Monday, February 20, 2023

Revival and Presence

I have been following with fascination the spontaneous religious revival that has broken out at Asbury University near Lexington, Kentucky. It began at a regular chapel service on February 8, but when the service was over the students didn’t leave. They stayed to worship, day and night, for twelve days, until the college administration made a decision to gradually wind down the revival this week. It will be interesting to see if God – and the students - go along with the university president’s plan!

I know a little bit about Kentucky and revivals. I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970’s at a time when revivals were commonplace in Baptist life. While in seminary, my first position was as a part-time pastor in a small Baptist congregation in Kentucky. At my first fulltime church in Southern Illinois we used to conduct revivals. These multi-day events featured a visiting evangelist and “special music.”

One revival I hosted at my church was preached by a good friend who was the pastor of a Baptist church in a neighboring town. I later reciprocated by preaching a revival at his church. This friend is now the head of a large international ministry called Global Awakening that does revivals around the world, focusing on healing miracles.

The Asbury revival is different from many religious revivals that have swept across our country in past centuries. There are no special effects. No miracles, at least of the physical kind. There is very little preaching. This revival is neither sermon-centered nor music-centered. There is music, of course, but it is mostly an acoustic background for prayer, worship, and personal transformation.

This revival – from what I can discern from the testimonies of people interviewed - is centered on the presence of God. One participant made the insightful observation that it is not about emotion or religious experience; it is about the presence of God. Participants speak about sensing the glory of God and the “palpable” presence of God. If this is true, then I respond with a hearty “AMEN!”

Christianity needs to recover a sense of the presence of God. This country needs to know the presence of God. The Presence of God is the gospel that I preach. I may use different words and ideas to describe this Presence than the students at this Wesleyan-Holiness school. My stand on ethical and social issues may be different from those held by the majority of participants.

But that is alright. We agree that there is a need for the immediacy and power of God’s Presence. If the sense of Divine Presence at this revival is genuine, then doctrine and ethics will sort out themselves later. Speaking of ethics, past revivals have been influential in changing American society. I am waiting to see if such change results from this revival.

The Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century fueled the abolitionist movement and helped end slavery in America. It also empowered the temperance movement. This Asbury revival could possibly do something similar in our day by combatting racism and addictions. Only time will tell if this revival bears such fruit.

Undoubtedly people will try to coopt this revival for their own religious, political or social agendas. Personally my only agenda is that people recognize and embrace the Presence of God. I don’t care what spiritual tradition this Presence is expressed through. Different religions express Divine Presence in different ways. The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition expresses it through revivals, as evidenced in the history of revivals at this college. Other Christian traditions and non-Christian traditions express Presence differently.

God knows no religious barriers. Truth is not the possession of any one religion. I pray this revival might transcend religious tribalism. That would be truly miraculous! I hope this revival transforms American Christianity in a way that those in Kentucky cannot imagine. I hope it transforms America in a way I cannot imagine! However this Asbury revival plays out, I am just grateful that people are focusing on the Presence of God.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Jesus’ Vision for the Church

It seems like every other month I am reading about the demise of the Christian Church in the United States. The most recent article was in The Guardian, entitled Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches Are on the Decline.  They all say pretty much the same thing: the Christian Church is losing members rapidly, and the pandemic accelerated this trend.

Some Christian leaders are asking tough questions about what Christians can do to stanch the flow of members and church closures. My longtime friend, Dwight Moody, has been asking such questions regularly for the past couple of years. He has a podcast and YouTube channel called The Meetinghouse, subtitled Conversations on Religion and American Life.

He is very concerned about the influence of extremist forms of Christianity. He is searching for an authentic form of Christianity that will counteract this trend and revive the Church. In a recent email to me he phrased it this way: “What version of Christian faith and practice will present to the modern world (or even to the Christian community) a coherent and compelling vision for human life?”

Jesus has such a vision for the Church. My recognition of this vision came after my departure from evangelicalism and subsequently going beyond progressive Christianity into a mystical spirituality rooted in the teachings of Jesus. It is the ancient and eternal gospel. It is a gospel of union with God.

Christianity is declining because it is old and sick. It is deathly ill. It has a terminal illness. The stench of death is evident in the Church’s never-ending scandals, noxious rhetoric, and the cancerous growth of Christian Nationalism. The death knell of the church rings in the anti-intellectual dogma and culture-war mentality of Pentecostals and Evangelicals.

That is why younger generations are abandoning the Church at an increasing rate. Americans – young and old - are spiritually hungry, but they are not finding spiritual nourishment in the church. When they step inside a church they find either tired traditionalism or mind-numbing fundamentalism, so they turn elsewhere. 

They look to other spiritual traditions or to nonreligious philosophies. They look to meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, and yoga. They look to humanism or atheism. Meanwhile the Church conducts business as usual as if it were the twentieth century, doubling down on outmoded forms of evangelism or gimmicky outreach programs.

There is a way back from this bleak picture of Christian stagnation. There can be a resurrection of the Church, but only if it is willing to die to be reborn. What is needed is a fresh look at the spiritual core of Jesus’ message without the later centuries of tradition. A “red-letter” Christianity, a gospel based on the words – and spiritual experience - of Jesus rather than endless words and doctrines about Jesus.

This fresh approach to Christianity is centered on direct spiritual awareness of the Divine that is willing to offend traditional religious sensibilities, just like Jesus did. It is willing to pay the price, just like Jesus did.

Spiritual experience was the original attraction of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. That is why they were successful. But that was before they sold their souls to emotionalism and anti-intellectualism. Likewise Evangelicalism was originally founded on a personal encounter with the living Christ. Now it has devolved into a dogmatic religion with a secondhand belief in an imaginary friend.

Christianity only has a future if it lives in the present - in the presence of God that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ message was a call to the transformation of the human being through union with the Father. We see his vision for his Church voiced in his prayer offered on the night before he died. He prayed:

“that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. “

That “oneness” with God and each another is Jesus’ hope for the church. It is firsthand communion with God and Christ that manifests in tangible Christian unity. This can only happen when the Church proclaims an authentic message that originates from genuine spiritual awareness.

Then God will pour out the Spirit on “all people.” “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” That is Jesus’ vision for his Church.