Revivals and Experts on Revivals

“What do you think about the revival at Asbury in Wilmore?”

For those who may not have heard, students at Asbury University met on Wednesday, February 8, for their normal weekly chapel service, and that chapel service has not ceased since this moment of writing. Since that time, several thousand guests from all over the United States have streamed to the small rural central Kentucky campus to worship Christ. Normal Spring events on campus have been disrupted, and studies have taken a back seat to what appears to be a movement of Spiritual renewal. Similar movements have been sparked on the campuses of other Christian colleges around the United States.

How do you make sense of such a thing? What’s your opinion? I’ve been asked these kinds of questions a few times since it started, and honestly, I have a lot more to say about the various interpretations of the event than the event itself. The Christian response reveals some harmful tendencies in the church today.

Many have responded with cynical criticism. My friend and mentor David Prince addressed the cynical aspect of the response when he wrote last week, “We live in a cynical age. Cynicism is in the air we breathe, a cultural norm, our default setting. Being a cynic is easy. Cynics do not do; (from a safe distance) they critique those who do. I remember hearing cynicism once described as over-confident, self-referential suspicion. I think that sounds about right. Cynicism has roots in hopelessness. What is more antithetical to a Christian worldview than hopelessness?”

I want to address another aspect of the response: our incessant need to position ourselves as experts. Anytime people get excited about anything, people rush to the front of the line to speak authoritatively as the ones who really understand what’s happening. They want to be perceived as the experts, the ones to whom the rest of us should defer. We reward them with likes and shares and retweets, the symbols of affirmation and influence in our digital culture.

Why do we all feel the pressure to have an opinion about everything? Why do we so desperately crave to be considered experts? In his 2017 book, The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols observed “Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything.” We reject real expert knowledge because we think we’re experts ourselves. Armed with an iPhone and Wi-Fi, we are ready to weigh in on everything from Chinese spy balloons to global pandemics. The internet has qualified everyone to speak on any and every issue. The problem, however, is that when everyone’s an expert, no one’s an expert.

On Thursday, August 6, 1801, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people gathered around the Cane Ridge Meetinghouse in Bourbon County, Kentucky, for a week-long “camp meeting” that would become the seminal event of the “Great Revival.” Ministers from several denominations preached and led singing around stumps and in meadows over consecutive days, and hundreds of people professed faith in Christ. Churches in Kentucky swelled over the next several years as similar revivals spread across the United States.

The following year in Lexington, the Presbyterian Adam Rankin published A Review of the Noted Revival in Kentucky, in which he dismissed the event as the wild actions of delusional masses. At least two Kentucky ministers, one a Presbyterian and the other a Baptist, responded to Rankin’s cynicism with more nuanced interpretations that drew on Jonathan Edwards’ earlier research on revivals. They recognized the genuine work of God even as they admitted some unhealthy components. But what did all these men have in common? They were pastors, theologians, and Bible scholars in Kentucky. In other words, they had witnessed firsthand what was happening and had expertise to speak to the matter.

In the past week, we’ve seen people from all around the nation rush to weigh in with dismissive criticism on social media without even being there. We’ve seen many dismiss the event simply because it does not fit conventional patterns of how God typically does things. Some have critically picked apart the sermon from the speaker that began it all or drawn conclusions from two-minute video clips posted online.

Jesus taught that the “wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Perhaps we need to recognize that when it comes to figuring out God and his ways, none of us are really experts. Further, we could all benefit from reflecting on Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belongs to us and to our children, that we may do all the words of this law.” Anti-intellectualism is never a virtue, and God has kindly revealed enough in his Word to occupy scholars for the rest of history. But he has also set limits on our knowledge, and wisdom humbly recognizes that there are matters we simply cannot know.

Throughout history, God has proven again and again that he is not confined to human convention. I pastor in a historical Baptist tradition that relies on the “normal means of grace” because we believe that God has revealed that he usually advances his kingdom through the normal rhythms of the church’s ministry of prayer, Word, and sacrament. However, God has also worked in history in very unconventional ways to advance his cause. If God decides to interest a campus of university students in rural Kentucky in weeks-long perpetual adoration and worship, if many come and repent and believe and give testimony of his grace through Christ, if the movement spreads to other campuses across America—well, I’m just not sure why any Christian would be so adamant about finding fault with that. Don’t let your supposed “expertise” rob you of adoring a God who often works mysteriously and always transcends our best attempts at figuring him out.

May God revive his people.

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