a few things that came from awakenings. I mentioned field preaching, but what about the birth of modern missions, the extensive practice of itinerant ministry, remarkable church planting movements, and many voluntary societies from the famous Bible societies to those focusing on education, social justice, and others. What about the birth of hymnody, from Charles Wesley who alone wrote over 6000 hymns to the praise and worship movement in our time, the roots of which go back at least to the Jesus Movement? What about the innovations in evangelism, like the use of published sermons in the 1700s, to massive urban crusades in the 1800s, to coffeehouse ministries of the 1970s?

I believe James Burns overstated his point about revival when he argued all progress in the church has come through revival movements. But it would be hard to underestimate the church planting, missionary, and evangelistic impact made through seasons of renewal we call revival. When I pray for revival, I pray for a fresh hunger for God, but I also pray for right thoughts (theology) about God and effective practice for God.

Would we truly pray for revival if it meant giving up things we hold dear? David Bryant defines awakening thusly: “When the Spirit of God moves in the Church to quicken a new vision so that, in its generation, the Church cannot turn over and go back to sleep on what He is doing in the earth but must rise and get going with Him, that’s awakening.” That is the revival for which I am praying. And if such a revival came, a Great Commission Resurgence would be the result.

I am praying for revival, but a revival that will:

* change our paradigm from maintaining our institutions to advancing a movement;
* rescue us from consumerism and give us a passion to serve others;
* give us a greater love for unchanging truth than our personal preferences;
* take us from sectarian nit-picking to a hunger for biblical unity;
* focus our hearts less on impressing each other and more on loving the lost;
* make us continually love the Word while affirming creative ways to communicate it in our ever-changing world;
* add to our programmatic, attractional witness a missional lifestyle to penetrate the unchurched culture;
* challenge our youth not only to hate the things of this world, but to sacrifice all for the sake of the gospel;
* give us a hunger for the nations of the world and the great cities of the West;
* create a church planting movement the likes of which the world has never known.

In concluding his stirring and sobering message, Chuck Kelley added: “We face the greatest battle in the history of our Convention. Will we meet the challenge?” It is a challenge only a sovereign God can meet. And I pray He will find us usable enough to meet the challenge.