For the past fortnight, Christian media channels, both mainstream and social, have been brimming with news of a revival at Asbury University, a Christian education establishment, based in a small town in Kentucky, USA.
It seems to have started in a non-descript sort of way. A regular chapel service resulted in a call to confession, and this led to 100 or so students falling to their knees in front of the altar. There was such a powerful sense of the presence of God that nobody wanted to leave, and those who did leave begged to return.
The service continued – and it still hasn’t stopped.
It seems that those in the chapel are becoming aware of God’s holiness, expressing contrition for sin, weeping, confessing and repenting, praising and worshipping, reading and reciting the Scriptures, praying and interceding, and sharing testimonies.
Something reverent and real appears to be happening.
Could God be bringing his ‘light through the cracks’ to the students and staff of Asbury, and the strangers who are visiting? And could it soon start to spread out from there?
Pressure from a watching world
There is huge pressure on those involved, both leaders and participants.
Media attention has been relentless since the outset. Reporters (particularly from the Christian press) have descended on the scene in droves. Film footage has gone viral, with millions of hits on social media. And all of this to satiate the watching world’s appetite for 24/7 news coverage.
Against this kind of pressurised backdrop, there are some real risks. There is the risk that those involved could seek to maintain momentum through ‘performance’. The risk that all the hype could lead to people striving for sensationalism. The risk that this time of precious spiritual refreshing could become nothing more than a spectacle for public consumption.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the naysayers are already dismissing it, pouring scorn and contempt from afar?
Steering clear of hype
What encourages me most is that the service itself appears to be hallmarked by humility.
The chaplains and service leaders have asked for the livestreaming of the service to stop. They have turned down lucrative offers of resources from some well-known Christian ministries. There are no big name ‘celebrity’ speakers or worship leaders at the front.
What also encourages me, and which I didn’t know, until I started preparing to write this thought for the month, is that this is not the first time Asbury has had a revival.
On several other occasions in the past – all of them, intriguingly, in either February or March – the Holy Spirit has swept through this Christian campus, leading to non-stop prayer, praise, worship, and revival, usually for several weeks at a time, sometimes longer.
The Holy Spirit is sensitive. He is also holy – the clue is in his name. He will want the focus to be on Jesus. If it shifts elsewhere, he will leave.
What is the Biblical benchmark for revival?
How, then, can we tell whether what is happening at Asbury is genuine? What is the Biblical benchmark for revival? I would like to suggest that we need to turn to Nehemiah 8, where five characteristics of a genuine revival are revealed:
1. God’s word is read and heard (verses 1-5)
Nehemiah 8: 1-5 tells us that all the people gather together. “Bring the Book of the Law,” they say to Ezra, the priest and scribe. They have a yearning to hear from God, and Ezra duly responds. He reads, and the people listen. Men and women; young and old; all who have the ability to hear and understand, stand and listen carefully, as Ezra reads God’s word.
Revivals are always hallmarked by a desire to hear from the Bible; a restoration of reading from, and hearing, the Bible; and a respectful receiving of what the Bible has to say.
2. God is praised and worshipped (verses 6-8)
Nehemiah 8: 6-8 tells us that Ezra blesses the Lord – and the people lift their hands, bow their heads, and worship the Lord with their faces to the ground. It happens in response to hearing from, and understanding, the truth revealed in God’s word.
Revivals are always hallmarked by praise and worship in response to reading of God’s word.
3. Sin is confessed and repented (verse 9)
Nehemiah 8: 9 tells us that the people mourn over their sin. Later, in Chapter 9, we read that they write a public confession of sin and present it to God in repentance. They become acutely aware of God’s holiness, and are filled with deep sorrow and grief for their sin.
Revivals are always hallmarked by God’s holiness leading to repentance for sin.
4. God’s mercy is received (verses 10-12)
Nehemiah 8: 10-12 tells us that God strengthens the people with the joy of their salvation. He assures them of his forgiveness, love and mercy.
Revivals are always hallmarked by God extending his mercy, in response to repentance for sin.
5. Obeying God’s commands (verses 13-18)
Nehemiah 8: 13-18 tells us that, as Ezra reads from God’s word, and as their hearts and minds are revived, the people realise they have not been obeying God’s commands. They respond by immediately starting to do what God has told them to do – and by doing so “with very great gladness”.
Revivals are always hallmarked by an eagerness to obey God’s commands.
Does Asbury have the hallmarks of authenticity?
What is happening in Asbury is, so far, being guided sensitively – by the Holy Spirit.
God’s word is being faithfully read and taught, and there seems to be a craving to hear it. The praise and worship is passionately proclaiming God’s glory and majesty. There is ongoing genuine sorrow over, and repentance from, sin – and a fresh awareness of God’s holiness. God is extending his mercy and forgiveness. And only time will tell whether it leads to renewed obedience and transformed lives.
My hope and prayer is that God will relentlessly root out anything that isn’t of him in what’s happening at Asbury, while blessing the rest – and that beautiful fruitfulness will spread out from there, to reach all over the world.
As you ponder these things, here are some questions for you to consider:
Have you ever been in a place where you tangibly sensed God’s holiness, and your sinfulness? Where were you, and how did you respond?
Have you read any historic accounts of revival? What strikes you about how God has brought it in the past, and how he might want to bring it today?
And when you consider the five characteristics set out in Nehemiah 8, which do you feel the church in your nation most needs to experience, and why?
As ever, constructive comments are welcome below.
Please note: This is my ‘thought for the month’ reflection for February. (You can find all my ‘thought for the month’ reflections here.)