How do seasons of revival come?
I think we can carefully talk about some factors that, when present, often become associated with revival by God’s blessing. My favorite book on this (highly recommended by Lloyd-Jones) is William B. Sprague’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1832). Sprague…did a good job of combining the basics of revivalism with a healthy emphasis on doctrine and the importance of the church. Sprague’s lectures include a chapter on “General Means” for promoting revivals, and his chapters on counseling seekers and new converts are particularly helpful.
The primary means-of-revival that everyone agrees upon is extraordinary prayer. That’s the clearest of all and so I won’t spend time on it.
The second means is a recovery of the grace-gospel. One of the main vehicles sparking the first awakening in Northampton, Massachusetts was Edwards’ two sermons on Romans 4:5, “Justification by Faith Alone,” in November, 1734. For both John Wesley and George Whitefield, the main leaders of the British Great Awakening, it was an understanding of salvation by grace rather than moral effort that touched off personal renewal and made them agents of revival. Lloyd-Jones taught that the gospel of justification could be lost at two levels. A church might simply become heterodox and lose the very belief in justification by faith alone. But just as deadly, it might keep the doctrine “on the shelf” as it were and not preach it publicly in such a way that connects to people’s hearts and lives.
The third factor I would mention is renewed individuals. Sprague points out how certain church leaders can be characterized by the infectious marks of spiritual revival – a joyful, affectionate seriousness, and “unction” – a sense of God’s presence. In addition, often several visible, dramatic life-turnarounds (“surprising conversions”) may cause others to do deep self-examination and create a sense of spiritual longing and expectation in the community. The personal revivals going on in these individuals spread informally to others through conversation and relationship. More and more people begin to look at themselves and seek God.
A fourth factor I will call the use of the gospel on the heart in counseling. Sprague and John Newton in his letters do a good job of showing how the gospel must be used on both seekers, new believers, and non-growing Christians. The gospel must cut away both the moralism and the licentiousness that destroys real spiritual life and power. There must be venues and meetings and settings in which this is done, both one-on-one and in groups. See William Williams, The Experience Meeting, a leaders’ manual for revival-promoting small group meetings in Wales during the first great awakening.
Finally I would add a fifth factor. Sprague rightly points out that revivals occur mainly through the ordinary, “instituted means of grace” – preaching, pastoring, worship, prayer.
It is a mistake to identify a specific programmatic method (e.g. Billy Graham-like mass evangelism) too closely with all revivals. Lloyd-Jones points to some sad cases where people who came through the Welsh revival of 1904-05 became wedded to particular ways of holding meetings and hymn-singing as the only way God brings revival.
Sometimes God will temporarily use some new method to propagate the gospel and spark revival. For example, under Wesley and Whitefield, outdoor preaching was a new, galvanizing method. Mid-day public prayer meetings were important to the Fulton Street revival in downtown NYC in 1857-58. I’m ready to say that creativity might be one of the marks of revival, because so often some new way of communicating the gospel has been part of the mix that God used to bring a mighty revival.
Excerpts from Revival: Ways and Means from www.redeemercitytocity.com.