I believe in revival. I hunger for revival. I pray for revival. I have asked God many times, “Lord, please send revival to our church.” Historians debate the definition of revival, but it’s essentially a season in which God freely chooses to pour out an extraordinary portion of his grace, awakening sleepy Christians and convicting sinners in great number. True revival—revival that is not mere emotional manipulation—brings healthy, lasting change.
While I genuinely desire revival, I am passionately opposed to revival-ism. Revivalism puts all its eggs in the basket of revival. Bemoaning the apathy of Christians and “how bad things are getting,” revivalism concludes that “revival is the only answer” and focuses all of its efforts there. It becomes fixated on witnessing another extraordinary outpouring of God’s grace, as in “the good old days.” It works hard to “bring about revival,” and thus tends to be man-centered. When revival doesn’t come, it ramps up its efforts, resorting to stronger preaching and louder praying.
Revivalism focuses on bringing about an extraordinary outpouring of God’s grace to the neglect of the means of grace by which God ordinarily builds up his church.
Revivalism focuses on bringing about an extraordinary outpouring of God’s grace to the neglect of the means of grace by which God ordinarily builds up his church. This is one point at which much of the American Holiness Movement departs from John Wesley and early Methodism. Wesley was consumed with “the constant and careful use of the means of grace”—the reading and exposition of God’s Word, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper. Wesley and the early Methodists were marked by methods or systems that made good use of the means of grace. Revivalism tends to be marked by shallow engagement with Scripture, sloppy exposition of the Word, reductionistic praying, and a shameful neglect of the Lord’s Supper.
I once had an older gentleman tell me, “I appreciate the teaching ministry here. Growing up, it felt like we were just waiting for the next revival. That’s when everything was supposed to happen. In between, we didn’t have much teaching.” That summarizes it perfectly. Revivalism leads to a church that may be fiercely dedicated, but is spiritually immature and unhealthy—unskilled in the word of righteousness, stuck in their prayer lives, and neglectful of the sacraments. Revivalism substitutes quick fixes for biblical discipleship.
Revivalism substitutes quick fixes for biblical discipleship.
By all means, ask God for revival. But trust that he will send it in his time as a free and sovereign gift. Meanwhile, get busy obeying God’s Word. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). “Be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). And like the first Christians, be devoted “to the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). We shouldn’t expect God to give us an extraordinary outpouring of his grace while we are neglecting the ordinary means of grace which he has kindly ordained for our benefit.
For more on the means of grace, see John Wesley’s Sermon 16: “The Means of Grace” and Sermon 101: “The Duty of Constant Communion.” See also the podcast “Prevenient Grace, Part 4: Pelagianism, Revival Theology, and Charles Finney.”