by John Armstrong
©1998, 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
The decade of the nineties has witnessed a dramatic new interest in revivals. From reports out of Toronto during the early years of the decade, to college campus stirrings in 1995, and now from the excitement generated in Pensacola, Florida, growing numbers conclude we are presently in the throes of a mighty spiritual awakening. This "new" awakening, many insist, is not like any previously witnessed in American history. We are repeatedly told that this awakening is here, or at least in its nascent stages. Proponents even assure us that the crest of this new wave of revival will rise as tides of great blessing flood our land.
The evidence for these claims abounds. One television reporter says, "The greatest revival since Pentecost has recently begun." A confident preacher tells us if we want to experience this new mighty move of God, we need to "step into the river of God which is powerfully flowing." Only those who "quench the Spirit" will miss out on this new worldwide move of the Holy Spirit.
"God is up to Something"--But What?
I have been studying revival, from a biblical and historical perspective, for nearly three decades. I witnessed a brief college shower, or "visitation," in 1970. I confess that I simply do not see this great move that so many talk about. Have I missed out on this new move of God? I even wonder to myself, "What will be the results of this kind of revival talk? More skepticism? Even further confusion regarding the gospel itself?"
The Los Angeles Times ran a well-written story several years ago with the caption: "God Is Up to Something, and It's Big." Religion writer Larry Stammer described what I have seen in my own travels across the country. Stammer observed that, "For growing numbers of Christians, especially evangelicals and Pentecostals, there is a palpable sense that the kingdom of God is near, that God is up to something big--and that it is going to happen soon."1 He noted that interest in the "literal return of the cosmic Christ" has often fostered wrong predictions. In spite of this recent history of failed prophetic speculations, Stammer wrote that a growing number of evangelicals are saying these times are different. Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright was quoted in the same article, saying: "Through the years we've seen the harvest. We've see all these tens of millions of people respond to the Gospel. But... what's happening today has been unprecedented, I'm sure, in all of history. I doubt there has ever been a time like this" (italics mine).
But what are the signs of the great revival these evangelicals speak about so enthusiastically? Stammer offered several answers from the evangelicals themselves--thousands attending Promise Keeper rallies and the 1997 Promise Keepers march on Washington; college campuses where students were then making public confessions; the fall of atheistic communism; racial reconciliation; growing movements of prayer and fasting worldwide; and the reports of unprecedented conversions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Stammer adds, "And the approach of the year 2001--the third millennium--only serves to heighten expectations among believers that God will soon show himself in dramatic ways. Pat Robertson, speaking at Pray & Fast '95, openly stated the vision of most: "We've all expected that God is getting ready to send a mighty move of his Spirit upon the earth."
A Historical Perspective
A great deal of what is happening in our time can be explained by the history and phenomenon of Finney-like revivalism, the enduring bitter fruit of the later Second Great Awakening and the 1830s. Historians are almost universally agreed that the church in America was profoundly altered from that time to the present.
But there is actually much more to this new round of revivalistic movements than the old-fashioned revivalism of previous decades. To conclude that the sole explanation for all of this noise and excitement is "Finneyism" would be too easy a conclusion to draw, especially if you disagree with the theological expostulations of Finney as profoundly historical Protestants do.
Some of what is happening, even where it could be viewed positively at times, can be simply explained by several major cultural factors of the '90s. Whereas evangelical Christianity was once defined theologically, and was clearly driven by a desire to preach a message, now it is captive to the very spirit of our age. Gordon-Conwell theologian David Wells has demonstrated repeatedly how the Church of our time views people as consumers. The products in question, notes Wells, are "the activities, the experiences, the amenities, and the message of the Church." The problem with all of this is that people are now coming to our evangelical churches, and to our revival meetings, not primarily due to interest in personal salvation by and from a holy God, but rather for how God can fulfill their voracious felt needs. If the evidence of several recent surveys is accurate at all we are not seeing a wide scale recovery of the power of the gospel. (In fact, one wonders how many who profess to be "born again" are really interested in the message of the Gospel at all, since most of them do not have even an elementary grasp of the facts of this liberating message!)
Why then are people coming to these huge "revival" events? The answer would appear to be this: personal well-being. We are able to make all of this work precisely because evangelicals have learned well how to be successful as a religious movement.2 This leads us to consider why this revival message and paradigm works so well in terms of modern life and culture. How did we get to this point? What do "self," and the present condition of things, have to do with these revivals?
The Me Generation
American life has always been individualistic. This is not new. The pattern is as old as America itself. This individualism was a direct reaction against Protestant life in Europe. It led these immigrants to develop a uniquely American way of thinking and feeling. The American desire for individual freedoms caused the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville to question how all of this disrupted the stream of what he called "time's pattern." He wrote: "Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart."3
This uniquely American Protestant stress on the solitary person is not altogether bad, but this particular modern strand of the present decade has evolved into a rampant individualism that is profoundly narcissistic. This self-oriented focus lends itself to some strange, anti-Christian and often bizarre emphases in the contemporary church. Much of this is akin to ancient Gnosticism, with its pursuit of the self through private revelation. Evangelicalism has increasingly followed such thought patterns, thereby proving accurate the words of church historian Sidney Mead that "the American denominations have successfully lent themselves to the sanctification of current existing expressions of the American way of life."4
At the end of the last century liberalism was ascendant in the major Protestant denominations. Evangelical Christianity, often the cultural and theological result of revival movements earlier in the same century, sought to preserve truth within historic Protestantism. This attempt led to ecclesiastical conflict in the early twentieth century. New denominations sprang up in protest while scores of independent mission agencies and non-church-based institutions were born. Many of these have been used by God to write a missionary success story in this century. Publishing houses, schools, and the media have all helped to expand a burgeoning evangelical enterprise. But as we near the end of the century all is clearly not well within American evangelicalism.
The Triumph of Private Vision
Theologian Ernst Troeltsch noted that the liberal Protestantism of his day advocated a "theology of subjective experience in contrast to the theology of objective revelation; the sole value it assigns to Jesus is that of serving as the original stimulator of the religious consciousness."5 This is the story of most mainline churches. The facts of the Scriptures are treated as paradigms of universal religious truths that can be experienced in a manner that will help you live better in the world. This liberal Protestantism is embarrassed, however, with facts themselves. It has never wished to be confined in its free spirit by an objective revelation. In this liberal atmosphere the Spirit can lead one to be for abortion--or against it. The Spirit can lead one to be for capital punishment--or against it. Anyone with spiritual insight can make personal judgments about these things, and a host of other ethical matters. Why is this so? Gnosis, or personal revelation, is available to everyone individually. But what happened to the protest movement of mid-century that went by the name evangelical (or for that matter, fundamental, conservative, or biblical)? In this regard, Presbyterian pastor/author Philip J. Lee notes appropriately that: "Evangelicals gain from their religion feelings of comfort and assurance regarding their eternal salvation along with emotional evidence that, unlike the common herd of humanity, they have not been abandoned in this present earthly struggle."6
While liberalism struggled for relevance at the end of the last century, wishing to make the Christian faith acceptable to its "cultured despisers," evangelicalism generally sought to stress an objective salvation that was to be found only in the person and work of the Christ as revealed in Scripture and history. Later, in the 1970s, evangelicalism would defend the integrity of the written Scriptures because it knew that without this objective revelation in a "God-breathed" form the Church would be left with mystical revelations and personal knowledge. This kind of revelation would ultimately be useless for the community of faith. It could offer as many theologies as there were people.
Since the 1960s, though, evangelical Christianity has increasingly taken on a more privatized and personal direction that looks increasingly like ancient Gnosticism. Faith, for most modern evangelicals, has more to do with the relationship between the individual and God, one to one, than with God as mediated through the historic Church and its faith. This is nothing less than the triumph of Pietism in a uniquely Americanized version. Consequently, orthodoxy is becoming a non-issue in almost every corner of the evangelical subculture. The real world for evangelicals is not the physical world but rather the inner (spiritual) world where I hear God and where I receive his truth privately, especially in these modern revivals.
Just listen to the conversations of many in our time. "Do you have a personal (i.e. ,private, inner) relationship with Christ?" "Have you made him your own (i.e., just for you) Savior?" We owe more to this emphasis upon the self, as well as the powerful influence of a generation of positive thinkers, than to any of the Protestant Reformers. Happiness--whether physical, marital, social, or material--is our private American birthright. And the evangel, in this framework of things, has been given to help you recover your lost birthright. After all, haven't we accepted Jesus into our lives and begun a new life of abundance (i.e., our own version of John 10:10 now popularized to the level of received orthodoxy)?
The Worship of Me
One of the first American critics to recognize how clearly this popular preoccupation with the self had reached religious proportions was journalist-essayist Tom Wolfe. Wolfe, a secular social critic, wrote an essay in 1977 titled, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening." This essay reads like a prophecy which has now been fulfilled.
Wolfe noted that until fairly recent times humanity had shared a "belief in serial immortality." Whatever people believed about life after death, "they have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here for a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things." Now, however, we have "climbed out of the stream" and have thereby arrived at a new religious awareness that is profoundly self-oriented. By the 1960s Wolfe said, "[even] the common man was also getting quite interested in this business of 'realizing his potential as a human being.'"7
What is most remarkable about the American experiment in Me-ism is that we are the only society ever that has been able to invest vast material resources, and at all levels, in Me. In ancient times only royalty could have lived this way. This interest was expected of the rich and famous. We have a long-running show called, "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," but now we make it increasingly possible for the average person to be rich and famous, at least within his own little private world. Wolfe again writes,
It was remarkable enough that ordinary folks now had enough money to take it and run off and alter the circumstances of their lives and create new roles for themselves... but simultaneously still others decided to go... all the way. They plunged straight toward what has become the alchemical dream of the Me Decade. The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is: changing one's personality--remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one's very self... and observing, studying, and doting on it (Me!).8
The present analysis of the self is unceasing. There are two common assumptions behind this influence upon culture. First, it is believed that with the help of others (groups, sessions, etc.) I must strip away all the excess baggage of society and my background to find the real Me, a Me that is both precious and special. Wolfe notes, profoundly, that "[it] is at this point that the new movements tend to take on a religious or spiritual atmosphere." Second, it is assumed that "there is an other order that actually reigns supreme in the world. Like the light of God itself, this other order is invisible to most mortals but he who has dug himself out from under the junk heap of civilization can discover it. And with that the Me movements were about to turn righteous."9
The Evangelical Revivals of the 1990s and Me
In the late 1960s the whole Me emphasis came on the scene with incredible effect. Thirty years of prosperity, culture-wide self-centeredness, and the loss of any personal responsibility for actions, has only increased this movement's influence. The important words from the pulpit in our time, especially in these contemporary revivals, are not redemption and justification. They are communication and relationship. And if you haven't been personally touched by one of these revivals, you have missed the "move of God." The only solution is to travel to the site of a revival (shrine?) and "get it." Hundreds of thousands are doing exactly that every year. I believe that it is likely we will see even more of these revival movements in the coming days. The emphasis, sadly, will remain more on self and Me, unless the historic pattern of orthodoxy and biblical Christian experience is regained. This will probably lead, tragically, to more of my experience of God.
We must understand that biblical Christianity is not an ecstasy. It is not about what has happened to me at the stadium, at the time of confession, or at the great prayer meeting. True Christianity includes Christian experience for sure. But is not defined by experience. True Christianity is centered around the person of Christ, who was and is a true promise keeper. We know this Christ, by the Spirit, through a body of belief--in the New Testament this is "The faith." This body of belief creates a community by the work of the Spirit. This community possesses a faith that was given publicly and historically to it through the apostles. These twelve were commissioned by Christ to put down a foundation that was given but once (since it is a foundation, then it obviously can only be put down once). It is a foundation that is discovered in Scripture. It is established through the ages by the faithful traditions of the Christian Church. It is found in the stuff of history, not inside me through an overwhelming ecstasy or trance, a vision or hallucination. In short, "an actual neurological event, a dramatic change in metabolism, something that has seemed to light up the entire central nervous system" is never to be the basis of Christian faith.
It is important to note that these evangelical movements, of the sort that has produced revivalism, have never produced confessing churches built on "the faith once for all delivered to the saints." What these modern movements all have in common is this flood of ecstatic experience. What we are seeing, I suggest, is simply more of the Me generation. It is producing a newer and more virulent revivalism that is far more opposed to the historic faith than anything which came out of the Second Great Awakening. (The Second Great Awakening produced heresies galore and the sects and cults that resulted are still very much with us to this time.)
Whatever we can say about the increased interest many have in revival and spiritual things, if these contemporary movements do not bring people back to the Law and the Gospel, the results will be serious. Only by the recovery of truth can we have anything like unto a real revival.
1. Larry B. Stammer, "God is up to Something,and It's Big," Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1995, A1, A20. All of the quotations used in this section are taken from this article.
2. David F. Wells, The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 3.
3. Tom Wolfe, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening," Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (New York: Bantam, 1977), 166.
4. Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 141.
5. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (London: Allen & Unwin, 1931), 796.
6. Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 194.
7. Wolfe, 139.
8. Ibid., 143.
9. Ibid., 146-148.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of Reformation and Revival Ministries in Carol Stream, IL. A Baptist minister, he pastored for twenty-one years before becoming a conference speaker and editor of Reformation and Revival Journal, a quarterly publication for church leadership. He was educated at the University of Alabama, Wheaton College and Wheaton Graduate School of Theology, and Luther Rice Seminary.