Walking past a church building recently, I noticed a large banner that included the announcement ‘Revival Meeting 7.30 Fridays’. One dictionary definition of revival suggests that it is the bringing back of something from a depressed, inactive and unused state. I am pretty certain that the church notice was not indicating that such a thing happened to their spiritual life once a week on a Friday evening. As with many words, revival has tended to lose a clear, defined meaning, which evokes a constant understanding in all those who hear it.
As I write about revival, I believe it is sensible to give some definition of what I mean, and equally important, do not mean, by the term. The word revival does not occur in the New Testament, and even the concept is lacking there, except perhaps to some extent in the Revelation letters to the seven Churches. The concept is clearer in the Old Testament where the people of God moved through cycles of disobedience and falling away and then repentance and restoration. So whilst it is a useful word, it is not a biblical word.
It came into Christian use in the years following the Reformation, when the condition and fortunes of the Church experienced more defined periods of ebb and flow. It came into regular and focussed use during the eighteenth, nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, especially as people recorded events and circulated them through newspapers and pamphlets. Looking back, it seems possible to identify similar events of varying degree and frequency throughout the whole history of the Church, but it is not always possible to establish their exact nature or whether they were referred to by particular terms.
However, it is possible to establish the exact nature of some events which took place during the past three hundred years. Due to the extraordinary things that happened, many people kept careful records that we can still refer to. Reports on revivals were often characterised by a focus on three things:
1. The very large numbers of people affected. Meetings, both for prayer and preaching, were sometimes huge, not merely thousands, but tens of thousands.
2. The transformation of lives. Some of the most ungodly people later testified of God’s transforming power. And also there were large number of converts, sometimes recorded by name in column after column in secular newspapers.
3. The impact on society. For instance, during and after the Welsh Revival, some police cells were empty and court sessions were cancelled as there were no cases to try.
Within the context of these three things, the predominance of prayer was also highlighted, together with the powerful, biblical preaching, which brought people to their knees in repentance under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.
These are the sort of things that come to mind for me when I refer to revival.
In recent years, there has been a tendency to shift the focus away from the things above, toward physical phenomena such as people falling, jerking or otherwise manifesting unusual actions. There has also sometimes been a looking for miraculous phenomena such as the presence of gold dust or feathers, the appearance of spiritual beings or miraculous healings.
There is no doubt that there have been occurrences of some of these things during times of revival, though it is worth noting that some revival leaders actively discouraged excessive physical responses to spiritual happenings. What is clear, however, is that there was a total absence of them in many revivals, including some of the most powerful and long lasting, and, in themselves, they cannot be considered as evidence of revival.
Personally, I regularly pray for God to manifest himself in healing power in the church, and I do believe that will happen in considerable measure again, but whilst it may coincide with revival, it will not in itself denote revival.
Unless there are regular gatherings of praying people, widespread conviction of sin, large numbers of often astonishingly changed lives, and a noticeable impact on society, whatever other good may be happening, it is not revival.
Lord! Revive your people again!