I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines about a revival at Asbury University in Kentucky. A routine worship service was extended as the musicians said they felt led by the Holy Spirit to continue singing. It’s been going on for two weeks now. Yesterday, the administration decided to restrict some services to students only, while leaving other services public and relocating them to larger spaces to accommodate the thousands of outsiders driving in to join.1
I’m deeply concerned that this is devolving into a spectator sport, an unhealthy glut of emotional affirmation in lieu of genuine repentance, sanctification, and holy living. Did it start out that way? Probably not. Is it entirely fake and vain? No. I’m sure there are hundreds of people worshiping God truthfully at Asbury. But it’s worth talking about whether this event matches up to a real movement by the Holy Spirit and the motivations of spectators and copycat revivals popping up around the country.
What is a Revival?
Based on what we’re seeing at Asbury, a revival is when Christians meet together to sing praises to God for a long time with some public confessions now and then. That doesn’t sound quite right to me. Let’s look at the definition according to Webster as a starting point.
Revival, noun: Renewed and more active attention to religion; an awakening of men to their spiritual concerns.2
Revival isn’t just about Christians singing together. It’s about all spiritual concerns of men. This means unbelievers coming to salvation in Christ for the first time, believers renewing their faith and obedience to God, and the Bible being rightly preached to the people at large. And yes, worship through song or other means is part of it too.
This makes sense when you look at the revivals of history. The Great Awakening was a blend of preaching, evangelism, calls to holy living, and worship. There was a core focus on conversion and repentance.3 It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it convicted hearts and drew both the world and the church towards following Jesus. Is that what the Asbury revival is doing?
Is Asbury’s Revival Real?
I haven’t witnessed the event myself, but from livestreams and the accounts others have given online, I’ve see both sides of the issue. Proponents who have attended say the Holy Spirit is moving there. How do they know this? They felt comforted, invigorated, and empowered. They focus on their feelings and the atmosphere of the room. Here’s an example:
I want to be careful not to paint this event with too broad a brush. I don’t doubt that many attending are having genuine encounters with God. I’m sure there’s been real conversions and worship. What concerns me is the leadership’s narrow focus on emotions and the reports of teaching that’s lukewarm at best and heretical at worst. We have to be discerning and test that which claims to be the work of God. Do not abandon reason in your search for hope.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”1 John 4:1 (ESV)
Scott Brown says the testimonies are “extremely emotional” without much doctrinal truth or repentance. It’s more about feeling close to God than obeying Him. He also notes that there’s a distinct lack of mature pastors present.4 It’s student-led, as proponents have verified.5
Samuel Sey wrote a fantastic piece about his concerns with the event. Out of the attendees he spoke with, only one said the gospel was being preached. Everyone else contradicted that claim. One said the following:
“Attending the few chapels I have at seminary, apart from one [or] two chapels that preach a biblical message of repentance, it’s always been about ‘being who you are’ and God loving you ‘as you are.’ There are a lot of messages that are about being ‘true to yourself.'”6
Sey goes on to note the affirmation of the event by LGBT students and progressive “Christians,” the prominence of female pastors, and the presence of “charismatic chaos.”6 He’s not convinced the event is a true revival. It’s worth noting that Sey grew up and was saved in a culture where emotionally driven “revivals” were the norm. He believes God can save anyone in any context (as do I), but many of his peers returned to lives of sin after professing faith at events like Asbury. The seeds fell on rocky ground and that which sprang up quickly withered away. It’s easy to see why he’s concerned.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”Matthew 7:21 (ESV)
Since when are revivals for Christians to have a nice-feeling experience? True revival is when all kinds of people are called through the faithful preaching of the Word to repent, return to God, and reject sin. I like how John Piper puts it.
“The term revival in its most biblical sense has meant a sovereign work of God in which the whole region of many churches, many Christians has been lifted out of spiritual indifference and worldliness into conviction of sin, earnest desires for more of Christ and his word, boldness in witness, purity of life, lots of conversions, joyful worship, renewed commitment to missions.”7John Piper
There’s nothing about revival that leaves discernment behind in favor of emotions. Revival is not the goal itself—obedience is. Revival is just a tool God can use to draw us back into obedience on a larger scale, convicting individual hearts to follow Him rightly.
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)
Why are so many Christians driving across the country to join Asbury? What are they hoping to find? Jesus doesn’t live in Kentucky. The Holy Spirit isn’t contained on a campus.
“An hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.”Jesus, John 4:21, 23 (CSB)
We can worship with our own church body in Spirit and in truth no matter where we are. Jesus makes clear that, in the New Covenant, we don’t need to go to a special location. Most people are going to Asbury for the emotional high or to spectate out of curiosity. Neither are spiritually sound intentions.
Joel Abbott wrote a great article with his own thoughts on the event. He writes:
“I heard this trend put best by a woman who once tweeted about how she lost her faith. She grew up feeling like she was deeply in love with Jesus, but then she attended a Taylor Swift concert with the same emotional vibe and she realized she just liked the high she got from attending concerts.
People like this were once sold out for Jesus, but they had never been prepared to apply their faith in real life—the realities of working for food and housing, of love, commitment, and parenthood, or the slow, sometimes seemingly boring task of following Christ.”8
I wholeheartedly agree. It’s far too easy to mistake emotional highs for spiritual realities. Crowds of people can do strange things to your psyche whether you’re at a concert or a chapel service. Is emotion bad? No. But it needs solid Biblical truth behind it and it needs holy living to follow it. There’s no good reason for substantive preaching to be absent from an event that’s supposed to be the work of the Holy Spirit.
“This type of emotional fluff won’t lead to ‘revival’: It’s a mix of genuine worship and emotional existentialism that has no ability to call our culture to repentance outside the groupies that want in on the experience.”Joel Abbott
Was This Planned?
I’m skeptical about the origin of this event. I don’t think it’s as spontaneous as it seems. As Scott Brown points out, Asbury has a history of planning revivals in February. Don’t believe me? Check out this page on their website. It covers eight previous Asbury revivals. Six occurred in February and two in March. Is that a coincidence? Note this section: “In February 1921 the last service of a planned revival lasted until 6 a.m., and services were extended for three days.”9 So they admit they do plan revivals.
According to Sey’s sources on the event at hand, the president of the seminary emailed the students asking them to visit the chapel to join in “an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”6
“The student maintains the ‘revival’ wasn’t planned. But it’s worth noting that Asbury University is part of what is known as the revivalist movement—a group of Charismatic Christians who consistently attempt to produce revivals.”Samuel Sey
After looking at the history of Asbury’s previous revivals, it’s easy to spot a trend. These events usually start with singing or confession in chapel, which is then extended. They always occur in February or March. They frequently draw in significant media coverage. One section reads: “In February 1950 a student testimony led to confessions, victories, and more testimonies. This… became the second leading news story nationwide.”9
There’s a huge incentive to manufacture events like this. This much media attention leads to thousands of dollars in donations and tuition from new students hungry for an emotionally rich college experience. This wouldn’t be a problem if the event was organic, but the evidence seems to indicate that it’s probably not. We’re seeing history repeat itself.
The news coverage of Asbury has sparked a nationwide interest in mislabeling extended worship services as “revivals.” Universities supposedly experiencing spontaneous outpourings of the Holy Spirit include Campbellsville University, Northern Kentucky University, and the University of the Cumberlands in KY, along with Lee University in TN, Cedarville University in OH, and Samford University in AL.
Online, groups of students can be seen singing praise songs and praying together. I have connections at Cedarville specifically, where I’m told students are also going to nearby campuses and malls to evangelize. That’s great to hear! But is it revival?
It might be the Holy Spirit working powerfully throughout our nation. I hope it is. The evangelism in particular is encouraging. But it might also be an attempt to copy Asbury by extending worship services and calling it “revival” to get a taste of the media spotlight. That’s definitely not the work of the Holy Spirit. That sounds man-centered and manufactured.
You don’t need to be in the midst of a revival to worship Jesus; you can just have a nice worship service. You don’t need an emotional experience to obey God; you can just follow Him in your day to day life. You certainly don’t need to be plastered all over the news for your Christianity to be valid.
“We encourage you, brothers and sisters… to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may behave properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.”1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12 (CSB)
The Fruit of the Spirit
Time will tell whether the events at Asbury and other colleges turn out to be anything more than emotional worship services with spectators. The proof is in the fruit. When the media stops caring, when the tourists go away, when you have to get up in the morning and go to class or work, will you still have that fire for Jesus? Will new converts remain steadfast in their faith? Will Christians abandon their allegiance with the world and turn back to obedience? Will we see newfound passion for evangelism and Biblical truth in our doctrine? I hope so. Only God knows.
“In desperation for any semblance of hope for our culture—some Christians have abandoned all discernment and they’re eager to idolize anything or any ‘revival’ that profess Christ.
But our hope isn’t in a change in our culture. Our hope isn’t in a revival. Our hope isn’t in a Christian culture. All of these are good. We should earnestly pray that God would change our culture.
But our hope isn’t in the return of a Christian culture. Our hope is in the return of Christ.”6Samuel Sey
Let me know your thoughts on all this in the comments below. Enter your email to keep in touch with me. Thanks for reading. Godspeed.
- Asbury Revival: Professor calls for end to ‘public phase’ as school scrambles to address overcrowding, Jon Brown, Fox News, https://www.foxnews.com/us/asbury-revival-professor-calls-end-public-phase-school-scrambles-address-overcrowding
- Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, https://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/revival
- Great Awakening, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Awakening
- Asbury Revival – My Observations, Scott Brown, https://scottbrownonline.com/blogs/63f15155e1ef28e573d78c4e
- Jordan Evans, https://twitter.com/thejordy_evans/status/1624622257501773826?s=20
- Is the Asbury “Revival” A Real Revival?, Samuel Sey, https://slowtowrite.com/is-the-asbury-revival-a-real-revival/
- What Is Revival and Where Do We Find It?, John Piper, Desiring God, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-revival-and-where-do-we-find-it
- Let’s have some real talk about this whole Asbury revival thing. We’ll start with a lesson from the Western Front., Joel Abbott, Not the Bee, https://notthebee.com/article/lets-have-some-real-talk-about-this-whole-asbury-revival-thing-cuz-a-lot-of-people-are-getting-hyped-up-about-it
- Revivals, Asbury University, https://www.asbury.edu/academics/resources/library/archives/history/revivals/
3 thoughts on “A Critique of the Asbury Revival”
I’ve been looking into this revival thingy in recent days, hoping to learn more about it. I am grateful for God’s movement, and for finding your blog. Thanx for helping me think about this.
I appreciate your thoughts, your research. I do have one observation: Revivals are often planned events, but this does not diminish the spiritual impetus necessarily. As do many Christian campuses, incorporating a spiritual focus (into the curriculum or as a non-curricular activity), the college will note calendar opportunities. That they end up as cyclical is expected. The purpose is to help students focus on that which most matters. As this particular revival is succeeding in this goal, the next prayer ought to be, “Lord, help these young people move from the sanctuary into the needy world with a message of Good News.”
Thank you for your use of a blog to help us contemplate meaningful things.
Thanks for your thoughts, George. I agree that planned events can have powerful spiritual benefits for people. Cyclical or not, these can be means through which God changes hearts.
Where we disagree, I suspect, is our definitions. This ties into my recent post on equivocation. You seem to define “revival” as spiritual gatherings of significant reach. For historical purposes, this definition works well enough. But I’m concerned that what many call revivals are actually extended worship services with intense emotional response. These “revivals” may or may not have any impact on the majority of the attendees outside of the event itself, similar to a kid who gets back from an inspiring summer camp only to fall into old habits.
True revival, as I see it, is not something we can cause on purpose. God revives us and calls us back to Himself—away from the world—in specific places at specific times when people are in spiritual drought and disobedience. A real work of the Holy Spirit in a large number of people at once necessarily results in lasting fruit of the Spirit. This fruit is what validates an event as a revival in my mind. I pray that after the media stops caring and everyone has to go back to class, the students at Asbury do produce this kind of fruit in their day to day lives.