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2021, 2-14 Waeber preaching at GBPC, OH

What Kind of Revival? by Rev. Jason Waeber (March 2021 Banner, online edition)

Much missional church work is driven by the lure of revival. This is, all told, a good thing. There is nothing greater in this world than to see the hearts of men and women regenerated, turned from sin, and opened up to the life of Christ in a real and compelling way. It is proper that such a beautiful reality should draw our hearts, and that our efforts would be aligned toward achieving it at the expense of all earthly goods.

This being said, the harsh reality remains that, despite the lure of revival, it is something utterly outside of our control. It is dependent entirely upon the action of the Spirit, and all the earthly means, properly and faithfully executed, will avail nothing if the Spirit does not act. If any Christian should be attuned to this reality, it should be the Calvinist. We acknowledge that the internal call of the Spirit must be applied before faith can ever be exerted. While this should push us toward faithful, zealous service in preaching the gospel, more often, it pushes us toward hostility and distrust of spiritual enthusiasm, in virtually any of its forms.

Lockland is an odd community in that, in certain ways, it remains trapped in time. It was a formerly prosperous community, but only the bones of that prosperity still remain. As such, many of the churches which are in Lockland have been there for a long time, with slowly dwindling membership. Several of them still speak with the old dialect of “preaching a revival.” Such services are rare, but the specter still lurks in those churches as holding out the promise of renewal should they be done “right.”

If you are not familiar with the language, “preaching a revival” means having a special service, usually during the week, aimed at the community with an explicitly evangelistic message, often given by a guest preacher or evangelist, often given outdoors, perhaps even in a tent, if the church is genuinely committed to the old school. The predominant mood is excitement and enthusiasm. There is usually rousing music, and lots of it. Considered charitably, this is an attempt to reach people where they’re at—to speak in a popular register and make the appeal accessible to all who are gathered. Considered more cynically, it can be an attempt to gin up enthusiasm without substance and to bundle souls into the church without honestly calling them to count the cost of following Christ. There is likely a little truth in both readings.

When I came up for my ordination exams, one minister on the candidates and credentials committee made the assertion that the Bible Presbyterian Church is a “New Side, Old School denomination.” There are several bucketloads of history in that assertion, but the necessary thing to note here is that this refers to splits in the Presbyterian church around the First and Second Great Awakenings. Stating that we are a “New Side” church means that we would have been in favor of the First Great Awakening. “Old School” means that we would not be in favor of the Second. How is this even an intelligible assertion? Should not churches be either pro-revival or anti-revival? Wherein do we distinguish?

The First Great Awakening, whatever else might be said of it, did clearly amount to a recovery of the importance of a genuine conversion to Christ beyond mere intellectual assent. This was powerfully evident in the churches by means of strong conviction, powerfully evident in the teaching by a return to an appreciation of preaching the law and our violation thereof, and powerfully evident in the lives of those preachers who were instrumental in the movement, such as Edwards and Tennant. The differences with the Second Great Awakening are pronounced. Therein, the argument shifted from the vitals of religion and conviction to a question of how this type of visible conversion might be affected. The First was carried on by men of a strong, Calvinistic disposition, who relied fully and uncompromisingly on the Spirit. The Second denied that Calvinism, and we see the fruit of such a shift. If repentance must occur prior to the regeneration of the Spirit, it only makes sense that we should use any and all means to get men to the point of repentance. Though Finney, the galvanizing figure of the Second Great Awakening, came out of the Presbyterian church, he denied the historical Calvinism of that church and his practice showed it. Emotionalism and manipulation became the de rigeur (proper) methodology of revival, and thus it still remains today.

To bring this all around to the situation in Lockland, Lockland is not merely burned over by the fires of emotional revivalism; it is, in many ways, still in thrall to it. The abiding question is how one might encourage a genuine revival, of the type of the First Great Awakening, when the community is already devastated by false revival, of the type of the Second Great Awakening. False conviction is a great bulwark against true conviction. False enthusiasm can greatly fortify one against the necessity of pious zeal. The questions which often haunt me about this problem are, unfortunately, often questions about method; I wonder what we might do to accomplish this. Sadly, my thinking in this way is more akin to the Second Great Awakening than the First. I must be reminded of my Calvinism. I must be reminded that it is the Spirit who produces conversion, not the means I employ. I must saturate the ministry with prayer. I must, myself, be deadly convinced of my message. I must present it clearly and unapologetically.

If you come up to me and ask, “Do you preach revival at Foundation?” my answer would be, “Lord willing.” I have attempted to take my cues from the First Great Awakening. I preach the law and the necessity of repentance, every sermon. I preach the forgiveness of sins, available through the blood of Christ, every sermon. I preach the consolations of the Christian life, every sermon. If the Lord uses these things for the salvation of sinners, all glory to Him. The real battle, though, is not usually fought from the pulpit. Men and women are quite hardened by false revivalism against such appeals. We must be willing to take the same message and go smaller. Ironically, in an age when the internet presents the largest possible pulpit to virtually everyone, the most profitable ministry is likely to go forward on the smallest possible scale. Oftentimes, it is through the pulpit ministry of the church that the hands of the congregation are trained for war, equipped to fight the battle, and sent out. Do not despair when the pulpit ministry of the church seems lacking in results. Its most fruitful and useful result in encouraging revival is often the effect it has on those gathered who are already the soldiers of God.

Let us not place our trust in methods or movements, but rather in the promise that the Spirit will work through the steady, faithful ministry of truly converted Christians. It is only by forsaking the world’s idea of revival that we will ever see the Lord’s.

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