The Revival will not be Televised

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

It might be live streamed…

Everyone wants revival.  Christianity in American needs revival. But just what kind of revival?

After the crazy year we’ve had, I’m even more convinced we need the kind of revival that leads to renewal not restoration.  Renewal is the good kind of revival, restoration … not so much. Why? Consider this..

Just before Jesus’ ascension, his disciples asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus kind of side-stepped the question and instead talked about spiritual renewal: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:6, 8)

According to William G. McLoughlin, one of the most prominent historians of American revivalism, the Great Awakenings were periods “when the cultural system had to be revitalized in order to overcome jarring disjunctions between norms and experience, old beliefs and new realities, dying patterns and emerging patterns of behavior.” [Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (1978), page 10] They led to “fundamental ideological transformations necessary to the dynamic growth of the nation in adapting to basic social, ecological, psychological, and economic changes…It constitutes the awakening of a people caught in an outmoded, dysfunctional world view to the necessity of converting their mindset, their behavior, and their institutions to more relevant or more functionally useful ways of understanding and coping with the changes in the world they live in.” [page 8]

Though the awakenings “were confusing and tumultuous,”  McLoughlin stresses “the positive, unifying results… The Puritan Awakening led to the beginnings of constitutional monarchy in England; America’s First Great Awakening led to the creation of the American republic; our Second Great Awakening led to the solidification of the Union and the rise of Jacksonian participatory democracy; our Third Awakening led to the rejection of unregulated capitalistic exploitation and the beginning of the welfare state; and our Fourth Awakening appears to be headed toward a rejection of unregulated exploitation of humankind and of nature and towards a series of regional and international consortiums for the conservation and optimal use of the world’s resources.” [page 11]

On the other hand, some revivals were not so good. Of Dwight Moody’s urban revivals, McLoughlin says, “He was brought to the cities in times of unemployment by middle-class churchgoers and businessmen precisely to tell the workers that the American dream was true, that the system was fundamentally sound… To Evangelical believers in the Protestant ethic, the poor were poor because they had some flaw of character that conversion would quickly remove.” [p 144]

“In the end, however, Moody had to admit that his revivals did not reach the poor in the cities. His audiences were essentially middle-class, rural-born native Americans who had come to the city to make their fortunes; they believed that he spoke God’s truth in extolling hard work and free enterprise. But he was not a spokesman for those who were becoming discouraged or disillusioned with the success myth; not did he reach the foreign-born or Catholic poor who made up so large a proportion of the labor class. “ [p 144-145]

McLoughlin concludes that “professional revivalism of this sort was an effective stress-relief mechanism for the majority in these years. Until the 1890s evangelists (and their audiences) continued to believe complacently that this was the best of all possible worlds: God was in his heaven, and all was right with America.” [p 145]

Good revival renews people and society. Revivals that are not so good restores or maintains the status quo.

One might fault McLoughlin for relying so heavily on anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace‘s theory of revitalization movements. But in my observation of evangelicalism and religion in America over the past fifty years, I believe Wallace’s theory and McLoughlin’s adaptation of it to the history of revivals helps makes sense of what is happening today.

Some background: In 1956, Wallace published a paper called “Revitalization Movements” [American Anthropologist 58: 264-281.] to describe how cultures change. Based on his study of religious movements among Native Americans, Wallace argued that a revitalization movement is a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture” (p. 265). Wallace believed that religious movements (such as revivals) are the agents of the revitalization of a society that is stuck or in crisis. McLoughlin believes that this process helped revitalize the United States during five Great Awakenings.

I think we are at the cusp of a new awakening. The question is will Christians be viewed as purveyors of the good or bad kind of revival. Let’s deep dive.

The Five Stages of Revitalization in U.S. Awakenings

According to McLoughlin, revival movements begin with a crisis of legitimacy. Earlier adaptation to the social and natural environment is no longer satisfactory. [Revivals, 12]  This leads to a period of individual stress where changes in society frustrate efforts of many people to obtain normal satisfactions of their needs. In the last twenty years, we’ve witnessed more young people abandoning traditional religious communities and practices and joining the ranks of religious “nones.” A recent study, “Democracy in Dark Times,” points to America’s legitimation crisis and its impact of race, religion, and politics. Is it possible that this trend reflects a feeling of cultural disorientation (or Emile Durkheim’s anomie)? Has Christianity has lost its legitimacy in a changing American society? If so, this would not have been the first time in American history.

During the second stage, a period of cultural distortion, we witness a divided populace. “The people cannot agree on proper measures for coping with dangers; instead of joining together to meet it, they quarrel and divide, often blaming those in authority. They refuse to unite on any scheme.” [13] At this point, “there almost always arises a nativist or traditionalist movement within the culture, that is, an attempt by those with rigid personalities or with much at stake in the older order to argue that the danger comes from the failure of the populace to adhere more strictly to the old beliefs, values, and behavior patterns.” [14] This is a double-edged solution because it creates more crisis of legitimacy. But this is also when a religious revival or a great awakening begins. New leaders and practices emerge. “People must be found who can help to formulate a new consensus, create new maze ways. These new maze ways must be understood to be in harmony not only with daily experiences but also with the way in which the experience is understood to reflect the realities of the mysterious power that controls the universe.” [15]

Stage three is a period of restructuring of old institutions. It is a time to build new world views or maze ways.  Rigid reactionaries are unable to make the transition and become the minority, the dissidents. A new consensus, new religious organizations, new social norms begins to take shape. New prophets shed  “new light.” [17]  “Orthodoxy in America has been progressive or syncretic, offering new definitions for old truths,” notes McLoughlin. “God is, of course, always and everywhere the same, but his spirit manifests itself in new ways to meet new needs. It is the old lights in each of our awakenings (variously called ‘Old Sides,’ ‘Old School,’ ‘Old dignity,’ or ‘Fundamentalists’) who have clung to the letter and ignored the spirit of God’s will. Their reliance on dead formalism and shibboleths that have lost their meaning has enabled the new lights to capture the imagination of a confused people and lead them out of the old churches and into new ones, constantly revitalizing the mazeways.” [18] 

In the fourth stage this “new light” movement grows, attracting more flexible (usually younger) members of society. It also leads to experimentation. Some of these movements are destructive. Eventually, all revitalized or new organizations that flourish require experiences of conversion, transformation or regeneration. McLoughlin claims that in each awakening “the successful new-light prophets have achieved this important organizational transition. When the Puritan movement died, the evangelistic spirit within it was reborn in Congregationalism and Presbyterianism and was later revitalized by the Baptists, Methodists, Campbellites, Disciples of Christ, and by Progressive, Liberal Protestants.” [22]

Finally, in the fifth stage, the new consensus succeeds. It anchor changes in the culture as most people are won over – even those who do not experience conversion. “But old light never quite dies,” says McLoughlin, “and the process is never finished.” As new lights become dominant, “there is considerable revision of the institutional structure, often through political action. Familial patterns change, sex roles alter, schools reform their curriculums and teaching methods, courts revise their interpretations, governments enact new laws and reorganize their recruitment of civil servants.” [22]

Writing in the 1970s, McLoughlin optimistically concluded  that “It was through following the new guidelines of our revitalization movements that Americans abandoned allegiance to the king, abolished human slavery, regulated business enterprise, empowered labor unions, and is now trying to equalize the rights of women, blacks, Indians, and other minorities.” [22-23] 

He didn’t live to see the rise of the Christian Right, which he would most certainly consider “old lights.” He probably would have been surprised at the dominance of  “old lights” among white Christians today. But I think his insight is correct. What the media calls white evangelicals are today’s “old lights” because they want to restore a mythic past rather than join the diverse cloud of witnesses that will be the future of Christianity and America.

Will The Revival be Live-Streamed?

Of course, it is the Holy Spirit who will guide us into revival, but we have a choice. In the coming revival, will we focus on renewal or restoration? I vote for renewal. Live-streaming > televising.

  • We must not restore the old ways that assume that white, male experiences, perspectives, and leaders are the norm for all people, let along American Christianity.
  • We must not restore the old ways that expect knee-jerk reactions against the Movement for Black Lives, Critical Race Theory, or biblical social justice.
  • We must not restore the old ways that require Christians to distrust facts-based science, to be loyal to one political party, or demonize members of a different political party.
  • We must not restore the old ways that equate Christianity with Western civilization and American nationalism.

Instead, in the new year, I’m praying for a revival that is rooted in the Incarnation of Christ, by which God’s promise to make all things is being fulfilled. Exactly 400 years ago, John Robinson declared “The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”

I don’t know what 2021 will look like, but I hope to be part of a new revival – one that follows the “new light” of renewal.

Have a Joyous Christmas and Renewed 2021!

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Christmas 2020 Greetings! | Tim Tseng
  2. Twelve Days of Christmas Potpourri | Tim Tseng

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: