“We need revival.” ~The Teeming Masses

This phrase, ubiquitous among broad evangelicals, has transmogrified from banal cliche to axiomatic mantra. Having been chanted with such frequency that there is virtually no quarter among popular Christianity where it doesn’t reverberate, it has at long last been universalized, memorized, and canonized as the programmatic agenda for all successive ecclesial endeavors. Thus for many, the watchword is now, “revival or ruin.”

The migration from adage to axiom has been a subtle (though predictable) move. If a thing is said long enough, loud enough, and often enough people soon forget to bother asking whether it should be said at all. At the last, the proposition becomes a presupposition. After having become ingrained in the religious psyche of the masses, that notion requires something closer to exorcism than explanation to extricate the host from possession. It takes quite a while to convince the entire species of something; it takes even longer to convince them that something is specious. So here I am with a crucifix and half a gallon of holy water; the power of Christ compels me. Shall we renounce the devil and all his works?

I humbly submit to you, patient reader, that the statement “we need revival” is false. It suffers from an odd mix of ambiguity and specificity, which just happens to be the exact recipe for confusion. Who is “we?” How is this “need” necessary? What is this “revival” of which it speaks? These are not difficult questions. They are the simple ones that no one seems to be asking. Once this line of critical enquiry begins, the dubious claim will fall like a well-upholstered woman at a Benny Hinn Tent Crusade.

We need revival. Ten-thousand pulpits, beaten every Sunday like conga drums, thump out the charge that we need revival. Barna statistics are read, Newsweek articles are cited, even the New York Times is drafted into ministerial service in order to press the claim more forcefully upon our minds. Pastors quote headlines and bylines from the saltiest columns and commentators detailing the latest displays of moral mayhem in our culture. Then, with a look of bewilderment in their eyes, they turn to their bemused congregations as if to say, “Have you not read?”

Fingers are pointed, virtues are signaled, better times are remembered—days when milk and honey flowed freely and the Reagans roamed the earth. Every effort is made to emphasize the fact that we are at once the worst generation in human history, and yet the only hope for the future of the world. The undergirding theme? We need revival. If we don’t have it then all is lost; maternity wards may as well be shrouded in black curtains embroidered with Dante’s somber words, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” But if we can somehow get our hands on a revival then civilization may just survive until another Democrat moves into 1600 Pennsylvanian Avenue. Then we will likely need revival yet again.

But do we need revival? Who is we? We cannot be those who are outside of the covenant of grace; those who have neither known God nor named the name of Christ. It wouldn’t be a re-vival we needed since there had been no “vival” in the first place. We would need to be born again. So they aren’t we.

We are those who have been crucified with Christ, buried with him in baptism, and raised to walk in newness of life. We are those who have been set free from the Powers of death and darkness; liberated from the domain of Sin. We are those who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. We are those who are “now called the sons of God,” who also “shall be like him” in glory. We are those bound by chains of grace, living between the great bookends: “No Condemnation” and “No Separation.” We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus. We are the ones who have been given “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We are not of those who draw back, but those who believe to the saving of the soul. We are the grateful recipients of covenant mercies made fresh every morning. We are those who have been filled with the Spirit, made partakers of the divine nature, adopted and appointed as sons of the Most High God, and destined to sit with Christ upon his Father’s throne. We are the Church of Christ; his living body and beloved bride. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us! Tell me, does this sound like a motley crew of spiritually bereft souls to you? I think not.

We Need revival. The implication is that there is some intrinsic deficiency in the Christian experience; some void that needs addressing, some gaping hole that only a “new move of God” can fill, something miraculous to offset the monotonous quotidian existence of “ordinary” Christians. This notion is grounded upon the outrageous assumption that the gifts and graces presently at our disposal are both insufficient for the task to which the Church has been called. Namely, that of baptizing the nations and teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus.

What is it that we have that is deemed to be so woefully ineffectual? We have the personal presence of the Triune God operating as both vanguard and rearguard as we march beneath the banner of the crucified and risen Christ. We have the delegated authority of the One who left death cold and lifeless in the grave. We have the very Spirit which raised Jesus working in us, upon us, with us, and for us. We have “Moses and the prophets,” that is to say, we have the Word of God—quick and powerful—unbound and unbridled. We have treasure in earthen vessels. We have meat to eat about which the world has never heard. We have the infinite power of creaturely weakness imbued with the sufficiency of God’s own Self. We have baptismal water that cleanses the conscience, confirms our faith, assures our hearts, and testifies to the faithfulness of our God. We have tangible promises; promises which we can eat and drink—promises that grab eternity by both ends and bring them into the present in the presence of Christ. We have lives we can live and deaths we can die for the glory of God so that there is no scenario in which a life cannot be offered in sacrificial service for the sake of Christ.

We have enough. And enough is enough. To say that we need revival is to say that the presence of God among his people is not enough. To say that we need revival is to say that the Word of God has lost its generative potency. To say that we need revival is to say the kerygma of the cross has lost its ancient power. To say that we need revival is to entomb the Church of God in an already evacuated grave. To say that we need revival is to say that two-thousand years of Christus Victor has been more regress than progress. To say that we need revival is to say that the Body of Christ is blind, halt, maimed, lame, or dead. To say that we need revival is to say that the fervent prayers of righteous men are ineffectual and avail nothing. To say that we need revival is to denigrate the blood of martyrs, devalue the sacrifices of persecuted brothers, and deny the worth of quiet fidelity. To say that we need revival is to err by knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Enough is enough.

What, then, is this “revival” that we need? It cannot be the presence of God, we already have that. It cannot be an infallible witness of God’s revelation of himself, we already have that too. It cannot be anything that pertains to life and godliness, we already have that.

This is where the waters usually get murky. Those who make the claim rarely have a coherent definition of this necessary revival. It usually ends up being described as something of a divine do-over; a redemptive-historical repeat. Those who argue along these lines can often be heard saying things like “we need another Pentecost,” or “you can have your own private Pentecost,” or still yet, “have you had an Upper Room experience?” Please don’t get the wrong idea here. I don’t reject such sentiments because I harbor some disbelief in the power of Pentecost; I reject such cavalier expressions because they deny the power of Pentecost.

Pentecost, like Calvary, was a singular epochal event in redemptive history. Like the cross, it was an historical moment of such potency and significance that it can rightly be described as transhistorical. That is, though it is rooted in a particular time and place, its effects are such that they burst the bonds of our normal notions of time and space. Even in the book of Acts, the effectuality of Pentecost was perpetual, while all of the accompanying phenomena were not.

Just as we need not have a repetition of Calvary in order for atonement to be made for sinners not yet born in the first century A.D., just as Jesus need not rise a second time from the grave in order to vindicate himself and his people before his Father, neither must there be another Pentecost in which the Spirit is made available in power to the people of God. To suggest that we need revival, if revival is conceived of as being a “fresh Pentecost,” is to make hash of the words of Peter, Paul, the Four Evangelists, and anyone else who may have mentioned the cross or the Spirit in the canonical Scriptures.

However, if by “revival” they simply mean that we need Christians to be what we already are, use what we already have, and do what we are already able to do by the help of God, then I have no objections. I have no objections because there is now no “revival” of which to speak.

Of course the proper word for the activity described above is obedience. Faithfulness is supernatural insofar as it is birthed in us by grace and worked out through us by the Spirit, but it isn’t the sort of thing that requires sawdust and gospel quartets. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the real reasons that Christians have been so quick to parrot the phrase in question is that it is much easier than admitting that we are lazy. If we have a mandate, the resources, and a field in which to labor, we can’t very well blame our slothfulness on a breakdown somewhere in the supply line. We can’t blame God for not sending us the revival we needed to get the job done. As long as “we need revival” to do virtually anything meaningful for the kingdom, we are pretty much free to sit on our pious rears and pray for the kingdom to come. I say enough is enough.

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Posted by J. Brandon Meeks

J. Brandon Meeks (PhD., University of Aberdeen) is a writer, studio musician, and sometime poet. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at his Anglican Parish in Arkansas. He is the author of The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition and is a regular contributor to The North American Anglican.

  • John Lieb

    Hmmm. We don’t? As I understand it, Paul mistakenly prayed a “revival” prayer, according to the formulation you reject. He prayed, in Ephesians 1, that the church would be given “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you would know Him better”. If I read Acts 19 properly, this was the Spirit who was already richly poured out on them in Christ and at the birthing of their faith community. What is it that Paul is seeking for the church? It seems to me he is seeking, with great earnestness, “revival”, a greater fulness of the inheritance they have been given in Christ. Quibbling over what we call whatever Paul is praying seems an exercise in spiritual futility. “Awake, sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.”

  • Mel

    I think you’ve misunderstanding the word “revival”.

    It isn’t the same as “revive”, although obviously they’re related. A revival isn’t bringing something back to life.
    It’s bringing back the strength or popularity of something.

    For example – a Rococo Revival doesn’t mean the restoration of existing Rococo style decor. It means the style enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.
    And while existing Rococo works were the inspiration for it – new works were made during this revival period.

    Similarly, when pastors cry for revival, they want Christianity to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. I’m sure they also have in mind visions of Jonathan Edwards and The Great Awakening. I’ve even been to planned “revival” events, where we all gathered in a tent on the front lawn of a perfectly serviceable church building for a week and listen to a guest speaker. I suppose, in case God speaks louder in the open air.

  • Stephen Crawford

    There were two comments brewing for me: one, I was inclined to criticize the snark in the writing (there is too much sarcasm out there right now and it’s already doing enough to rot people’s brains); two, I was inclined to point out that much of this article would preach well at a revival.

    I tend to use the word “renewal” rather than revival, partly because of the Prayer Book collect for Confirmation, partly because of its connection to Charismatic movements. I think that this article basically gets at the problem that besets our ability to understand the Sacrament of Confirmation (which the author may not think is a sacrament, but it certainly has a place in that robust history and tradition of the Church that the author is so excited about).

    I think the closing comments about “slothfulness” give up the game. There is certainly a problem with slothfulness, and laziness does often hinder our ability to step into the work the Lord has for us to do. But the emphasis comes out so strongly on what the Lord has already done in the past, even claiming that it’s enough, he ends up closing off the past from the present, so that now we’re faced with a practically autonomous sphere of our own agency and decisions. He ends up agreeing that something isn’t happening that should be, but he can only bring himself to say that whatever is missing is up to us without remainder. A more nuanced understanding of how our agency relates to the Lord’s would be very helpful at that point.

    One Pentecostal minister put it this way to me: many Christians are standing in the water of the Holy Spirit (I would qualify that to say that all baptized Christians are standing in the waters of the Holy Spirit), but there’s still this matter of learning to pick up our feet and let the current carry us. What I like about that metaphor is that it is clear that the reality is already there for you. It presumes so much of what this article points out. If all of that hasn’t happened, if you’re not already in it then picking up your feet doesn’t do you a lot of good. Or as Paul puts it to the Galatians: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (5:25). Statement about what is followed by statement about what the Lord might yet do for you, given what is already the case. But what does that quack know?