Christian Living

Spiritual Life

What is Revival?

Everybody from Nehemiah and Ezra to Bill McCartney and Bill Bright has talked about revival. But what is it? Scholars disagree.

Zondervan's New International Dictionary of the Christian Church describes it as: "A spontaneous spiritual awakening by the Holy Spirit among professing Christians in the churches, which results in deepened religious experience, holy living, evangelism and missions, the founding of educational and philanthropic institutions, and social reform."

Or here's how IVP's Dictionary of Christianity in America puts it: "Revivalism is the movement that promotes periodic spiritual intensity in church life, during which the unconverted come to Christ, and the converted are shaken out of their spiritual lethargy."

And Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Theology describes revivalism as: "A movement within the Christian tradition which emphasizes the appeal of religion to the emotional and affectional nature of individuals as well as to their intellectual and rational nature. It believes that vital Christianity begins with a response of the whole being to the Gospel's call for repentance and spiritual rebirth by faith in Jesus Christ. This experience results in a personal relationship with God."

We may never find a perfect definition of revival, so perhaps it would be more beneficial to focus on some of the major characteristics that have been most prominent in revivals throughout history. Here are ten important characteristics:

  1. Saints are revived. Revival often begins with believers, transforming once lethargic laypeople into zealous servants of God.

  2. Sinners are saved. During revival, classic sinners, such as prostitutes and drunks, join society's beautiful people at the altar to confess their evil ways and seek God's forgiveness.

  3. Sermons hit home. Eerdman's Handbook to Christianity in America says that one of the major characteristics of America's Second Great Awakening was "simple, lively, and persuasive preaching." Revival sermons shy away from complex theology to focus the basic Gospel message of sin and salvation in all its staggering simplicity, often upping the ante with descriptive pictures of the sufferings of hell.

  4. Music moves the masses. Whether it was the tag team of brothers John and Charles Wesley or the collaboration of evangelist Dwight L. Moody and song leader Ira Sankey, musicians have augmented the impact of revival sermons by stirring people's emotions and helping them sing their praises to God.

  5. Churches work together. When revival hits, workers seize the opportunity without worrying about preserving strict denominational purity.

  6. People do strange things. Evangelical etiquette usually dictates that believers keep a lid on their emotions. But during revival, peopleovercome with a sense of the closeness of Godlose control and often begin weeping, wailing, falling, jerking, screaming "Hallelujah," or experiencing an outpouring of spiritual gifts. Revival, at least for the past few centuries, has been a rowdy, messy affair.

  7. Believers battle sin. Billy Sunday attacked demon rum. Charles Finney went after Christians who smoked. And sexual sins have always been seen as a satanic stronghold. Today, Brownsville evangelist Steve Hill warns of the dangers of on-line pornography, showing that times change, but the fundamental battle doesn't.

  8. Society is influenced. Born-again believers have founded schools, universities, and Bible colleges; fought evils like slavery and child labor; and campaigned to elect godly leaders to office, showing that, while revival may begin as an individual awakening, it ultimately has an impact on the culture beyond the doors of the church.

  9. Missions and evangelism flourish. Revival transformed William Booth, who went on to found the Salvation Army, now one of the world's largest Christian organizations. Likewise, revival sparked many of the world's biggest and best-known missionary groups, evangelism efforts, parachurch organizations, and Christian denominations.

  10. Controversy causes clashes. Brownsville isn't the first revival to stir up arguments. Christians look back with dewy-eyed affection at the first Great Awakening, which had a powerful effect on pre-Revolutionary America. But at the time, minister Charles Chauncy ascribed the whole affair to mental illness. Revival has always been a divisive force.

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