By Wayne Jacobsen in a continuing series on The Phenomenon of the Dones.
I hear it everywhere I go.
“I believe we’re on the verge of a great revival.” People say it with that far away look in their eyes as they gaze deeply into the spiritual ether.
I have no reason to doubt their sincerity or their hopes for I used to be one of them. As a pastor of a local congregation I knew that something was amiss. While some amazing things happened in our fellowship over the years, there was an unsettling undercurrent that tore at my heart: the ridiculous expectations, the burdensome program, the political bickering, and the soul-numbing routine that was not often as life-giving as I’d hoped. To add wisdom to injury, every time I would read the Gospels I was reminded that Jesus never got caught up in those things.
And I’ve been hearing people pine away for this coming revival for over fifty years. It’s the same people too, that keep telling themselves it’s just “right around the corner.” Regardless of how you feel about Pensacola, Toronto, or Redding, none of them grew beyond their own borders or the celebrities they spawned, nor did they move beyond the kind of miraculous encounters that are easily replicated by group dynamics and the power of suggestion. That’s not to say that God didn’t touch people in some marvelous ways, but none of these proved to be a widespread revival folks have hoped for.
When I try to pin people down to what that revival looks like, most hearken back to the Welsh revival, Charles Finney, or even the Jesus People days of the early 70s. They describe people being overwhelmed with conviction and coming to the Lord in repentance, or an outpouring of supernatural power that draw the media and swell attendance at local congregations. In all cases they paint the image of a stadium-sized crowd caught up in an ecstatic experience. Almost no one describes what it would look like in the world.
My more cerebral colleagues wait less for some kind of supernatural encounter, but they do hope for a new structure will emerge from the current dissatisfaction that will make the church more relevant in this century without compromising the authenticity of the Gospel once delivered to the saints. Every year a new onslaught of books promises to offer new structures that will carry the church further in the 21st century but in time they all fade away to be replaced by a new set of books offering yet more possibilities.
Perhaps nothing exposes the emptiness of our religious pursuits more than waiting for this revival, or the endless search for a better structure. Underneath both is the tacit admission that what we currently see falls short of what we hunger to experience and that has help to drive the growing surge away from religious institutions. We want an active God, overturning the culture with the coming kingdom, just like Jesus did and a Gospel that engages people and transforms them in a way the world cannot ignore. What does that search say except that God isn’t already doing all that he can to engage this world and unfold the kingdom among us?
If you think God has stopped doing those things and is waiting capriciously for some future date to finally give us all the good stuff, then you may want to reconsider. What kind of God would that be? Jesus already told us that his Father is always working. Could it be true that while we’re waiting for the revival we seek, we miss what he’s already doing around us?
That turned out to be true for me. In my days of waiting for something incredible that would infuse our congregation with a fresh dose of passion and power, I only grew increasingly frustrated. Our endless prayer meetings seemed to make no difference. I begged him and he seemed silent. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered he hadn’t been silent after all. He’d been nudging me down a road I couldn’t see because I was so focused on him doing what I thought best.
But I only discovered that after I found myself excluded from the congregation I had helped to plant due to a contest of power I didn’t have the heart to engage. Though I was offered numerous pastoral jobs elsewhere, I was not interested. I figured I would find my way back into another congregation at some point, but wasn’t in a hurry to do so. During that time my wife and I began to discover that the renewal we had hoped for was already happening outside the walls of the traditional congregation.
We saw God at work in people all around us and a began to taste of the worldwide phenomenon of people who were all spontaneously and simultaneously moving outside the traditional congregational mode to learn to live in the Father’s affection and freely share it with others. It captures our hearts and allowed us to embrace a depth of community with others that wasn’t distracted by structures and programs. It’s made me wonder that we don’t see it encased in a building or a conference anywhere because the moment it is, it begins to wither under human control. Honestly I couldn’t have seen it as long as I was focused on the religious system we had built and prayed so hard for God to revitalize.
I know that’s threatening to those who think the only place God can move is in a sanctioned institution, but that is only because they haven’t looked elsewhere. I was shocked by the people I met outside those structures that where passionate about following Jesus, loving others, and sharing his life with the world around them. I often tell people who are so condemning of people outside that they have no idea what they would see of God’s reality if they set aside all their institutional engagements for two years. It takes some time for the fog to clear, but many discover that God was at work in many ways they just can’t see when they were focused on the endless activities, political wrangling and corporate needs of an institution.
Even people leaving may be part of the very revival those who condemn them are praying for. Some have tagged them the “dones”, but what many of them are craving is a simpler more authentic faith that becomes part of the fabric of their daily lives. It’s the routine and obligations of an institution that lull many to spiritual slumber. The reason I no longer pray for revival is because I’m already living in the reality I hoped it would bring. The reason I don’t seek a new church model is because I discovered that it wasn’t important. God moves among people not systems and while he can move in and around any system we devise it is not his priority to revive systems, but to revive people.
That’s already going on around you and if you miss it it’s because your eyes aren’t focused on what he is doing, but on what you want to see him do. Jesus warned us that those who sought miraculous signs would most likely miss them when they came because they don’t come the way we think they should or in the places we want to see it? Maybe it’s not what’s happening down at the altar under the bright TV lights that matters, but in the woman sitting in the balcony crying by herself. Perhaps it isn’t in the conference or revival service, but a co-worker you’ve never even had the courage to get to know, a neighbor who hides behind their front door, or the person sitting next to you on the subway.
Jesus didn’t share our preoccupation with large-scale revivals or even crafting more relevant structues. While he did miracles and healed the sick he didn’t use them to start a movement or draw the crowd. In fact he downplayed them more than not because his compassion was directed at people not visibility. Even Jesus’ brothers questioned why he did these things in Galilee rather than going to Jerusalem and become a public figure.
Perhaps Jesus explained it best when he talked about leaving the ninety-nine sheep to go seek the one that was lost. That’s where the Shepherd works, not with ninety-nine who thinks themselves secure, but with the one who knows they are lost. His larger point just may have been that ministry happens best one at a time. That is why he told us to, “Love one another,” not to “Love everyone.” Love is best applied in the singular, the next person in front of you rather than trying to draw a crowd or change the culture.
While Jesus taught crowds on occasion, his most compelling moments came on boat trips with his disciples, spending an afternoon with a woman at well in Samaria or he having lunch with Zaccheus when the streets were lined with people who wanted to see the miracle-worker from Galilee. Something gets distorted in crowds that make it more difficult for us to see what God is doing. We are easily distracted by fame and by the identity of a crowd while God is more interested in the heart.
That’s why I scratch my head now when I see people who are willing to fly around the world to pray for a revival when they wouldn’t walk across the street or even across the aisle on a Sunday morning to engage someone desperately in need of love. We’d rather go to a strategy meeting to reach the lost than strike up a conversation with a person we’re sitting next to on a plane. We are so busy seeking the crowd, the large-scale, attention-grabbing events, that we miss the way Jesus works behind the scenes to touch people every day. The more I get involved in the needs and struggles of individuals the more I see how he intervenes and rescues the people in incredible ways. Isn’t this how he asked us to love?
Almost daily I hear of some amazing things God is doing to share his love with people. I am excited by the way he draws people into his life and addresses their deepest needs with his power. That’s why when I hear people pining away for a future revival I want to shake them and say, “Don’t you see what is already happening around you?” God is alive and moving in the world in ways that astound me.
This quest for revival is a focus on the ninety-nine, and not on the one. Revivals begin with the people to love, not with outpourings or structure changes. It’s not programs that need reformation but enough people to embrace the perspective that loving “one another” is the currency of this kingdom and whether we gather in buildings or not, it is the loving that will change the world and it can only happen one life at a time. Revivals aren’t contrived by prayer rallies, celebrity leaders, or human program; they merely result from people discovering and sharing God’s love as freely as he shares it with them.
Whatever revival we see in the coming years won’t be the result of a long-awaited divine intervention. Remember he is always working, and that includes today. Rather than praying for a revival or a better way to do church, we might just ask him to show us what he is already doing around us and participate with him there. Who is he giving you to love today? How does he want to touch that life and how is he asking you to care for them.
If any larger scale revival is in the wings, this is where it will begin anyway.
This is part 15 in a series on The Phenomenon of the Dones by Wayne Jacobsen who is the author of Finding Church and host of a podcast at TheGodJourney.com. You can read the first half here and subsequent parts below:
- Part 8: Five Factors Contributing to the Decline in “Church Attendance”
- Part 9: An Invitation Not An Imposition
- Part 10: The Conversations that Matter Most
- Part 11: Monetizing Ministry
- Part 12: Handling the Truth
- Part 13: Do You Have Community?
- Part 14: Reaching Across the Divide
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