I find myself mulling over some comments made on an old post of mine from a few years ago- in which I was chewing on a particular understanding of prophecy within some of the UK church, and a prophecy spoken about ‘fires from the North’ by a woman called Jean Darnell in particular. You can read the post and the comments here. I think I have said most of what I want to say on this issue during the post and responses to comments.
In some ways it feels foolish to respond to some comments made there because people tend to bring very fixed attitudes to these debates; I do so more out of politeness and hospitality, with a dose of trepidation as I do not enjoy conflict- even of the virtual kind. All the angry shouting at one another that we do, particularly over matters of faith, seems to be such a sad waste of time. However I wrote a post that was contentious in the first place so I had it coming I suppose.
The question that I am left with is one that I also asked in the post mentioned above- what is the point of revival?
If you are not from a particular Christian tradition you may not know what I mean- it will all seem like something that belongs to an alien world (perhaps you are right.) However there have been many recorded ‘revival’ events throughout history. They are religious/social phenomena that have had lasting effects on our societies and cultures- the most recent ones in the UK were the Welsh Revival (1908), and the Hebridean Revival;
In fact, this last revival is still often held up as what we should all be earnestly seeking after and praying for. As if this was the ultimate expression of what it means to be a Christian. If we could some how have revival it will have been all worth it. We will be PROPER Christians. Our faith will be vindicated. God will truly be on our side. All the others will be wrong. All those sinners will get their come uppance. It will be great.
Given the decline of Christianity in these islands- the closure of Church after Church, the perception of Britain becoming a post-Christian society, more favourable to other faiths but happy to persecute Christians (which is nonsense of course, but a widely held belief) then it is perhaps no surprise that a remnant clings to the idea of revival as some kind of last gasp turn-around.
I find all this problematic, for many reasons. In the post mentioned earlier, I said this;
Jean Darnell was speaking out of a particular context and understanding of evangelism- which longed and hoped for REVIVAL- transformative, all encompassing Holy Spirit saturated revival. No other move of God makes sense, and as such, the prophecy comes from a wish-fulfilling impulse. Revivals like this have happened here before (Wales, Outer Hebrides for example) and continue to happen in other parts of the world (Korea, parts of Africa.) However the outcome and aftermath of these outpourings is often very mixed. I no longer think that attempting to conjour and cajole God into reviving us should be our prime focus.
Because of the decline in church, certain embattled remnants hold on to this prophecy with both hands. We NEED it to be true- because the alternative is an end to all that is held dear. However there is such danger in this- we become people desperate for heavenly Holy Spirit intervention, and forget the call to be Agents of the Kingdom here and now, rather than in the future.
I have lived and moved in this tradition, and know how all consuming and possibly deceiving it can be. It is a kind of wish-fulfilling, magical faith- which places incredible pressure on individual members to BELIEVE because if not then their lack of faith will prevent the things coming to pass. The legacy of the great revivals we look back to with such enthusiasm is also rather mixed- often leading to excess and in some cases absolute oppression- whilst being over and gone so quickly.
Revivals are rare events, particularly in a cynical post modern context which is rather devoid of large movements of people who are prepared to be seduced by one ideology- unless it is an anti-ideology; one that espouses the failure of the ideologies that have been. However, perhaps we are seeing a change here- things are polarising again, Extremes are becoming normalised. Racism is re invented as patriotism. Selfishness is re branded as citizenship. There will be a reaction from the left, sooner or later. The Church too will have to raise a voice…
Back to the point of this piece though- what is revival for? Neil, who commented on the Jean Darnell piece suggested it was for these things;
The point is that God is glorified by those who once vilified Him.
The point is that wretched sinners are reconciled to an angry God and become holy.
The point is that precious souls for whom Jesus died are swept into His Kingdom.
And the point of the next and probably last one, is to prepare Scotland, the UK, and the rest of the world for the return of our glorious King!
Neil does a great job here of summarising a kind of evangelical/charismatic orthodoxy around the point of revival. I find so many questions about this list however, and the underlying assumptions behind it.
Does God need revival in order to be glorified? If so, why so infrequently?
An angry God. Lord forgive me but that very phrase makes me angry. Who can say what angers God most? Jesus seemed to get the most stirred up by the religious hard assumptions thrown about by people. Then there is the whole debate around substitutionary atonement.
Saving souls. Whatever we understand that to mean. Revivals do seem to involve lots of transformation of society for the good- drugs, alcohol problems, anti social behaviour, people learning to love one another, all that sort of thing. But this is not the kind of saving souls that are being referred to here- this is all about going to heaven when you die.
The return of Jesus. We come to eschatology, and the other set of assumptions about living in ‘end times’. Revival is necessary to persuade Jesus to come again. Quite what the Biblical justification of this view might be has always been beyond me, but it is a remarkably pervasive idea.
So, here are my soft, uncertain conclusions about revivals, for what they are worth. I know many of you fervently disagree, and if you do you are welcome to your views. Some of them might even be proved correct. I am very human after all.
- Revivals are rare events, often containing many odd, even dangerous elements. They are psycho-social events as well as religious ones.
- The circumstances in which they take place are less about the fervency of the prayerful few, and much more to do with the nature of the society, the point of history and the receptiveness of the context that they explode within
- The aftermath of revival is often mixed. Think of the splintering of the church in the Hebrides, with so many petty squabbles over doctrine. Think of the hard judgemental attitudes that live hand in hand with the rivival-now-gone-cold.
- The longing for revival within the church owes much to the underlying assumptions of evangelicalism- the need to save souls, to be proved right, to be vindicated in the face of an increasingly secular society. It is a focus on the world beyond, not on the here and now.
- I find it hard to square this kind of revival with the way of Jesus. He constantly brought people back to now- to the reality of loving actively and deliberately in the face of all sorts of negativity and outright oppression.
- I find the idea that the LACK of revival is somehow the fault of people like me who do not have enough faith, do not pray for it enough, rather circular and ludicrous. If the point of revival is to save souls, then is God prepared to let them burn because I do not ‘get it’? Really?
One final word- I have been speaking about revival as in a kind of mass phenomenological event. There are other kinds however- quieter ones, involving transformational encounters between people and what I would suggest to be the Living God. These things are precious, private and beautiful- I know this to be true because I have seen it- not once, but many many times. This is not magic, nor the waving of some supernatural wand that makes everything better instantly, but rather it is a process of transformation nevertheless.
This kind of revival I have no hesitation in praying for. Particularly in myself.