A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Five Characteristics of a Revival Church

From time to time throughout history, the church needs revival. We know how easy it is as individuals to get stuck in a rut. The same is true for congregations and denominations. We get into the routine of what we are doing and we get comfortable with it, and since all of us like to be comfortable, that can become the main focus of our lives and of the church. We fall into survival mode instead of revival mode. In short, the history of the church has shown us that periodically we need to be revived because the only difference between a rut and a grave is its length, its depth, and how long we are in there.

This summer I spent some time studying revival movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially the Wesleyan revival in England and the Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening in the United States. As I have worked through them, I have become convinced that there are five necessary elements that must be in place for a congregation to experience revival in its midst; and when revival is experienced, it will automatically spill out into the world. True revival cannot be kept as the property of the church alone.

Before I discuss the five elements, the foundation for revival is a genuine openness to the Holy Spirit and a willingness to be led in whatever direction God desires. That will mean surprises and it will also mean having to step outside of our comfort zones; for the God who has suffered on a cross for us and surprised all of us in his resurrection from the dead, will call us to a ministry of being a suffering presence offering new life to the world.

The first necessary element in revival is attention to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. A church will experience no true revival when such foundational doctrines as the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the Trinity are optional. Such a church may grow in numbers, but it will not be able to fulfill the mission that God has called it to�namely to bring the message of salvation and new life to the world which is now possible because of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If Jesus has not been bodily raised from the dead, then he is not Lord, because death is still in control. If Jesus is not God in the flesh come to live among us, then we cannot rightly call Jesus Savior, for only God can save.

The congregation in revival will resist attempts to water down its core doctrines making them irrelevant; and we must resist, whether such shallow teaching comes from pastors or bishops. Our core beliefs give us our identity; they reveal who we are, just as there are core beliefs that make Republicans Republicans and Democrats Democrats. When the central tenets of our faith are up for grabs, we can no longer rightfully claim the name "Christian."

This does not mean, of course, that there is no room for disagreement or discussion. There are plenty of issues on which Christians disagree. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley said, that we allow for disagreement on the things that do not strike at the root of Christianity. He said, �In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.�

The second necessary element of revival is spiritual formation. A church that does not study Scripture, a church that does not pray, a church that does not worship, a church that does practice works of service, will not experience revival. Spiritual disciplines help to keep our relationship with God in good working order, and even help develop intimacy.

There is a story of a group of men from Chicago left their jobs in the high-rise office buildings, moved to the prairie, and bought some farmland. �We�re farmers!� They all declared to each other. And all summer long they would go to the field to watch their crop grow up. However, when September rolled in, their fields were filled with goldenrod and all kinds of wildflowers and weeds. �Where�s the corn?� they asked each other. And they wondered what they could have possibly done wrong.

Too many in the church do not experience the significant life-change expected from many years as followers of Jesus. Like those city boys, they purchase the land, but do nothing to cultivate a field in which growth can take place.

Jesus himself speaks of the farmer who planted seed in the field. The seed that fell on the good ground yielded fruit, but we all know that the soil must be prepared and the crop must be nurtured. It is the case, that revival is hindered in the church because too many Christians are content to let the field of their spirituality lay fallow. Jesus did not tell us in the Great Commission simply to win converts; he told us to make disciples.

In addition, we must not forget that attending to the spiritual disciplines is not only an individual endeavor, it is a community task as well. John Wesley organized his Methodists in England into bands and classes that met weekly for study, prayer and confession. In so doing he built a strong community of faith that could hold together in the most difficult times.

The third necessary element: a caring congregation. For revival to take place in the church, the people of the church must see to each other�s needs. No one wants to belong to a church where the people do not care for each another, where persons gossip about others and talk behind their backs. It is the task of all Christians to care for each other, to create a context of love and mutual support. The congregation does not pay the pastor to do the caring in its place. St. Paul tells the Ephesians, �The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ� (4:11-12).

Fourth, a congregation will not experience revival unless it focuses on the Great Commission that Jesus gave to make disciples of all nations. There are two elements to Jesus� Great Commission: 1) make disciples, and 2) of all nations. We discussed the first part in reference spiritual disciplines, but we need to mention the second part, which concerns the territory we have been given to make the disciples�the nations.

From time to time I hear people say that numbers in the church do not matter; and when I am told that, I ask that person to square that comment with the New Testament; for Jesus seems clear that he wants to bring as many people into the faith as possible because he loves everyone as much as he loves you and me. And Christ has given the church the task of making as many disciples as possible around us and in the world.

There is no doubt when one reads the New Testament, that the early church took the Great Commission seriously; for they indeed went out into all the world to proclaim that God was now doing something new in Jesus and what he had accomplished was available to everyone.

The church that loses its focus on making disciples of all nations, will eventually turn its focus selfishly on itself, and will begin the long, slow process of decline and eventually death. John Wesley said, �The world is my parish.� It is our parish too.

Fifth, the church that experiences revival does not draw a sharp line between evangelism and mission, proclamation and social concern. It is unfortunately the case that mainline Protestantism has drawn such a line, and that distinction has been partly responsible for its decline. Evangelism is not only verbal it is active. Mission is not only active, it is verbal. We proclaim by word of mouth so that people may know Jesus is Lord; and we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort those who suffer to demonstrate that Jesus is Lord. It is not sufficient to tell people that Jesus loves them without showing them by our actions that he loves them; and how are people to know that Jesus loves them if we fail to tell them while ministering to their needs?

Any congregation that seriously implements these five elements will experience Paul's words to the Corinthians, �No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him� (1 Corinthians 2:9).


Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks for this interesting post. Alot of good thought here. We need the moving of the Spirit. And we don't really seem to think much, or therefore talk much about that, these days.

I think this is one very important part of the equation of formation in Jesus, individually, and together as community. It's a community of Jesus imbued with and moved by the Spirit of God.

I love John Wesley. And to think through the Great Awakenings. To think and hopefully act well on these things.

And I appreciate and value your perspective, along with your thoughts. You come from a different part of the Church, and therefore see things from a different angle. And therefore you see things I don't.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.

The moving of the Spirit is critical in the vitality of the church, but all too often it never gets past just "feeling" the Spirit. What I was noticing this summer as I was working through revival movements were consistent elements that no doubt are used by the Spirit, but also reveal a community's openness to be used by the Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Yes. I think you have a good point here. This work of the Spirit needs to make a difference in how we live. And also, whether we're really following God's call for us in Jesus, as church. The Spirit is to be our Helper in doing that.