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How can we seek revival?

Phillip Keller wrote this about the sea’s edge:

Every time I approach the cliff top and hear the muted sounds of the sea at work on the beach below, a thrill of anticipation – eager, keen, and pulsing – surges through me . . .  The mighty movements of its tides, waves, sea currents and ocean breezes enfold me in their irresistible embrace.1

The topic of spiritual refreshing, or revival, can understandably stir a similar irresistible anticipation.

What is revival? 

Richard Owen Roberts offers this short definition: “an extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit producing extraordinary results.”2 In common terms, revival can be described as God’s gift of himself to his needy people. As a clarification, revival is first about who God is before it is about what God does. The God of the Bible is a relational God who cares deeply about drawing his people back into a love relationship with himself. James 4:8 teaches, “Come near to God, and he will come near to you” (NIV). When God draws near, a variety of evidences reveal what God does in and through the lives of his people at their responsive best—repentance, desire for holiness, hunger for the Bible, prayerfulness, passionate worship, love for one another, service, and spontaneous outreach.

Where do we find revival in the Bible?

In the Old Testament, a pattern of renewal existed between Yahweh and the people of Israel. Historian Richard Lovelace concisely describes that cyclical pattern of renewal: (1) appearance of a new generation, (2) popular apostasy and enculturation, (3) national affliction, (4) popular repentance and agonized prayer, and (5) the raising up of new leadership and restoration.3 Through the book of Judges, this cycle repeatedly evidenced Israel’s forgetfulness and God’s provision through timely leadership.

In the New Testament, the early church era began in a time of renewal. For roughly 400 years, a great separation existed between God and his people. For centuries, the Jewish people were without a prophet, a spokesman for God. However, as the New Testament era began, God gradually prepared the hearts of faithful servants: Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25), Mary (Luke 1:26-56), Joseph (Matt 1:18-25), Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), Simeon (Luke 2:25-35), and Anna (Luke 2:36-38).

Then, John the Baptist and Jesus unmistakably called people to seek God, to be purified, and to be pruned for greater effectiveness. Their impact shaped the twelve disciples and the early church to witness in a fresh way concerning who God is and what he was doing at that time.

When has revival come in church history?

Personal, small group, and wider Christian revival has occurred repeatedly across church history. However, the last 300 years reveal particularly strong movements of Christian spiritual renewal. Some key events are:

  • The Great Awakening or the Evangelical Awakening (1726-1756): Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield impacted Europe and North America.
  • The Second Great Awakening (1776-1810): Many college campuses in the United States, like Yale College with President Timothy Dwight, and campgrounds, like Cane Ridge in Kentucky, stood out as spiritual hotspots.
  • Protestant Transatlantic Revival (1813-1846): In Europe, Robert Haldane’s spiritual influence marked Switzerland, France, and Holland. In the United States, Lyman Beecher, Charles Finney, Finney’s prayer partner Daniel Nash, and Asahel Nettleton each left lasting spiritual legacies.
  • Global Anglo-Saxon Lay Prayer Revival (1857-1895): Jeremiah Lanphier modestly started a noonday prayer meeting in New York City.  In time, people flocked to prayer meetings in that great city, across the Unites States, Canada, the British Isles, and South Africa.
  • Early 20th Century Global Awakening (1900-1910): This spiritual surge is known best in relationship to the Welsh Revival, the Great Korean Revival, and the Azusa Street Revival.  However, church historian Dr. J. Edwin Orr recounts that that last great worldwide movement also reached Ireland, Scotland, England, Scandinavia, Europe, Latin America, Australia, South Africa, India, China, and Japan.4
  • Post-War Awakening (1948-1950’s): A range of groups and places were marked by revival, such as ministers, Christian colleges, the Scottish Hebrides, Indonesia, Nagaland (India), East Africa, and wider circles through the emergence of Billy Graham’s ministry.5

These recent centuries build a case that the Holy Spirit is not quietly wrapping up history, but instead preparing for a remarkable fulfillment of God’s purposes in step with what occurred at Pentecost.

Arthur Wallis describes awakening overflowing beyond the church in these stories:

At times this strange sense of God may pervade a building, a community or a district, affecting those who come within its spell. In the Welsh Revival of 1904 near the town of Gorseinon a meeting continued throughout the night.  A miner, a hardened godless character, returning from his shift about four A.M. saw the light in the chapel and decided to investigate. As soon as he opened the door he was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s presence.  He was heard to exclaim, “Oh, God is here!” He was afraid either to enter or depart, and there on the threshold of the chapel the work of salvation began in his heart . . .

In the great American Revival of 1858, ships, as they drew near the American ports, seemed to come into a zone of the Spirit’s influence.  Ship after ship arrived with the same tale of sudden conviction and conversion. In one ship a captain and the entire crew of thirty men found Christ out at sea and entered the harbor rejoicing.6

What practical steps can we take to seek revival?

In revival, God works first among his people. Then, spiritual currents ripple out to impact the wider world and church history highlights prayer and repentance as key steps:

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land, or send a plague among my people.  If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:13-14, NIV).

From the last worldwide occurrence of Christian revival, Evan Roberts outlines these action steps:

  1. You must put away any unconfessed sin.
  2. You must put away any doubtful habit.
  3. You must obey the Spirit promptly.
  4. You must confess Christ publicly.7

Henry Blackaby’s life and ministry are inseparable from experiences and lessons from the 1970’s Canadian Revival and the 1995 U.S. collegiate revivals. He wrote down some guidelines for preparing ourselves to be the “kind of servant God will be pleased to use to revive his people.”8 They are:

  • Find a godly pastor or other leaders that you respect for their spiritual maturity. Put your life alongside them as prayer partners and counselors. Help one another lead your churches or groups to encounter God. God created us for interdependence.
  • Work diligently to expunge pride from your life.
  • Determine from the outset that you are more concerned with pleasing God than yourself or others.
  • Surrender your will and every aspect of your life to God. Ask Him to reveal any sin or impurity that is keeping you from greater kingdom usefulness.
  • Take a personal prayer retreat.
  • Like Paul, ask people to pray for you at every opportunity.9

In summary, let God examine your spiritual heart. Seek prayer partners. Pray together for another great move of his presence. Freshly follow God’s Word and Spirit. Let’s expect the Lord’s presence to move unmistakably again for his glory.

(Originally published under the title “Times of Refreshing” in the Autumn 2018 issue of Japan Harvest magazine.)

1. W. Phillip Keller, Sea Edge (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1985), 18.

2. Richard Owen Roberts, Revival (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1985), 16-17.

3. Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 63.

4. For an example of revival in Japan, see the article in this issue by John Newtown-Webb on pages 26-27.

5. Earle Cairns, An Endless Line of Splendor: Revivals and Their Leaders from the Great Awakening to the Present (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986); J. Edwin Orr, The Flaming Tongue: The Impact of Twentieth Century Revivals. 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press. 1975); J. Edwin Orr, The Re-study of Revival and Revivalism (Pasadena, CA: School of World Mission, 1981). Retrieved from https://jedwinorr.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Orr_Revival_and_Revivalism.pdf.

6. Arthur Wallis, Revival: The Rain from Heaven (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1979), 50-51.

7. Henry Blackaby, Richard Blackaby, and Claude King, Fresh Encounter (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2009), 165.

8. Ibid, 263-264.

9. Ibid.

Rich McLaughlin participated in revival prayer in Tokyo and the first Global Day of Prayer in Japan in 2006. He studied revival in his master’s and doctoral programs. Currently, he serves at Trinity International University and returns to Japan for short-term opportunities.

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