By Rick Lowry
I turned 50 this spring. For 28 of those years, I’ve been a Christian church minister. As I look forward to the “second half” of my life, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about what it really means for a church to be successful. An old word from my past keeps coming back: revival.
When I was a high schooler in the 1970s, our youth group of about 20 teens started a Bible study on Wednesday evenings. In the course of those meetings, a spiritual awakening occurred.
Within three months, more than 100 people were participating. At those meetings, I experienced a profound love for Christ. We would sing, study, and pray. The prayer times would last an hour or longer. People poured out their deepest emotions and struggles to God in the presence of other Christian friends. The Bible studies were about the lordship of Christ and how to give him 100 percent of ourselves. More than 20 people from that group were called into ministry. It was my first experience with true revival.
A decade later, now a Bible college graduate and serving on a church staff, I met another man who had also experienced revival. I was attending a funeral in Canyon City, Colorado. After the service, I stopped to thank the minister, who told me he was a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. With a dreamy look in his eyes, he added, “I was there when the revival happened.”
He described for me how, during a chapel service, revival broke out. People were falling on their faces in repentance. Students and teachers alike were confessing sins. Spontaneous prayers were lifted up for hours at a time. This phenomenon continued, in the chapel, without interruption, for 160 straight hours. A large number of people were called into the ministry during those few days.
What Is Revival?
I’ve been wondering why the revival experiences of my high school youth group or the Asbury Chapel have not repeated themselves in the churches where I have ministered. Why hasn’t revival “broken out” in the services in my church? I have more questions than answers about revival, but I’m trying to understand it.
Revival is more than a planned event, such as the traditional “week of meetings.” (We had some great revival weeks at my home church: fill a pew and get a free King James Bible). Nor does it seem that revival has to be marked by the expression of supernatural spiritual gifts. Jonathan Edwards often preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in a monotone voice, and it was said that some people held tightly to the columns in the room in order to keep from running down the aisles in repentance.
Even our own movement experienced the Cane Ridge Revival. But, I have to admit, nothing was going on at Cane Ridge that I would like to see at our church next Sunday. Barking? No barking going on at our place!
David Mains calls revival “a fresh awareness of Christ’s presence.” A common element of revival seems to be the unmistakable supernatural work of God—when things are happening that couldn’t be going on unless God were at work (things that we puny human beings couldn’t possibly have pulled off). Perhaps this is the essence of revival. If so, have I set the bar too low?
Is Our Church Successful?
I grew up in a megachurch and have served on the staff of two others, including the one I’ve been with for six years. By the numbers, most people would call our church successful. But do the numbers really indicate revival?
We experienced a 10 percent increase in worship attendance over the last year, a figure most churches would be pleased with. But are we succeeding when only 10 percent more people are doing the most foundational part of their Christian walk—showing up for worship?
We had hundreds of additions to our church membership last year, 260 of them by baptism. But we have thousands of active constituents in our church. Can no more of us than that share Christ with our neighbors?
We even had a big weekend when 130 people were baptized. But as a church leader in the middle of it all, for some reason I didn’t feel like this was revival. To be honest, it just felt like we figured out a systematic way to get a lot of people who’d been sitting in their worship seat for years to come down the aisle. But is there real life change, real discipleship going on?
An incredible thing has happened: God came down here and made it possible for us to live in a way that was never possible before, now and for eternity! Shouldn’t the world be flocking to that kind of news?
What am I doing wrong as a church leader when most of them are running the other way? In the first century, people were coming to Christianity because they couldn’t do anything else. The life and message of Christians were that compelling.
Today, non-Christians are asking some important questions about us: Just who are those Christians? Are they a wing of the Republican Party? Are they the people opposed to Harry Potter? I keep asking myself as a church leader, Why would a person be attracted to Christianity, in the form that my church is currently speaking it and living it? Is the presence of God evident to people outside the church?
A Telling Moment
Recently, our staff ministers were together in a conference room, preparing to move into a fund-raising campaign for a building addition. One of the guys said, “This campaign is a big step of faith. We should get on our knees and pray about this.”
As I knelt, it occurred to me that I was kneeling to pray for money to build a building for a bunch of rich American Christians, when there were so many other spiritually significant occasions I hadn’t been on my knees. Had I prayed? Maybe. But not on my knees.
I couldn’t recall us inviting each other to pray on our knees about the tens of thousands of people in our city who don’t know Christ. Nor could I think of a time we were driven to our knees to beg God to help us stay pure as church leaders in a culture filled with ways to stumble. We hadn’t been on our knees about the sin in our congregation. But here we were on our knees about bricks.
I’m not knocking megachurches. I’m honored to be on our staff. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we were doing a significant work for God. But as I talk to leaders on other church staffs, I hear a common concern: We expend huge amounts of kingdom energy and resources to move some mega program one more inch.
Is this success? Is this revival?
The Real Challenge
Why don’t I see revival in my church? Actually, the answer is easy, it’s just hard to admit. The reason revival isn’t taking place in my church is because I am content to live without it.
Korean minister Paul Cho says that if we really understood what revival costs, most of us wouldn’t be praying for it.
I wonder what would happen if I were bold enough to pray, “God, send a revival, and let it begin with me?” That’s risky stuff. Jacque Ellul said, “Whoever wrestles with God (in prayer) puts his whole life at stake. In the combat in which man has no reservations, God wills also to have no reservations.”
God, help me to have no reservations.
What Does It Look Like?
In my very limited understanding of revival, I’ve tried to dream about what it might look like if revival happened. . . .
I’m driving by the movie theater in our city on a Friday night—and it’s empty. The lights are out and the marquee is turned off. There are no cars in the lot. Then I go on down the street and drive by our church building, and all the lights are on, and the parking lot is full—because they’re all there—praying.
Or, maybe we could just start with something simple. The first thing folks in our community say when they think of our church is, “Oh yeah, they’re that big church.” My desire is their first words would be, “Oh yeah, they’re the church that loves.”
In the 1990s a friend of mine served on the board of Promise Keepers. In a wave of spiritual renewal that swept the country, thousands of men were experiencing revival in their lives and families. Men’s movements were spontaneously flying up everywhere. My friend said to me, “Promise Keepers is gloriously out of control!”
I am hoping that someday someone will say that about our church.
Rick Lowry is community life pastor at Community Christian Church, Newburgh, Indiana.