People sometimes tell a story that begins with the truly spiritual and often Calvinistic ‘revivals’ of the Great Awakening and Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century, to the increasingly emotionally manipulative, tightly-managed and often Arminian revivalism of the nineteenth century, which gave way to both the industrialised mass evangelism and the full-blown experientialism of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century. This story, and its distinction between (true) Revival and (counterfeit) revivalism, is one you are likely to be taught it in church history lectures, read in books and hear in discussions of mission and evangelism.

Rather than speaking of Revival vs Revivalism, I think it is more helpful to speak of Biblical Revivalism vs Unbiblical Revivalism.

However, I don’t think the distinction is a clear or effective one.

I believe it is much better to use the term ‘revival’ to describe an outcome: the phenomenon of massive growth in spiritual seriousness and evangelistic fruitfulness, whether it appears to be almost entirely spontaneous or not.[1] ‘Revivalism’ (and ‘revivalist’, ‘revivalistic’ and so on) should describe activities, ideas, people and organisations that aim at Revival, whether or not Revival takes place, whether or not the ideas or activities are considered biblically legitimate or not. That is, rather than speaking of Revival vs Revivalism, I think it is more helpful to speak of Biblical Revivalism vs Unbiblical Revivalism.[2]

Most Revivals Are Revivalistic

If you pay close enough attention, you will notice methods and techniques that played a part in even the most remarkable, miraculous and theologically Calvinistic of revivals. For example, the publication of sermons and accounts of revivals were common at the time of the Evangelical Revival. These served as a model to other ministers and sowed seeds of expectation in congregation members. Mark Noll describes various skills which contributed to the Evangelical Revival and Great Awakening:

They were, however, unusually gifted men: one of the greatest public orators of the century (Whitefield), one of the most effective organisers for one of the longest period of effectiveness (John Wesley), one of the pioneers in the management of publicity (William Seward), one of the most compelling popular troubadours (Charles Wesley), one of the most powerful thinkers (Edwards), several of the critical forerunners of printed mass communication (John Lewis, Thomas Prince, William McCulloch), and then scores of others who in their local spheres were sometimes even more memorable as preachers, networkers, hymnwriters, theologians and communicators.[3]

More, circumstances that aren’t deliberately engineered and practices that aren’t adopted with the intention of triggering a revival also usually play a part in revivals too. If we are to be critical of so-called revivals engineered by human effort, we should also show enough discernment to realise that less self-conscious forces can also bring about something which looks like revival. Just because it wasn’t deliberately planned doesn’t mean it is therefore of God!

To insist that a true revival must be almost entirely spontaneous and surprising is neither biblical nor historical.

So-Called ‘Revivalism’ Can Lead to Revivals

Even where illegitimate or questionable practices have been adopted, we must beware of therefore dismissing the results of that ministry as ‘mere revivalism’ or ‘mere emotionalism’. Our Lord’s treasure is carried in jars of clay, doing truly miraculous work through sometimes terribly flawed methods. Of course, there comes a point where the degree of emotionalism or professionalisation or traditionalism needs to be critiqued, but this does not mean all the fruits must be therefore be condemned.

We also ought to beware of a view of revival which considers any results that arise from careful planning to be illegitimate and unspiritual. Stuart Piggin argues in a chapter of Spirit, Word and World that the well-planned, modern, mass evangelism of the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade in Australia did indeed produce a revival. I think you could say the same for the well-planned, late-modern, personal evangelism of Campus Bible Study at the University of New South Wales and the Evangelical Union at the University of Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. All of these adopted a range of strategies and techniques—some of them somewhat cutting-edge, like the Two Ways To Live outline and training. All of these leveraged the emerging communication technologies of their time—whether sound amplification or cassette tapes. In that sense, Billy Graham, Phillip Jensen, Col Marshall, Andrew Katay and Robert Forsyth were all revivalists. But this does not mean that the Holy Spirit, therefore, did not work to bring about true Revival through their efforts.

Thinking Clearly about how God Sovereignly Works through Human Agency

All Christians can agree that Christ sovereignly builds his church in such a way that makes significant use of human agency—he answers our prayers, he commands us to preach; he calls on sinners to repent and have faith; he directs us towards the nations; he urges us to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means” we might save others.

Even advocates of ‘pure revival’. in the Calvinistic vein, usually call not only for prayer and faithful preaching, but for a particular kind of prayer (lengthy times of prayer, mid-week congregational prayer meetings) and a particular kind of preaching (whether marked stirringly passionate unction or transcendent and stern biblicism). These are works of human agency.

So the question is never a simple one of either God’s sovereignty or human responsibility.

So the question is never a simple one of either God’s sovereignty or human responsibility. Nor is it one of either simple faithfulness or seeking fruitfulness. Rather, the best thinking on this question, right back to Jonathan Edwards, is “What are the God-given means for pursuing gospel ministry?” and “What are the God-given restraints on how we pursue gospel ministry?”[4] It is perfectly appropriate to seek the outcome of someone becoming a Christian or the bolder outcome of a revival. However, we should seek these outcomes with the means the Lord of the mission has provided, in the manner he has commanded.

Admitting You’re a Revivalist Helps You Examine Your Revivalism

So long as we might think of ourselves as just being faithful and biblical, we can be blind to the techniques and strategies we adopt because of our evangelical traditions. If we tell ourselves we are not revivalists, then we won’t be self-aware enough to critique our own revivalism.

In fact, each subsequent generation tends to adopt some of the ‘new measures’ that were controversial in a previous generation, as if they are an ordinary part of everyday ministry. Consider some everyday practices which were controversial in centuries gone by:

  • ‘Personal work’ and various kinds of proactive pastoring (what we would call follow-up).
  • After-meetings to do further ‘personal work’ (what we might call a follow-up course).
  • ‘Protracted meetings’ (a mission-week preaching series).
  • An extensive and emotional use of music and other ‘items’ in the church meeting.
  • Preaching outside of church buildings on days other than Sunday.
  • Setting aside people for evangelistic work, rather than the ordinary work of local church ministry.
  • Participation of unordained people, including women, in church services and other organised ministries, including pastoring, praying and Bible teaching.
  • Organisations beyond church services and church courts for prayer, evangelism and ministry (what we call ‘ministries’, ‘parachurches’ and ‘networks’ today).
  • Other kinds of small and large group meetings outside of church services and family devotions (what we called ‘church ministries’)
  • Camp meetings (what evolved into what we call ‘conferences’).

None of these things are necessarily wrong. But being aware of them opens up other possibilities in different strategic or cultural contexts. It helps us hold things loosely that are legitimate techniques but not biblical necessities. It helps us make sure we’re on the lookout for the genuine work of God, not merely conformity to our revivalistic practices—all the while admitting no human can fully presume to judge such things.

[1] The 1827 New Lebanon Convention definition is a good one: “Revivals of true religion are the work of God’s spirit [sic], by which, in a comparatively short period of time, many persons are convinced of sin, and brought to the exercise of repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” This was written by American Congregationalists, both conservative and deliberately revivalistic, who met in New Lebanon to try to reach an agreement about revivalism, especially in response to a growing number of new practices being adopted. Quoted in D. Bebbington, Victorian Religious Revivals: Culture and Piety in Local and Global Contexts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 2.

[2] So also, we could speak of False Revival, Revival and Spiritual Revival. That is, a ‘false revival’ might be a claim for revival that does not check out, even on a sociological level; a ‘revival’ is any truly exceptional awakening of religious life and conversion; a ‘spiritual revival’ (or biblical or authentic or true) is one that as best as we can discern is truly a work of the living God.

[3] M. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, Leicester: Apollos, 2011, 132. Or much more cynically, John Kent writes that it “is obvious enough that Jonathan Edwards set out to preach his congregation into a state of religious hysteria and that his merciless analysis of hthe nature of everlasting punishment was carefully calculated to achieve his end. If no one had thought of the result as ‘arranged’, or as less than the work of God himself, this was partly because of the Protestant reverence for preaching. As long as the only technique used was the technique of the sermon, it was possible or the Protestant to think of human instrumentality as absent, for the Puritan conception of the sermon meant that the human element in its composition and delivery could only, by itself, frustrate the will of God.” J. Kent, Holding the Fort: Studies in Victorian Revivalism, London: Epworth Press, 1978, 18–19.

[4] God restrains us by more than simply explicit commands. The whole counsel of God feeds into our understanding of how we ought to go about gospel ministry. See the classic articles by Tony Payne in The Briefing “Being biblical or doing what works”. http://thebriefing.com.au/1999/07/being-biblical-or-doing-what-works-part-1-do-we-have-to-choose/ and http://thebriefing.com.au/1999/07/doing-what-works-part-2-the-bibles-marching-orders/ accessed 17th February 2023.