Revivalism Isn’t a Dirty Word

Revivalism Isn’t a Dirty Word

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. 

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. 

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.

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