Revivals, spiritual awakenings, and outpourings have been recorded all throughout history. From the pages of the Bible, we read in Acts 2 about a revival in Jerusalem during the celebration of Pentecost in the ‘30s. Volumes have been written about the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. The Great Awakening(s) in America in the 1700s tops many revival lists. And the early 1900s saw the California-based Azusa Street movement along with the Welsh Hebrides revival change the spiritual landscape of the West. Christendom has seen its share of movements where large masses of believers are drawn back to a passionate pursuit of holiness and large numbers of the unconvinced are miraculously called to repentance and conversion.
On Wednesday Feb. 8 students at the Wesleyan-Methodist school, Asbury University, gathered for a normal chapel service. However, following the unimpressive talk and uneventful worship service, a few friends remained in the chapel while one young man began confessing his sins. The other faithful stragglers surrounded him with prayer. This prayer circle grew to several circles and continued for a few hours until something unplanned happened; students across the campus inexplicably began returning to the chapel for spontaneous prayer and worship. As the momentum grew into the night, the crowds continued to grow as well.
In the sleepy Kentucky town of Wilmore, with a population of 6,000, a reported 100,000 Christian pilgrims from around the world filtered through Hughes Auditorium and the surrounding overflow buildings over 16 days. Many are calling this the “Asbury Revival.” Video clips of the 24-hour non-stop worship services have over 128 million views on the social media platform TikTok. This “outpouring” has garnered attention from national and international news networks.
With the large crowds also came large cynicism. Some Christian influencers began to question the validity of the revival pointing to its lack of organization (not pastor-led), lack of constant preaching (not Bible-centered), and an open-mic-type atmosphere for testimonies (not-controlled). None of these accusations are fully true. After the first day, University staff began to help organize volunteers, create overflow space and preview testimonies. And the atmosphere itself did not call for preaching per se, but regular moments of public Scripture reading. The revival was not planned, but it has also not been a free-for-all.
While staff helped, this movement has largely been student-led by kids who belong to Generation Z (born after 1997) and who have grown up with an iPhone in their hand, a computer for gaming, and who live their lives publicly on social media. The irony in the Asbury Revival is that it truly feels counter cultural. The chapel itself is dated and “traditional.” There is nothing modern about it. The room is not like many evangelical churches today with a darkened “audience” section and fancy stage lighting. There are no lyrics on projection screens. No slick prerecorded videos. No rock band, just a simple piano and a few acoustic guitars. There are no big-name preachers or conference speakers. No mass marketing. And no huge manifestations of the gifts of the spirit. The tone is quiet, repentant, and prayerful. According to many in attendance, there is an authenticity that is palpable. University Chaplin JD Walt said, “The only celebrity here is Jesus.”
According to Barna Research Group, GenZ is the most “unreligious” group in history. This is a generation who has been overloaded with information, overstimulated with digital devices, and inundated with social media comparisons which has led to rampant anxiety issues and rising suicide rates. They have witnessed media misinformation, economic and educational disruptions, a global pandemic, a war in Europe, and heightened racial and political divisions. This generation is desperate for hope and good news. And at Asbury they were finding it in the quiet simplicity of prayer, participatory adoration, confession, Scripture reading, and testimonies...and all of it about Jesus.
What does this teach us about reaching the younger generation? Have Christian leaders, including myself, exhausted the tactics and strategies of Generation X and the Millennials? Are we still designing worship services and worship environments that are lacking something GenZ is looking for? Is it possible that the next generation is not interested in big stages and high-def screens, loud bands and dim lights, soft seats and softer sermons? Maybe they are looking for something quiet, simple, and real.
This is not to say that former (and current) ways were not effective, for it is not the method that we worship, it is the Maker. Whether the trend was choirs or bands, candles or stage lights, the point has always been the Gospel. Christians gathering to worship, regardless of style or preference, and hearing the convicting Good News of Jesus Christ should always be normative. So, are the methods changing for a new generation while the message remains the same?
I believe today’s teens and twenty-somethings are looking for a break from their phones and the fake plastic stories on social media. I believe they are looking to get out of the mindless swiping and insta-gratification of scrolling and experience an ancient faith that is solid, robust, and sturdy. I believe they want to be a part of an in-person movement of real people that is bigger than the “friends” they have on their tiny iPhone screens. The revival at Asbury is revealing a return to a religious experience that is truly counter to the current American culture.
On a pragmatic note, since these spiritual awakenings happen so infrequently, let us take advantage of the incredible opportunity to learn what methods might encourage the next generation to hear the message more clearly.
But is the Asbury revival even real? Is any revival real, for that matter? In my flesh I am a natural cynic, especially when it comes to things that are overly emotional. Many have been deceived or hurt by emotional church services and charismatic religious leaders. So, maybe I am too quick to dismiss the unexplained and the illogical in an effort to protect myself from getting disappointed or disenchanted. I’ve just seen it too many times. However, in questioning the validity of a spiritual awakening or an inexplicable move of God, I wish to be more like Pete Greig, founder of 24-7Prayer.com, who says, “I prefer to err on the side of gullible than cynical.” I’ve prayed for revival on hundreds of occasions. Shouldn’t I be more gullible to believe that God might answer that prayer?
While our tendency might be skepticism toward revivals, let us be challenged to be more receptive. Greig points out that, “Our hope is not in a revival, but The Reviver.” If God is truly at work, then we will not be able to hinder Him, we will only find ourselves fighting against God (Acts 5:39). View these historic moments with an open heart and an open mind. Heck, you might even be revived yourself.
Trey Bailey is District 1 representative for the Newton County School Board. He also serves as executive pastor of Eastridge Church in Covington.