Attentiveness: Asbury and Awakening - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Asbury and Awakening

What is happening at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky has grabbed the attention of Christians around the world, social media, and even the secular press. It is one of those rare situations that the press’s zeal for the sensational has worked to spread good news. For this, we should be thankful and pray that God would continue to pour out his Spirit.

I have not been to the awakening[1]—properly named by Dr. Tim Tennent of Asbury Theological Seminary—but from a distance tentative observations and theological framing may be helpful.

Both Tim Tennent and I studied with Richard Lovelace and heard about revivals and renewals in his classes. Lovelace, in fact, worked to see renewal in mainline churches while he was a professor. Here are some teachings I remember very well from Professor Lovelace.

  1. “Revivals are always temporary. We can’t live in a constant state of revival or we would die. We have to get back to our normal Christian lives and responsibilities.”[2] This is absolutely true. I would love to have such a renewal and even revival at Gordon-Conwell for a time. It would be nice for it to last just long enough to bring about changed hearts and deepened commitments to mission and evangelism, serving the poor, and reconciliation. That would be great—a temporary event with eternal consequences.
  2. Renewals and revivals break down walls and then unite people. This is absolutely true. I read today in The Detroit Catholic[3] that Roman Catholic priests and Catholic mothers with children are going to be part of the awakening. We would expect that the Asbury emphasis upon Wesleyan theology is deemphasized and the holiness of God and personal confession of sin is emphasized. In a recent series on the Black Church,[4] the second episode reminded me that the Great Awakening and later 19th century revivals (actually throughout the century) brought together different races in revivals that resulted in church growth, new churches being built, and (for a brief time) reconciliation among races.
  3. What is important about awakenings is what happens after the awakening. God’s Holy Spirit is poured out to bring about change in people’s lives. Their sinful reticence to God’s call is removed and they are exposed, as it were, to the purifying of God’s Holy Spirit. Sin is stripped away and individuals come into the presence of a Holy God and are changed. Now they are more willing to follow Jesus into the hard places: to commit to the poor, to evangelism, to reaching Muslims for Jesus, and to see churches planted. What once prevented deep obedience is now stripped away. We should hear about some of these changes in people’s lives in the coming weeks and months.
  4. True revivals bring about structural or institutional changes that carry on the work of revival. As Charles Hummel wrote about in 1978 when reflecting on the Charismatic movement, there needs to be a fireplace for the fire.[5] Without the fireplace (structure), revivals tend towards sensationalism, heresies, or heterodoxy.[6] Very limited guidelines for structure are given by Paul, but when churches were being planted in the Mediterranean world he did give some basic guidelines (Pastoral Epistles). When there was a prayer revival for missions at Williams College in Massachusetts, the long-term results were institutions that were created and mightily used by God: The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810) and the American Bible Society (1816). Please note that they were not started the next day (1806), but they resulted in long-term missional structures.
  5. My final point is that we can and should expect that a true awakening will bring about greater mission or outreach. Worship is the fuel for God’s mission and God’s mission brings about more worship (converts and churches!). Worship and witness are the two great purposes of the church and when worship is specially empowered by a visitation of God’s Holy Spirit, we can expect the results would be a greater outpouring in mission.[7] The Spirit of the living God brings forgiveness of sin, new healing and wholeness, and an enduement of power for mission.

As evangelical Christians we thank and praise God for what he is doing in Kentucky, and we pray for the results of this outpouring. But we also realize that it was not a special forty days of fasting or all-night vigils that brought down God’s Holy Spirit. In this case, it was simply faithfulness: attending chapel, attending classes, and saying our prayers. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, not a lower god that we can control. As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, “He is not a tame lion.”

And so, as we seek to be faithful to God’s Word we also pray:

“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”[8]

[1] Technically I believe this is an awakening, but I write here about related events such as revivals and renewals. All are a matter of God’s Holy Spirit being poured out as God wills.
[2] Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979)
[3] Gina Christian, “’Jesus Was Right next to Me’: Asbury Revival Sets Catholics on Fire with Holy Spirit.” Detroit Catholic. Accessed February 17, 2023.
[4] The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. Aired February 17, 2021. PBS.
[5] Fire in the Fireplace: Contemporary Charismatic Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1978)
[6] “Pathologies of Revitalization,” in Interpretive Trends in Christian Revitalization for the Early Twenty First Century, ed. Steve O’Malley (Lexington, KY: Emeth, 2011) p. 47-57. Dr. O’Malley was a professor at Asbury Seminary.
[7] Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Ada, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013).
[8] Traditional prayer of the Western Church, from about 800.

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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