It is said that when Dr Billy Graham came to the UK in 1953 he visited Wales. Whilst there he spoke at a meeting for Ministers and Lay Leaders, many of whom could remember the 1904 Welsh Revival. ‘Do you remember the 1904 Revival?’ Dr Graham asked. ‘Yes! Yes!’ came the reply from the congregation. ‘Are you praying for God to send another Revival?’ Dr Graham asked. ‘Yes! Yes!’ came back the enthusiastic reply. ‘Would you like the Revival to be as it was in 1904?’ Dr Graham asked. ‘Yes! Indeed yes!’ his excited hearers responded loudly. ‘Are you prepared for such a Revival to be completely different?’ asked Dr Graham. His congregation responded with stunned silence!
According to James Packer ‘Revival, as Protestant theology has used the word for 250 years, means God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives. It is essentially a corporate occurrence, and enlivening of individuals not in isolation but together.’ This phenomena is not to be confused with the narrower American use of ‘revival’ for a concentrated evangelistic campaign, and of ‘revivalist’ for its leader, but rather describes something far more significant, profound, deeper in terms of spiritual impact. The Reformation in the 16th century, the 18th century Evangelical Revival in England, the first and second Great Awakenings in America during the mid 18th century and early 19th century, the Welsh Revival of 1904, and the East African Revival that begun in the late 1920s/early 1930s, are all seen as genuine instances of revival. There have also been many other movements in recent years that have been described as ‘revival’ – the ‘charismatic renewal’ of the late 60s and 70s, the ‘Toronto blessing’ and the ‘Pensacola outpouring’ that both began in the 90s, for example – although opinion as to the validity of describing these movements as revival remains divided.
With all the talk we hear today about revival it is important that we find out what revival really is. Most certainly the idea is biblical. There is a recurring pattern of ‘revival’ that appears in many descriptions and anticipations of spiritual movements throughout the Bible. We think perhaps of Ezekiel’s vision of ‘the valley of dry bones’ being brought back to life in Ezekiel 37, or the story of the events of that first Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. There are two Hebrew words (the language of the Old Testament) that are variously translated as ‘revive, revived, or reviving’, and there is one Greek word (the language of the New Testament) that is translated as ‘revive’ and literally means ‘to be made alive’ or ‘to live again’. We think perhaps of the heart cry of the Psalmist in prayer to God, ‘Won’t you revive us again, so your people can rejoice in you?’ (Psalm 85:6), or Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian church to do corporate worship in such a way so that those present ‘are convicted of sin … as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare … so that they will fall down and worship God’ (1 Corinthians 14:24,25).
To be honest, I have never really been keen on talking a lot about revival, and less keen on ‘praying for revival’. I think I prefer the word ‘renewal’ to ‘revival’ when speaking to Christians about this ‘process of spiritual re-animation’ (as Packer calls it). ‘Renewal’ helps us to take on board that what the Bible is speaking of here, is a ‘process’ rather than a sudden happening. For me, this constant talk of the need for a ‘revival’ is all too often a form of escapism, of looking for a ‘quick fix’, of ‘passing the buck’. I am convinced that when God sees us taking seriously the biblical concept of daily seeking to ‘be being filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18) then, and only then, he may be pleased to do something significant among us. And in any case, the word ‘revival’ literally means ‘resuscitating that which is dead’ … and the church today is probably not actually dead enough to warrant such resuscitation! I also prefer the word ‘awakening’ when speaking of non-Christians, because their real need is to awake to both their need and all that God has done for us all in and through Jesus Christ! The word they need to hear is the same word that the unbelievers in Ephesus needed to hear: ‘Awake O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light’ (Ephesians 5:14). What we have here is Paul quoting a phrase, possibly the chorus, of a hymn or song sung during public Christian baptismal services when there would probably have been a number of unbelievers present. It was a reminder to the believers being baptised (and testimony to the unbelievers present) that they had risen from the sleep of spiritual death and entered into the light of Christ.
Despite my reservations concerning ‘revival’ … I have, of late, had an overwhelming sense (particularly when I have been in prayer) that a revival is already actually beginning to take place, albeit ‘a revival that is completely different’ to what many Christians expect. There is already some evidence to suggest that people are beginning to return to the church in search of more traditional values, something more solid to build their lives on, driven to some extent by an innate sense that we have lost something important somewhere along the line. Statistics suggest that the main beneficiaries of this ‘revival’ of interest in Christian things are the congregations in our great cathedrals, with their more tradition ways of worship, rather than those congregations that are committed to ‘contemporary praise and worship’ as many of us would have expected. The very moving opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics with its emphasise on things very much associated with Christian values, and its use of several old hymns, and the equally moving act of remembrance in Liverpool following the recent findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, suggest that there is still a place in the heart of many people for traditional Christian values and experience. I would suggest that, in the light of what appears to be a grass roots movement back to church, there is a need for the re-establishing of some of the more traditional elements of public worship: the use of good hymns, Bible Readings, intercessory prayers for the church and the world, something of the mystery and the magnitude of God within Communion, for example. I suggest this in recognition that (even though we Christians may like it) ‘contemporary praise and worship’ has a limited appeal, and that the majority of those returning to church today are looking for at least some ‘traditional’ elements in our worship services that they can identify with.