If you are a believer, you probably have some idea of what revival looks like, or, at the very least, have longed for an extraordinary move of God to come in your family, church, and city. Within believing circles, saints and congregations have historically prayed for revival. Prayer concerts, camp meetings, special services, all night vigils, and seasons of seeking God dot our various church calendars, albeit less than a century ago. Still, believers long for revival, for a fresh visitation of the Lord, for renewal of faith, for corresponding actions of justice and compassion, and for an abundant harvest of souls.
Often times, though, we associate revival with wild eyed preaching, scary spiritual manifestation, or targeted rants against particular social sins. Those who do not wish to be associated with fanaticism will steer clear of revival speech, not wanting to be connected to an Elmer Gantry-style outreach of weird people all claiming that the Lord had spoken to them. Others, disillusioned altogether with this kind of spiritual focus, opt out of any talk or vision of revival in any way, tending to view such behavior as extreme religious emotionalism without deep intellectual roots.
I do not believe that any serious thinking Christian who loves the city can avoid the importance of seeking God’s presence in our urban populations. The history of dynamic change among the people of God is directly connected to his presence, frankly, to God’s “showing up and showing out,” to demonstrate his power and accomplish his will for his glory. It is the Christian’s belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is God. When he shows up, when he visits his people, then transformation, judgment, and grace occurs. To put it another way, if God does not show up, his Kingdom will neither advance or display.
To be sure, certain forms of revival possess a checkered history of sorts when it comes to lasting spiritual renewal and fruit. We can easily seek the supra-normal manifestation in the spiritual realm, emphasizing flamboyant shows of spiritual showmanship, equating it with the demonstration of great miracles and manifestations. As a matter of fact, when many hear the word, “revival,” they think about low church, emotionalistic religious proclamation and song, with hell-fire and damnation preaching, with street corner evangelism that may be heavy on condemnation and light on grace.
While such a caricature may be true (at least to some degree), revival ought not to be ignored or treated as unimportant in the transformation of the Church and of society. When revival is defined in terms of God’s visitation, as God actually manifesting himself in a powerful, meaningful, and personal manner, transformation occurs. Anyone familiar with the rich tradition associated with revival knows this: the multiplication of mission societies, the creation of dozens of parachurch organizations dedicated to evangelism and justice, the emergence of servant leaders dedicated to serving God’s Kingdom, and the enrichment of the life and ministry of the Church can all be tied to specific moments and episodes when God, in answer to the prayer and brokenness of his people, decided to visit and renew his people.
In my mind it is better not to speculate about what revival might look like if it occurs as to think about what changes would occur in our lives if God were to manifest himself to us personally. This kind of language might trouble some, but the Scriptures are filled with stories of God revealing himself to his people, to sending the prophets to warn and rebuke them of their error, or to comfort and encourage them about his will. It is not lost on me that our Lord Jesus is called the Word (John 1), the One who communicates the mind and will of God to humankind. His incarnation into the world, his “tabernacled” among us (to change a noun to a verb) is arguably the greatest life-giving visitation in human history (John 1.14). Our God delights to be longed for, desires to reveal himself and his glory to us, and wants to see us transformed as we “behold his glory” as the apostles and saints did long ago
The freedom of God suggests that we cannot map out God’s visitation, as if we can determine what he will say and do in absolute particulars, if he decides to manifest his glory in an extraordinary way. Candidly, for those of us who believe that the Church is the body of Christ, we know that he dwells in the midst of our communities whenever Christians gather in his name, in as few numbers as two or three (Matt. 18.20). God reveals himself consistent with his own purposes and will; God’s timing, manner, and method of revealing himself is linked to his sovereign will. We cannot wind him up, or simply, in a wooden and dispassionate manner, go through certain outward religious motions and expect him to show up. Revival is neither shamanism nor magic. God will show up only if he wants to.
Futhermore, in seeking God’s visitation, our motives must be pure. We must desire the Lord to reveal himself in order that his glory might be manifest, his name exalted, his Kingdom advanced. Revival is not religious sideshow-ism, but rather our God making himself known in order that his people might be renewed, cleansed, prepared, and transformed to be better agents of his Kingdom life and better trophies of his saving grace. Revival’s purpose is not in order that we might be entertained but rather that we might be empowered to fulfill his will as the people of God. Truly then, revival, when and if it comes, will look like us who believe transformed by the power of God. Our churches will become communities of grace, our own broken lives will be changed and healed, our own poor will be cared for and empowered, and the forces of evil that ravage our lives will be overcome and put down.
This kind of revival, then, is about my own change when I encounter the Lord in a new, fresh, and life-changing way. In this manner, this becomes a personal longing, not just some abstract idea. This is the kind of revival I am praying for, the kind that will change me first, heal my life, transform my mind, and bend my will to God’s own kingdom purpose. The revival I seek is the kind that will revive me. I am coning to see that only if I receive this kind of Spirit-given visitation from the Lord, then and only then, perhaps, may he choose to use me to help others see him more clearly.
Rev. Dr. Don L. Davis, Director
The Urban Ministry Institute