CHRISTIAN media – mainstream and social – have been full of it. I’ve been receiving glowing notifications on WhatsApp, Messenger, by email and telephone. Christians everywhere are wildly excited about revelations that a genuine ‘Holy Ghost’ revival has broken out at Asbury University, Kentucky, a Christian institution.
It started on Wednesday February 8 when students gathered for their regular chapel service. During a call to confession at the close of the service, at least 100 people fell to their knees and bowed at the altar. After the benediction, and the singing of a final chorus, the congregation did not want to leave, being struck by a quiet but powerful sense of transcendence. Many who did leave asked their professors if they could return, and within a few hours the chapel was packed. The service continued – and has done ever since.
For days, people have been giving testimonies, worshipping, praying and expressing repentance and contrition for sin. Students, professors and local church leaders have taken part. One visitor noted how ‘some were reading and reciting Scripture. Others were standing with arms raised. Several were clustered in small groups praying together. A few were kneeling at the altar rail in the front of the auditorium. Some were lying prostrate, while others were talking to one another, their faces bright with joy’.
Within 24 hours, students had begun to arrive from other universities while reports and video-clips from mobile phones were being shared widely across social media. Meetings quickly became packed beyond capacity, and soon people were coming from all over the country to observe and participate.
Certainly, it’s difficult to view some of the hours-long video-footage from Asbury’s Hughes Auditorium and not be deeply moved, sensing something authentic is happening here. The worship is impassioned and reverent and devoid of hype. No big names have been invited to speak; ‘Jesus is the only celebrity here’, observed one participant. Such has been the depth of contrition that a visiting pastor said the carpet near the stage was literally damp from tears.
This is by no means the first time that Asbury has tasted revival. The college has an unparalleled legacy of significant spiritual moves sweeping the campus and reaching well beyond.
The first was in February 1905 when, during a blizzard, a prayer meeting in the men’s dormitory spilled out to the rest of campus and the town of Wilmore. Further movements happened in 1908, 1921 and in the 1930s. In February 1950, worship and prayer services continued for 118 hours and were reported nationwide.
Asbury’s best-known revival broke out in February 1970. Classes were cancelled for a week during the 144 hours of unbroken revival meetings. The Jesus Movement had begun a year or two earlier, but the Asbury Revival accelerated it dramatically. Eventually, teams of students left Asbury and went across the country, telling their story. In many places there was spiritual awakening. Asbury’s most recent revival occurred in 2006.
Curiously, these movements all took place at this time of year, during February or occasionally March. Most were short-lived, usually a couple of weeks at most, though overall impact has often been of a lasting nature.
Is the current movement genuine? Virtually everyone who has spent time there in the past week is of no doubt that it is. A Baptist pastor of over 50 years wrote: ‘God is very present. The worship is glorious, unified and simple. The altar is almost always full. There are wise leaders from the university who are helping shepherd the moment. Everything is extremely orderly but vibrant, spontaneous and powerful.’
The awakening has already been spreading. Cedarville University, Ohio, and Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, among others, have been greatly invigorated by reports from Asbury and are experiencing their own revival breakout.
Having studied revival movements in some depth for several decades, and while greatly encouraged by what I’ve heard so far, I have one major concern about present events at Asbury. Media attention from day one has been unrelenting. Reporters from (mainly) the Christian press have been flocking to the scene. The number of hours that uninterrupted meetings have continued is carefully noted, and compared with past seasons of blessing. Charisma News has published a feature every day since the movement began. Even the secular press are now reporting on it. Revival video-clips have gone viral on TikTok and Instagram, racking up a staggering 25million-plus hits.
All this puts enormous pressure on those leading the meetings, as well as on participating students. The whole world is watching; nobody wants to disappoint. The pressure to keep the excitement going and for interest to be maintained as long as possible – ultimately, the pressure to ‘perform’ – is enormous. What started as a beautiful, quiet, inauspicious time of spiritual refreshment is quickly becoming a national spectacle. If hype and human effort become prominent players at Asbury, it will change everything.
Ultimately, the media’s obsession with Asbury is a reflection of the Church’s yearning to see a fresh move of God’s Spirit in our midst. We read dramatic accounts of revival in history books; we hear them preached in sermons. Despite endless theories of how they operate, few of us have ever experienced what can genuinely be termed corporate ‘revival’. It continues to evade us, leading to increasing desperation for God to ‘rend the heavens’ and come down.
Indeed, our ardent longing for a move of the Spirit can produce a tendency, when all our praying fails to effect one, for humans to attempt to reproduce revival by our own efforts. This has been the essence of so many charismatic ‘outpourings’ we’ve heard about in recent decades (especially in the States). But rather than being ‘prayed down’ from on high, many of these are invariably ‘worked up’ by man.
The difference between the two is chalk and cheese. The former is marked by contrition, repentance and an overflow of peace, joy and love resulting in changed lives, with lasting effect. The latter, being led by man, is full of hype, exaggerated claims and sensationalist, fleshly excitement – its effects are invariably short-lived.
So many are now turning up for Asbury meetings that four overflow buildings have been opened, all packed to the brim. What began as a not-uncommon season-of-February blessing on a well-known Christian campus is quickly turning into something that distinguishes it from all previous movements at the college. Church leaders are already talking up events at Asbury – one seeing it as ‘the big one, the one we have longed for, the revival that could go global’, potentially leading to the Third Great Awakening. Pure hype and exaggeration.
Nevertheless, so far, so good. The revival is being guided sensitively, and leaders have now asked that there be no more live streaming of services. They have also apparently turned down a very lucrative offer of involvement and resources from other ministries. They are further encouraging believers to allow events at their campus to inspire us to pray for similar in our own communities and churches. These are all good signs.
God the Spirit is ever true to His name – Holy. I hope and pray that God will bless and protect all that which is of Him at Asbury; and that it will not be dampened or aborted by undue pressure from a wishful, watching world. Rather, may it result in beautiful, life-energising fruit which will stand the test of time.