“Sheer Peacefulness”: Reflections on the Revival of 2023 from a Historical Perspective

Douglas M. Strong

God is doing a mighty work right before our eyes! The revival currently taking place at Asbury University, Lee University, and other places throughout the US seems, to many people, to have come out of the blue. And yet, this time of spiritual renewal—this first revival of the social media age—has many historical parallels. Seasons of revival have broken out throughout American history, not to mention revivals that occur periodically all over the globe. There are many common traits to these revivals. The commonalities include preparation by prayer, an intense hunger by believers for the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit, fervent worship, and the important role played by students and other young people in furthering spiritual growth.

But what I find most intriguing are not the characteristics that happen typically at all revivals, but how God shapes the style and idiom of each revival to the particular social and psychological needs of each era. In the eighteenth century, for example, the first great awakening arose as an emotionally dramatic “surprising work of God” at a time when people felt powerless under the constraints of a society known for being staid, severe, and controlling. The second great awakening, in the nineteenth century, encouraged folks to exercise their free will, so that they could choose to live righteously according to God’s holy precepts—which matched perfectly with the democratic aspirations of the early American republic. And the Azusa Street Revival of the early twentieth century exemplified powerful interracial spiritual leadership during the Jim Crow era, one of the worst periods of anti-Black violence in our nation’s history. Each revival conveyed and reflected the specific spiritual yearnings of its age.

God likewise appears to have adapted the manner and mode of the twenty-first century revival to fit the deepest longings of our time. First, in a period when the American rank and file distrust religious authority figures, often for good reason, the Asbury revival doesn’t have any obvious designated leader—no Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, or William Seymour—just a whole crew of relatively unremarkable and unpretentious Christian people faithfully encouraging one another. Second, and relatedly, this revival is not gimmicky, nor has it been extensively promoted, which is what’s necessary today when people insist on authenticity. An Asbury student writes how he came “from a spiritual background that left me weary of hype in a culture of spectacle. I’ve grown tired of disingenuous representations of divine work; but it is clear God is moving in a surprising and transformative way.” Third, at a time in our country when racial tensions continue to be heightened, the revival’s worship events demonstrate broad multiethnic inclusivity. And most significantly, fourthly, at a moment when American culture seems fraught with disquiet, anxiety, and loneliness, the recurrent description overheard about the 2023 revival is that it creates a sense of profound and incomprehensible peace within the lives of participants.

What an unanticipated outcome of the Holy Spirit’s work! Americans in the 2020s have faced the stresses and uncertainties of pandemic isolation, racial injustice, political polarization, and unprecedented mental health crises. So, isn’t it amazingly providential that this revival seems to be best known for generating a perception of holy restfulness and serenity? Pentecostal theologian Dale Coulter visited the revival at Lee University and had this to say: “I had a strong sense of calmness.” When Coulter left the meeting, he found that he “had to reorient myself like you would do when you are lost in thought or first awake.”

Another theology professor, Jason Vickers, depicted the Holy Spirit’s effect on him—while he was in Hughes Auditorium at Asbury University—as “a manifestation of sheer peacefulness.” Vickers continued his description: “Two things stood out to me. First, there was a noticeable lack of tension in my body. I was completely relaxed. There was also a complete lack of mental tension or distraction. My mind was at utter peace.” Another Asbury Seminary professor, Thomas McCall, wrote that “what we are experiencing now—this inexpressibly deep sense of peace, wholeness, holiness, belonging, and love—is only the smallest of windows into the life for which we are made.”

The fruits of this revival are yet to be seen, of course. And the gift of God’s shalom is not a panacea that absolves us from the need for ongoing individual and societal repentance and the call for justice advocacy. But clearly the Spirit is up to something dynamic, and also something uniquely appropriate to the concerns and issues of our twenty-first-century culture.

Posted Feb 28, 2023

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