Stories of the times in history when God moves sovereignly in the hearts and lives of his people, and as a result, in the beautiful spiritual awakening of whole communities, fill my heart with joy and deep longing in equal measure. I am not interested in awakening or ‘revival’ as a means of putting ‘bums on seats’ in the church, in the face of the free-fall decline in the church in these lands. What I am interested in is that as many people have the transformative experience of having their lives radically impacted by the presence of God.
I once pastored a church in the Scottish Highlands which had experienced such a revival in the 1930s and 1940s. The church had become part of what was called the ‘Fisherman’s Revival’ which impacted UK ports up and down the whole of the east coast, from as far north as Wick and as far south as Great Yarmouth. The spirit of God profoundly impacted the life of fishermen, who carried a powerful gospel message up and down the country. A key figure in this awakening was a chap called Jock Troup, a Salvationist from the town of Wick, who was a simple yet powerful preacher. The Salvation Army had to send extra officer reinforcements to cope with the preaching, the follow up and the impact in the community.
I’ve sat with records from that time, housed in the filing cabinets of my church office, that recount stories of hundreds of people seeking Christ every week for several weeks. In the town of Wick, the Salvation Army and the Baptist Church held meetings at which countless lives were changed. More than that, as I pastored in that town, the legacy of revival sat before me each week. Many of the people in the church were children of people who were saved or awakened in their faith through that extraordinary season.
And that is a useful ‘working definition’ of awakening. A time when God does what God always does but in a sharply focussed time frame, resulting in an outpouring of salvation, holiness and, as a consequence, an increased awareness of the presence of God and a subsequent impact on the wider community.
I am not inclined, either by my reading of the scriptural narrative of both Testaments, or by the countless stories of God’s actions down throughout history, to believe that the church will ever experience long-lasting growth and advancement through strategy, plans or stylistic changes. This can often be reduced to merely ‘shuffling chairs on the Titanic’. If you contrast the evangelical revivals of, say, the late 1800s and early 1900s around the time of the Industrial Revolution with the ‘Decade of Evangelism’ in the 1990s or the Church Growth Movement of the 80s – 00s, there’s no competition. The former was built on impactful communication of the gospel, the latter largely on ecclesiastical aesthetics.
Aesthetic changes can be interesting or shiny for a short while, but as soon as people get fed up with it, realise that it doesn’t satisfy, or discover people doing it more to their liking down the road, the enthusiasm disappears. The thing is, if you win people through a youth programme, a worship style, a particular type of liturgy or non-liturgy, or any other such thing, you create the environment which means you really have to sustain that thing and keep it ‘special’ in order to keep the folks who have been attracted by it. That pushes you straight into a game of cat and mouse, chasing after the next new thing, whatever that might be. It is exhausting and largely futile. We go for the gimmicks because they can perhaps draw a crowd and pique interest. This doesn’t meant to say you are not creative or innovative, but it does mean that whatever you do endeavour in the cause of the mission has its centre not on the means, but by the core…Jesus Christ and him crucified, raised, glorified, and coming again.
I strongly suggest that the only way to make solid disciples who will last the course, whatever the fad of the day, are those who are won through the preaching of the gospel, regeneration by the Spirit, and a radical change in the heart which means that lives are built on Christ and on the indwelling presence of God by the Spirit. You don’t have to entertain a follower of Jesus – they will not want to let him go, and they will feel an inextricable link to the Bride of Christ, the church. They’ll worship, pray, learn, witness, serve, love and suffer for the name of Jesus…and they’ll persevere through whatever season comes along.
So, this conviction, long seated in my heart for ministry, grows deeper each passing year and is at the heart of my prayer life for the fellowships I have led, and for the way I approach ministry. I regularly use Psalm 85 as a basis for my prayers along this theme, both for my own church and the church in our nation and around the world. Perhaps it’s a prayer you might be able to join with as you seek awakening and renewal in your own life, and in the life of the church and moving out into impacting the nations for Christ.
You, Lord, showed favor to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2 You forgave the iniquity of your people
and covered all their sins.
3 You set aside all your wrath
and turned from your fierce anger.
4 Restore us again, God our Savior,
and put away your displeasure toward us.
5 Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
6 Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
7 Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
8 I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
but let them not turn to folly.
9 Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
12 The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
13 Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.