Before proceeding, I believe many well-meaning evangelical Christians crave ‘revival’ at the expense of the Reviver. Some pray for revival so that they may conveniently escape the troubles besetting their society and avoid the challenges of daily Jesus-following. ** See footnote.
So what might ‘revival’ look like today, in this post-Christian era??
Certainly today’s Church and societal ethos is radically different to that of bygone years. The commonalities of past revivals like prayer, repentance, the Cross, transformation and mission will probably recur in contemporary situations, to a lesser or greater degree or in different forms. E.g, we’re definitely not living in the Scottish Hebridean society of the 1940’s. Mary Morrison, converted in that revival, related how as children, from their earliest days in the home and at school were steeped in sabbath observance, Bible-memorization and the Westminster Confession of the Church of Scotland. The islanders’ biggest temptation was going to the village dances and over-indulging in alcohol. By contrast, members of western churches are often biblically illiterate and exposed to very shallow and populistic preaching. In addition postmodern family-life is bombarded by public and social media dispensing amoral values.
Our local house churches recently grappled with the subject of revival, covering past revivals and then examining two very practical Bible passages. Both passages assume ‘life in Christ’ through a faith-union with him. In the NT this inward life of Christ is both vertical and horizontal (cf. 1 Jn. 1). Having focused largely on the vertical, we also need to examine the horizontal.
The first passage is James 5:13-20 (written only 20-30 years following Jesus’ earthly life and ministry). The apostle is addressing scattered churches which had become comfortable with a private ‘religion’ failing in social obligations. James exhorts his readers to true body-life: 5:15-16 (MSG), ‘Believing prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven – healed inside and out. Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed… if you know of people who have wandered from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction…’ Thus the life of faith demands mutual confession (a need for wisdom here), mutual sharing of pain and joy, concern about each other’s total well-being and prayer for one another. Of course we know these things but don’t regularly practise them! I recall visiting a highly-effective cell church in Abidjan, Coite de Voire – across the front sanctuary wall was written, ‘Now That You Know These Things, You Will Be Blessed If You Do Them!’ (Jn. 13:17). That congregation was known throughout the city (and many parts of the world) for its care and concern for needy and broken people.
Now Hebrews 10:19-27 (Hebrews was written before the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD). If James addressed ‘practical religion,’ the unknown author of the Hebrews letter addressed people ‘too religious’ in terms of OT Judaistic sacrificial ritual. They needed to grasp the once-for-all-sufficiency of Christ as their great High Priest, who constantly interceded for them. Having reminded them of this ‘new and living way’ in Christ bringing assurance and hope, he underlines the importance of their social responsibilities: v. 22ff (NIV), ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds… Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ ‘Consider’ implies ‘giving careful thought to.’ ‘Spur one another on’ in the original meant ‘incite.’ At the moment we have many poverty-stricken South Africans inciting people to violence against local government – as believers one can sympathise with them but not condone the violence. By contrast, in our assemblies, we should be ‘inciting’ one another to love and good deeds. The word ‘love’ today is largely understood in sentimental and erotic terms – the Bible speaks of a cruciform-love that serves [Francis Schaeffer spoke of ‘practical, observable love,’ exemplified in servanthood: cf. Jn. 13]. It all boils down to fostering a caring community versus western individualism! In order to pursue these ideals believers must meet regularly, not to be pulpit-bashed, but to ‘encourage one another’ in the light of Christ’s return. There are no ‘lone rangers’ in God’s family – close and regular koinonia is not a nice idea but a divine necessity. The young Church certainly got it right: ‘They (including the 3,000 baptized converts at Pentecost) committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42/MSG). ***
My submission: let’s not wait for a general revival, let’s live it daily, through the Christ-life within, connecting with other serious Jesus-followers all over the world! American author Wayne Jacobsen was radically renewed when God led him and his wife out of the traditional pastorate, connecting with serious Jesus-followers world-wide. You can find my own story in my blog site’s About. American Frank Viola is another out-of-the-box pioneer. His latest book ‘Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom’ is impacting many around the world. Two couples in our house group are using it in their family-prayers with much benefit. You see, institutional churches often stifle the life out of their members through boring routine, restrictive structures, a clergy-laity divide, denominational isolation and exhausting church programs. Moving outside of the organized Church is nothing new. Think of John Wesley and his field-preaching and home class-meetings (one bishop argued that no one could be converted outside of a church sanctuary) – that awakening led, amongst other things, to the change of a nation (think of the abolition of the slave-trade). Years ago, Billy Graham saw the potential of the 1970’s Jesus Revolution, but these Jesus-freaks freaked out most main-stream churches. I’ve been privileged to visit China several times and research the Chinese house church movement at post-graduate level. Some years ago it was estimated that these house groups totalled approximately 100 million plus believers. American sociologist Josh Packard’s survey of the American Church found that some 34 million believers have become ‘dones,’ not because they had backslidden but because of their commitment to Christ. ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’ (Jn. 5:17/NRSV).
[Early Church Symbol]
In summary, we can still learn much from the parable of the lost sheep (Lk. 15:1-7): the shepherd left the 99 in safety to go after that one sheep that was lost. The more we get involved with the struggles of those around us, the more we shall see the living Lord at work, intervening and bringing change. Genuinely loving people is the currency of the kingdom. Agape love alone will change the world, usually one life at a time. ‘
By way of personal application, may I humbly make two suggestions to individual Jesus-followers and their groups:
- Instead of just rushing ahead with well-intentioned plans, consider listening carefully for the voice of the Father. This was the way of Abram, Elijah, John the Baptizer and Jesus. He will speak and show you the way.
- Begin in your own home, as did Joshua, Daniel, and the young Church. At the renewal of the covenant by God’s ancient people at Shechem, Joshua declared publicly: “‘Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD!’ (Josh 24:14-16/NIV).
** I suspect this is true in South Africa. This may include the national Angus Buchan prayer rallies, without detracting from much good accomplished by this man of God.
*** I urge you to get hold of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s booklet, The Life Together. You will never look at fellowship in the same way again.
**** With respect, I don’t go all the way with Jacobsen’s theology and ecclesiology, but God certainly is using him to bring healing to disillusioned and bruised ex church-goers all over the world. His network is also doing outstanding work among a marginalized tribe in Kenya, empowering crop-growing, small business enterprises, etc.