The God’s Honest Truth About “Revival”

It’s likely that mainline United Methodists are only vaguely aware of the “revival” happening at United Methodist-adjacent Asbury College. But it’s an event that evangelicals across denominational lines can’t stop talking about, and so I’ll jump in a bit today.

Let me start with my primary ending point:

If “revivals” are not a part of your religious tradition, if you don’t understand them, have never experienced them, or tend to feel vaguely uneasy about them, there is nothing wrong, missing, or defective about your spiritual life.

I suppose that’s the one “take-away” point I would have you remember, and I really hope you do.

Revivals and “altar calls” are only tangentially a part of my own religious life of sixty years. When I was a young person, I suppose I was rather critical of them and might have even had some spiritual FOMO about them.

But, at this point in life, I write today not to offer any kind of critique of the tradition, precisely because I have grown into a more confident embrace of my *own* spiritual journey and the ways in which God is richly present and important in my life.

And therefore, I have no real critique as to the “Asbury Revival” beyond:

“Well, good for them…I hope it’s helpful to them. I sincerely do. God bless them.”

Others online are, of course, offering critiques and perhaps even making excuses for why it’s happening, and why now. They suggest we wait to see what “fruit” comes of it. They’re suggesting that it was orchestrated ahead of time, or that it was planned by those affiliating with the GMC (To allegedly show God’s Spiritual blessing on that movement…) Still other critiques are simply opining about revivalism itself…as a movement and religious practice.

Again, I want to assert my deeply held agnosticism about the “reasons why it happened.” If you want to debate (pro or con) any of these critiques I’ve listed, or others that come to you, don’t bother. Take that somewhere else.

I have absolutely no idea why it’s happening, and I have not one iota of desire to assign meaning or purpose to it.

If it’s a “real,” spontaneous, and unplanned event, great.
If it’s an orchestrated thing, I honestly don’t even care about that either.

It makes no difference to me because, again, revivalism of this sort is not a part of my spiritual practice or personal identity. I understand —God has made clear to me time and again— that a great many Christians have rich, deep fulfilling spiritual lives without ever once experiencing evangelical revivalism.

Further, those who *never* experience it are not defective, lacking, or “missing something” as they journey through life. As deep as revivalism is in the American Evangelical experience, pretending that it must be normative for all is an absolute lie about how God moves in and through the world and human beings.

For decades now, I’ve very strongly held to the admonition of St. Paul that:

“…the depths of a person can only be known by their own spirit, not by any other person, and in the same way the depths of God can only be known by the Spirit of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:11, JB)

For me, this one verse is deeply important for both my interfaith understandings, and my inter-denominational ones too. And I apply this verse equally to both situations. This means that in both my *interfaith* understanding —Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, even Atheists– and also my *interdenominational* ones —evangelical Christians, other Christians in other branches of the Christian tree— God has taught me this:

I can’t possibly know what’s going on in their heads…and, guess what? You can’t either.

Paul was deeply right about the world of the Spirit, and that whole second chapter of 1 Corinthians is probably worth all of us re-reading way more than we do.

Time and again in Bible studies, I’ve been asked to explain “What do Jews believe about (fill in the blank)?” And only on rare occasions have I failed to say, “Beats me…I’m not a Jew…I can’t begin to tell you what it feels to be a Jew, any more than I can tell you what it feels like to be a Latina or Queer…or anything else outside my own head.”

The same is true for evangelical Christians too: I am not an evangelical Christian. I can’t tell you what it feels like to be on the inside of their experience. There is a deep existentialism to spiritual experience that Paul seemed to understand and that all Christians should too.

I’ll say this…I have known beautiful human beings of other faiths —Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, etc— who exhibit, through the fruit of their actions, all the things Jesus calls us to be in the world. And I have known evangelicals and other Christians who are absolutely horrible people; whose actions contradict every teaching Christ invites us to follow.

Again, my view is that we must profess a deep agnosticism about what’s happening inside the heads of other people. Christians of all kinds, for far too long, have professed to have some kind of super-human ability to speak for all humanity, to understand what goes on in the head of other people. This is folly and, in the extreme, dangerous.

So, if you are a Christian who has never experienced revivalism, and have been made to feel bad about this: Just stop. There’s nothing defective, wrong, or missing in your spiritual life. If you are an ex-evangelical, and these stories coming out of Asbury are triggering to you, I understand this too. And therefore, let me end with three short stories about my family’s experience with revivalism.

My family has four generations of revivalism experience. My great-grandfather, Samuel Chesley Mays, was for much of his early adult life…no other way to say it…a real asshole. Abusive to his wife and two young girls. Owned a bar in downtown Atlanta, Texas. Probably was a “raging” alcoholic.

“Ches” Mays attended a revival meeting, preached by the great Methodist revivalist, Rev. Abe Mulkey. Apparently, it changed his life.

The story is that he came home from the revival that night, threw the keys of the bar on the kitchen table, and told his wife “I quit.”

He later closed up the bar, and went into the grocery business. Decades later, that business would become my Grandfather’s business too. So important was this moment of spiritual reawakening, that “Ches Mays” named his next male child, his first boy, “Abe Mulkey Mays.”

All of this said, it would be a lie to pretend that life was always better for the Mayses. Many of the family members still struggled/struggle with addiction, depression, and even suicide. Unquestionably, a Methodist revival changed the trajectory of generations of our family. But, also unquestionably, it did not forever heal every old wound of the spirit, time, and experience.

Flash forward to years later, when my Mother was in high school in Atlanta. Another revival came to town. All the high school kids went. The preacher this night was a Baptist. He preached about the dangers of drinking. But also of….you might guess…dancing. He asked for all the kids in town to make a commitment to avoid drinking and dancing.

Mom was cool with the “no drinking” part (so she says…), but the “no dancing” part? She was a good Methodist girl, and dancing wasn’t actually against their faith. Further, she knew with rock-bottom certainty that every kid in town would be at the big high school dance the next weekend.

There was an absolutely certainty that they would *all* be dancing. Every single one.

That said, the revival preacher ended with an “altar call” inviting the kids to come down, commit/recommit their life to Christ, and to the “no dancing pledge.”

Mom decided she could not, in good conscience, “go down.” But one by one, she watched all of her classmates —kids she absolutely knew would be at that dance— go down for the altar call. She sat in her chair, stunned at the hypocrisy of the moment.

In the sweaty, humid, East Texas air, older heavyset Baptist woman sat down in the chair in front of her, and entreated Mom:
“Won’t you go down, honey?! Won’t you go down?!!!”

The woman was certain Mom’s eternal soul was at stake. Bless her heart… And bless Mom’s, too.
She didn’t go down. The only kid in the whole town who didn’t. It took a lot of personal fortitude and courage to make that choice.

After that night, Mom’s soul was not, for one second, in danger of eternal torment. And, as she tells it, everybody came to the dance. 

She went on to live another 70-ish years, as one of the most deeply Christian and deeply spiritual people I have ever known.

Her story imprinted on me, too. When I was a young preacher, I was invited to an event where revivalist worship was a part of the closing ceremony. I watched as the leader made an altar call. I watched as they dimmed the lights.

And all I could think was “Oh no you didn’t! You didn’t just dim the lights!!”

Then, the tinkling sounds of an electronic keyboard, playing emotional music, wafted out, over the crowd.

And all I could think was “Oh now you didn’t! You didn’t just starting playing that!!”

For me, the moment was ruined. It felt manipulated and strained….and I am a person who is led by my feelings. It should have been my kind of moment. Many people went down that night. And, God bless them, I am sure it was helpful to them. (My agnosticism about spiritual experience was true, even then…)

But I sat there in a growing and seething anger, feeling manipulated by the whole experience. I understood, right then and there, that it simply never had been, and never likely would be, a part of my Christian journey. There was nothing defective about me.

I never once doubted God’s presence in my life because of that moment, but I also never forgot the sense of spiritual manipulation I felt in that moment either. And have vowed to try (best I can) to avoid moments that feel manipultive my own leading as a pastor.

So, ironically, the moment did change my life! It showed me, beyond all doubt, that I didn’t have to have revivalism as a part of my journey…that me and God were good. I’m so grateful, and feel such freedom in my Christian walk, for that experience now.

Do I need to regularly repent of my sin, and confess to God?
Yes. Of course I do.

Do I need regular worship, and connection with others on the spiritual journey?
Of course I do!

Am I sometimes transported to a place of deep connection with God in Christian worship? In nature? In journaling and prayer? through music and art?
Yes. Of course I am!

Do I feel a deep and abiding sense that God is with me, through my good, bad, and ugly experiences?
Absolutely, 100%..and I’m so grateful for that presence!

But, like my Mother before me, do I feel spiritual lack, or loss, or “something missing” because revivalism is not a part of my experience?
No…not really. Honestly, and sincerely, I don’t.

Now, there might be others who would read this long essay and assume “Thou dost protest too much… revivalism must still be a thorn in your side, or else you wouldn’t write all this.”
Well, no, actually I’m not writing any of this for me. God and me settled all this decades ago.

I’m writing today for anybody who is watching what’s happening at Asbury and experiencing either Spiritual FOMO *or* PTSD.

I’m here with the following message that God has placed on my heart…things I urge you to consider:

1. Wish those at Asbury well, hope and pray what they are experiencing is genuine. And consider the agnosticism of St. Paul as to their experience.
I invite you to say “Well, God bless them…”

2. Believe that YOU are perfectly fine; just where, and just as, you are.
You can have an incredible lifetime journey with God, without or without ever experiencing or embracing revivalism.

That’s the God’s honest truth.

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