Praying for revival
Will Asbury’s outpouring lead to lasting change?
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Allen Brock and his wife, Tensie, huddled around a standing space heater, warming their hands against the 35-degree chill. Nearby, another couple sat on the sidewalk and unboxed Lunchables to snack on. Ahead of the Brocks—and behind them—stretched a colorful line of people dressed in padded coats, hats, and scarves. Popular worship songs drifted over the group from a distant loudspeaker as they waited. “Praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Spirit, three in one.”
That’s exactly what the Brocks hoped to do when they got in their car and drove 2½ hours from Middlesboro, Ky., to Asbury University in Wilmore.
“I’ve been wanting to come for days, but I had to wait till I could get a day off from work,” Tensie said.
Thousands of people flocked to Asbury last month to witness a spiritual phenomenon that unfolded for 16 days. Students say what happened on campus bore the hallmarks of previous spiritual awakenings in America, and Christians off campus quickly labeled it a revival. Asbury’s leaders have been more cautious in applying that label, preferring to call it an “outpouring.”
Brian Hull, a professor of Christian ministries, is one of several Asbury faculty members trying to help the students process the emotions and experiences of the last few weeks. “I feel it for my students more than myself, to be honest,” he said. “The biggest thing is trying to figure out how to care for them and help them process all that’s going on.”
THE DAY THE BROCKS ARRIVED, the line numbered nearly 2,000 and stretched for several blocks. It started at the door of Hughes Memorial Auditorium (commonly referred to as Hughes Chapel), a towering brick building with white columns perched on the edge of Asbury’s campus.
The chapel can hold as many as 1,500 people, but for two weeks in February, demand was so high people had to wait for several hours just to get a seat. Most weeks, chapel at Asbury is nowhere near this popular, even though many of the school’s 1,600 students attend every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 a.m. After the regular service ended on Feb. 8, a group of 20 students stuck around, singing and praying. Other students returned to join them over the next few hours. That impromptu worship session turned into the nonstop service that became national news.
“It just happened all of a sudden, and we never expected it to be this big,” said Monica Mita, an international student from Bolivia and a freshman at Asbury. Many of the school’s students volunteered to help with the ongoing service in some way—on the prayer team, reading Scripture, or playing the piano. Mita described the mood among the students as excited but a little conflicted over all the media attention, the number of strangers on campus, and upheaval to their schedules. “I feel like it’s been a roller coaster, but we’ve mostly had highs,” she said.
Asbury’s seminary president Tim Tennent took a measured approach in commenting on the developments: “Only if we see lasting transformation which shakes the comfortable foundations of the church and truly brings us all to a new and deeper place can we look back, in hindsight and say ‘yes, this has been a revival,’” he wrote in a Valentine’s Day blog post.
If last month’s outpouring does become a revival, it will not be the school’s first. Asbury was founded by Wesleyan Methodists, members of an ecumenical tradition at the center of many past American revivals. The university itself has been the site of several smaller revivals in previous decades. The most recent also started in Hughes Chapel, in 1970, and began with a spontaneous call for testimonies. It lasted for more than a week. The characteristics of that gathering are strikingly similar to this year’s event—it too was student-led and featured continuous singing, fervent prayer, and earnest testimonies.
ASBURY’S REVIVALS ARE PART OF A BROADER AMERICAN TRADITION that reaches back to the Colonial era.
“Revivals have occurred in all denominations from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal,” said Joseph Castleberry, president of Northwest University. “Doctrine and style may shape the human response to revival, but the phenomenon is always the same: an overwhelming sense of the holiness and presence of God, sparking repentance, great joy, a desire to linger, emotional and physical responses such as reports of healings, trembling, shaking, weeping, ‘fainting,’ and the like. People gain a greater desire to live holy lives, reject sin, attend worship services, spend time in Christian fellowship, and evangelize the lost. Many will perceive a call to ministry or missionary service.”
Students at Asbury say that description lines up well with their experience.
“It’s hard to explain, but at this moment God almost feels tangible,” said Mia Lush, a postgraduate student. Lush is especially drawn to what she and others describe as “radical humility.”
“We’re not coming here because we think we’re great Christians but because we need [God], and we want to confess our sins, repent, and be forgiven.” Lush and others who lingered in the chapel said they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. Some students worshipped from the dark wooden pews for 12 consecutive hours or more.
Those same hallmarks of revival—repentance, joy, and the inspiration to live holy lives—have had a profound effect on the Church and society many times in American history. The First Great Awakening lasted from about the 1730s to the 1760s and helped formalize American Christianity.
“It is out of the First Great Awakening that you see some of the seminaries and divinity schools beginning to form,” said Matt Queen, interim provost and professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Before that, training of ministers was a lot more informal. So ministers were equipped because of what God does in revival. There was also a great church planting movement that continued on through the United States.” The extensive writings of Jonathan Edwards during that time provided “literacy” to the emerging evangelical movement, Queen said.
The Second Great Awakening lasted from about the 1790s to the 1830s. It sparked a proliferation of Baptist and Methodist churches throughout the American frontier and brought important social reforms.
The Businessmen’s Revival, also called the Prayer Meeting Revival, lasted from 1857 to 1859. Lay missionary Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier began hosting lunchtime prayer meetings in New York City. Within six months, 10,000 businessmen were meeting for daily prayer, and the revival spread across America. Queen said one of this revival’s lasting impacts was the financial resources it brought to the Church.
The Azusa Street Revival started in Los Angeles in April 1906 and continued until roughly 1915. It formalized the Pentecostal movement, and today Pentecostals and charismatics number 700 million around the world, Castleberry said.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, hippies sparked what became known as the Jesus Movement.
“Young people were identifying with the Christian faith in a way that was a little nontraditional,” Queen said, referring to the trend of informal worship services featuring contemporary and folk music rather than hymns. The movement launched hundreds of churches that still meet today, a story told in the 2023 film Jesus Revolution.
Still, it can take years to spot the fruit of a true spiritual awakening. Castleberry hopes what happened at Asbury will lead young believers to pursue a vocation in ministry.
“The next generation of ministers usually comes from revival,” he said. And with few men from the millennial or Gen X generations entering ministry, the average American pastor is now 54 years old. “We desperately need a new wave of ministers to rise up, and revival is our best hope for that.”
BACK AT ASBURY, Brian Hull sat in his warmly lit office in the basement of Hughes Chapel. Above him, he could still hear the faint but unmistakable singing. “Historically, the big movements and the awakenings of God have happened through young people,” he said. “I think one of the things that marks this, again, is that young people have been at the forefront of leading, and to that end, their spirit has been to seek God.” Christians on other campuses caught Asbury’s hunger for revival. Social media posts showed students at Samford University, Wheaton College, and Texas A&M hosting their own extended chapel services.
Still, Mark Whitworth, Asbury’s vice president for communications, understands why some people fear the spontaneous and emotional event won’t lead to lasting change.
“At some point, we have to do everything we can within our power to maintain the integrity of what’s happening,” he said. “And then really, truly trust the Lord to do what He will do. It really honestly comes down to the heart of every person, every individual person in that room.”
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