One does not pastor for long before one hears of the need for Revival. “Pastor,” announces the concerned and stalwart church member with a suitable squint of the eyes, “What we need is Revival.” The implication is that the pastor is in charge of such things and if he’s worth his salt he’ll see that this event comes about. And many pastors try. A church not far from ours plans an annual Holy Spirit Revival right on the highway complete with big top tent and sawdust floors. I have always wondered how far ahead we need to book the Spirit’s appearance when we schedule Him for such events. I saw at least a dozen cars in the three-acre parking lot last year.
By “revival” many Christians mean a highly visible increase of spiritual (Christian?) enthusiasm in a group setting. “Revival” in that sense has a history that is both colorful and cautionary. The problem with the concept is that it focuses (usually) on how a large gathering of people experiences a particular sense of God’s presence. The dynamic of that “large-group” encounter is then abstracted, analyzed, and marketed as the elixir to cure the ailments of spiritual boredom and worldliness that threaten churches. Don’t misunderstand please. God can and does do what He sees fit for the health of his Church. He certainly has revived churches and whole districts marvelously at various times. No argument there. But in the Bible, when a work of God resulted in a massive, localized expression of repentance (like in Acts 2 for instance) it was the result of the Spirit communicating the gospel, never the result of the Christians focusing on their own perceived need for such an experience. There is a subtle but crucial difference between seeking the Lord himself and seeking the experience. Simon Magus is our standard warning against efforts to acquire the Spirit’s life under any other auspices than the lordship of Christ. Yet, that is often (and inadvertently) what motivates the earnest exhortations that pastors receive from worried members of the flock. They’re not asking how they themselves might be more effective or missional in their own representation of Christ. They are bothered by their perception of other people’s “lack of commitment.” They want to see a dramatic thing in their group.
So, I have a word of caution before we get on the “revival” bandwagon, or feel guilty for not being on the wagon in the first place. A pastor’s job in the church according to Paul is not to create “revival” so much as to obviate the need for it (Eph.4:11-14). If a whole church needs reviving that means it has lost its life. A pastor’s job is to keep that from happening! Pastors are to nourish the flock in such a way that the individual sheep have opportunity to stay healthy and reproductive. Good shepherds do this not by seeking to get groups of people excited but by explaining the gospel and teaching the word of God day in and day out in various venues and ways such that people begin to understand who Jesus Christ is and what he has done (2 Tim.4:1-2). The Spirit uses the gospel to save and transform (Rom.1:16-17). Pastoral work is decidedly mundane in this regard, that is worldly in the sense of being at work in the world without a great deal of hype. When we do this people get converted to the saving lordship of Christ under the ministry of the Spirit. If a large number of these conversions happen over a short period of time a group dynamic surfaces. That group dynamic can be impressive—but the group dynamic itself is not the main point! It’s not a new movie that you want your friends to come to. “Hey, they’re throwing a Revival over there! Let’s go see.” The individual conversions under the sovereign work of God are the main point. The “revival” is simply the outward evidence of several conversions. So, revival is good when the Spirit brings it about through the gospel by converting non-Christians and re-invigorating Christians. But it is not something we “market” or “produce” by any other means than those the Lord gave the Church on the day of Pentecost: The apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer (Acts 2:42). All truly spiritual pastoral work grows from these simple realities.
It is true that some churches are dead and need to be revived. But the cure is not an event called a “revival.” Rather it is the slow and steady work of spiritual servant/leadership coming in prayer with the gospel through the scriptures, proclaiming Christ, especially in the pulpit. Church rigor mortis is usually caused by gospel starvation over a long period of time. When the church gets more interested in its own spirituality, its own reputation, its own Self, than it is with the Lord Jesus and His gospel the glory departs. This is how the concept of “revival” can mislead Christians. People want it for what it will do for the church. The emphasis is on the church rather than the Lord or the gospel. And this is why (counterintuitively) pastors must usually ignore requests for “revival” when they surface. Just nod, agree (because it may be true of course) and continue praying, preaching and teaching Christ regularly.
Just a thought,