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Do it again, Lord

Is campus revival a genuine work of God?

Students worship at Asbury University The Asbury Collegian/Photo by Samuel Reed

Do it again, Lord
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Christianity is a religion of surprising reversals. There are sometimes seasons of significant re-awakening. It can take place in a person, a small group, a church, or even at college campus. Call it an outpouring of spiritual energy, renewal, or, yes, revival. It often begins with listless believers where their faith is rejuvenated. And if it becomes large and spills out beyond a Christian setting, it is sometimes referred to as an awakening, where non-believers turn to God in larger numbers, and the moral tenor of a community is impacted.

You may have heard about what’s been going on at Asbury University, an evangelical Christian School in Kentucky. At this point, its leaders do not know what to call it. On Feb. 8, Asbury students gathered for their tri-weekly chapel to sing, pray, and listen to a sermon. No one wanted to leave. Now thousands have converged on the school, many from other states, wanting to participate in this non-stop worship service. They’ve had to expand to another chapel. It has gone viral on social media. It has now inspired similar student-led movements on several other Christian college campuses with continuous prayer and worship services. Whatever you call it, it is a renewal of faith where the younger generation are claiming Christianity as their own. The administration has since announced that the public component of the revival will conclude on Sunday.

Lest you think this is odd, recall two things. First the Bible contains calls for revival. “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” says the Psalmist (85:6).

It also speaks of those who have “lost their first love,” with calls to repent and return. (Revelation 2:4-5).

Second, the history of the church is replete with spiritual awakenings. Some cite movements in the late Middle Ages among the Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Waldensians and Lollards. Protestants cite the sixteenth century Reformation itself as both an inward renewal of faith and an outward reforming of church structures. Catholics point to their own reformation. Then there was the Moravian Revival in 18th century Germany, the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival in England, the Great Awakening in the early American colonies, the revivals of the nineteenth century known as the Second Great Awakening. Add to that, the American revivals of 1859 which spread to Wales, Britain, Europe, India and Australia and the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, which also spread around the globe. Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette noted that the worldwide spread of Christianity was “in large part an expression of a series of religious awakenings.”

Often forgotten are the collegiate awakenings in the United States. The First Great Awakening actually led to the formation of colleges such as Princeton, Rutgers, Brown and Dartmouth. 

Jonathan Edwards, who helped lead and interpret the First Great Awakening called it “a surprising work of God.”

The wave of revival that would lead to the Second Great Awakening began in 1787 with a prayer gathering in a dorm room at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. A revival broke out that not only affected the college, but spread to the surrounding communities. It then spread to Harvard, Bowdoin, Brown, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Williams and Andover Newton. The revival at Williams College in Massachusetts, which also started in a prayer meeting in a haystack, led to the formation of the first American missionary society and the development of American Protestant missions the following decades. The events of the Second Great Awakening were a factor in the creation of the public school movement in America. And one could cite many other college revivals at Wheaton (1936), Baylor (1939) and Bethel (1949). What we see happening at Asbury is not unique. Nor is that the first time it has happened at Asbury.

Historically, spiritual awakenings manifest patterns. Revivals are usually preceded by times of spiritual dryness, deadness, apathy, blatant sin, and a time where the prophetic voice and moral leadership of the church is silent. Then, there is usually a season of intense prayer and a seeking after God. As people re-encounter the God of the Bible and his holiness, there is then an intense conviction of sin, and often public confession and reconciliation. There is a rediscovery of gospel truths and a renewal of joy. With this comes a new boldness to openly declare one’s faith in Christ. And often the reviving is followed by evangelizing, missionary outreach and social impact (a reformation of morals and manners).

Theologian J.I. Packer defined revival as “God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives.” It is a movement they attribute to an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is not the ordinary way God grows the church. It is what some call “an extraordinary means of grace.” Jonathan Edwards, who helped lead and interpret the First Great Awakening called it “a surprising work of God.”

Events at Asbury College, and now these other campuses, have been exactly that — surprising. It was not planned and arose out of a student initiative.

We’ve all heard too many reports about how Gen Z is the loneliest, unhappiest, most anxious generation. And while that is an overly broad generalization, is it so shocking that they hunger for hope, joy, and transcendence?

Will the movement at Asbury spread far and wide? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it is another evidence that Christianity is a religion of surprising reversals. At its foundation it points to what it believes was the greatest reversal in history — the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Oh, and add to that Pentecost. And many subsequent individual and corporate renewals, awakenings, reformations, and periodic outbreaks of revival. And to that I, as a professing Christian say, do it again Lord!

Donald Sweeting

Donald Sweeting serves as Chancellor of Colorado Christian University.

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