What Is Revival, Anyway?

Westmont Horizon, September 19, 2000

These are exciting times to be your "unchaplain." I get to work with wonderful people. There are regular opportunities to pray and address our community. There is the occasional opportunity to preach on ten minutes' notice. And there is talk of a coming campus "revival."

That talk prompted this article. What is a revival? And what might ours look like?

What Is Revival?

Water revives a wilted flower. CPR revives a person in cardiac arrest. Resurrection revives a corpse. So if Westmont needs revival, its spiritual state falls somewhere between thirst and death. Quite a range!

You and I may differ about where Westmont lies on that spectrum. I deny that Westmont is dead, because that cynical label mocks God's mighty works here, and forgets the kept promise of the Spirit's lasting presence. But it is hard to argue that Westmont is perfectly healthy. In some sense we, like all communities of Christians, need reviving -- a "new" inbreaking ("re") that continues the "old" work of Christ ("viving").

Not all Christians use the word, but most appreciate the idea. In churches that call Christ's presence "sacramental" -- that is, mediated through baptism, Communion, the Word, and the like -- revival happens all the time. It comes when the Holy Spirit comes and the bread and wine become Christ's body and blood. My own tradition resists the idea of sacraments. We call the Spirit's permanent presence a communal and personal "baptism of the Holy Spirit." Revival is a fresh outpouring of the Spirit onto the already Spirit-filled community. This too happens every week -- at least we pray and sing and preach as if it does ("Revive us again!").

Yet sometimes revival comes in an even more extraordinary way. In 1906, at the Azusa Street Mission, worshipers experienced an outpouring of God's presence with an intensity that drove them all the way back to Pentecost for an analogy. Furthermore, this thing, which is as new and as old as the Gospel itself, swept beyond Azusa Street's Holiness Christians to blow through the other traditions as well. The "big" charismatic revival refreshed and confirmed the "little" weekly revivals that have been coming throughout the Church's history. As a result, today many sacramental and Reformed communities are also charismatic.

What Does Revival Look Like?

The original Pentecost (Jerusalem, not L.A.) was a moment of revolutionary peace. Its violent bedlam gave way to an elegant sermon and harmonious fellowship. A truly Pentecostal church is neither identified nor discredited by members barking like dogs, or people quivering on the floor, or even torrents of tears. It is known by its fruit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). "All who believed were together and had all things in common" (Acts 2:44).

The original Pentecost brought a new and continually renewed order. Its violent peacemaking repeats itself. The Church of Acts 2 experienced a setback in Acts 5, an ethnic crisis resolved in Acts 6, persecution in Acts 7, new moves and crises in Acts 8 and 10, and so on. Each "revived" the original freshness and challenge of the Father's promise. Each was unpredictable, yet consistent with its predecessors.

New oldness, revolutionary peace, unpredictable consistency: These are what to expect from the God whose ways haven't changed. Maybe the Holy Spirit will soon flood Westmont, with an intensity that will leave us reeling and shouting. Or maybe he will come with a subtlety that will leave us staring at each other in stunned silence. Or maybe he has been flooding us all along, through the loud and the quiet works of our churches, and we have been too caught up in the theatrics of "revival" to pay attention.

However it happens, only by the fruit that follows can we really know.