Revivals and Rumors of Revivals
The following was originally posted by Dr. By Jules A. Martínez at Theodrama, and is being reposted with permission.
As I think about students’ current experiences in Asbury, other experiences of revival (avivamiento in Spanish) or awakenings (despertares) come to mind. “You will see here the Spirit of God moving in powerful ways to restore people and to empower us to share the gospel,” the elder at my church told me with a solemn and secure tone. I was in high school, and it was my first time at a campaña de jóvenes, a week-long worship experience led by the church’s youth ministry. There were seven nightly and morning services. People signed up to gather at the church building to pray and worship 24/7 for a week. I was new in this space, but I stayed for the vigils and spent continuous time in prayer, singing, and going through moments of self-reflection, catharsis, and moral and spiritual conviction. The youth group (ages 13-20) was fired up to share the gospel in their barrio in Arecibo (Puerto Rico), to find ways to help impoverished families, organize food and clothing stations for homeless people in the city, and coordinate rehabilitation programs for men and women suffering from drug addictions. The fervor and joy of having an extraordinary encounter with God during those weeks led us to create art, music, dance, and drama to reach people by centering the message that “Cristo te ama” (Christ loves you).
We were about 130 young women and men. This was happening in other cities around PR.
This was revival.
Many people I knew felt that big numbers are what define revivals. A revival, we were told, happens when a Christian community is filled with the Spirit in such a way that it is moved to worship, repent, and even experience miracles over long periods of time, particularly in the context of packed-out buildings and stadiums. It was about getting as many people as possible to experience something extraordinary, an awareness of God’s presence that leads them in mass to confess Jesus in confrontation with “the culture.” This was the meaning of revival for not a few Christian leaders.
We do not have to go back to the 19th century to find deep and extended periods of communal experiences of devotion, worship, prayer, repentance, personal transformation, social witness, and political change that we can call revivals. These spiritual awakenings have been happening in the margins of Christianity in the 20th and 21st centuries. Take the tenacious and life-affirming witness of the Black Church in the USA. It is inconceivable that the end of Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement would happen without the long-lasting prayer, worship meetings, and gospel-preaching gatherings with believers gathering 24/7 in different periods all over the nation. Revival was happening.
The story of the Brown Latino/a church is also one of suffering witness, of constantly longing for another world. Protestant Latino/churches know about weeks and month-long periods of humble fasting and prayer, devotion to the God of life, and a social witness that stems from profound and extraordinary experiences of conviction and conversions. Loving service to immigrant and refugee communities, caring for children, and spiritual and vocational mentorship are givens. These communities are posts of grace and love for so many; their growth has been substantial in the last 50 years. Revival has been happening.
The Korean American church has seen momentous growth in the last 40 years. As my friend Pastor Abraham Cho recently tweeted: “I am encouraged by what’s happening with what’s being called the #asburyrevival. Praise God for his sovereign work. Also, someone needs to write a history of the widespread revival that defined an entire generation of Korean-Americans in the 1990s – 2000s.” Revival is happening.
Moreover, the global church lives in cycles of spiritual renewal, mainly through the Pentecostal and charismatics movements, which are trans-denominational and offer profound experiences of self-awareness, awareness of the presence of God, hope, consolation, restoration, healing, and activism. These experiences can result in transforming communities, taking care of the most vulnerable, sacrificial love, love for neighbors, and putting oneself on the line to help serve others when it is politically inconvenient.
However, evaluating whether a revival is a genuine Christian experience of corporate renewal requires some distance after the fact. There are also risks of any spiritual renewal movement becoming subject to ideological influences, triumphalist discourses, ethnocentrism, or institutional manipulation. Often, revivals happen without the aid of a communications strategy, social media blitz, and viral videos. Often, they occur sparking a skeptical gaze and immediate hagiographic accounts. Often, they happen in the humble devotion of people doing life together in awe of the tenderness of God.
Revivals can be vulnerable and tenacious experiences of divine love, in word, sacrament, and Spirit, that compel people to a new form of devotion and public praxis. I believe in revivals, whether in the vicinity of a small town, in the fervor of a youth ministry, in the societal stage of the struggle for life, or in the corridors of universities as students encounter the presence of God in the gospel of peace and justice.
The occasion of these conversations is a great opportunity to delve deeper into our doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Next week (see Theodrama for more) I’ll recommend some resources that might be helpful for Christians in this journey.
Dr. Jules A. Martínez is a theologian, author, and professor. His publications include A Visible Witness: Christology, Liberation, and Participation (Fortress Press, 2016). It’s Spanish translation is Un Testimonio Visible: Cristología, liberación, y participación (Publicaciones Kerygma, 2020). For more about his work, go to www.theodrama.com