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Something happened in Kentucky
Last Thursday, Asbury University officially marked the end of the 21st century’s first major spiritual revival—or so it’s been named by the sort of people who give names to these sorts of things. For two weeks, all eyes were on the sleepy Kentucky town of Wilmore, as thousands upon thousands of visitors poured in to get a glimpse of what was happening on the small college campus. A campus so small that, as one student put it, she knew precisely which students hated each other.
It began as a mundane chapel service, one of three services students are required to attend every week. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it. There was some singing, some Scripture reading, and a sermon preached by a sleep-deprived volunteer soccer coach. All business as usual for a small Christian college campus. But what the sermon lacked in rhetorical power, it made up in sincerity. The text of the day was Romans 12:9-21. Some of the most-quoted verses of the New Testament come from this one passage: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” “For it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” And finally, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
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But the verse that most struck Zach, our volunteer soccer coach, was the first verse, which in the King James is translated as “Let love be without dissimulation.” I’m one of those language curmudgeons who prefers this over teeth-grinding newer translations like “Let your love be genuine.” Naturally, Zach wasn’t working from the KJV. But he shouldn’t mind me, I’m a curmudgeon. The point was that we are unable to show God’s love for our family, friends and community in the ways Paul commands until we have experienced that love for ourselves. This was his simple prayer for the student body. Later, he would say he was convinced that the unprepossessing little message was yet another “dud.” But he still prayed at the end of it, “Jesus, do a new thing in our midst. Revive us by your love. And we all said…” And the students said, “Amen.”
Nobody quite understands what happened next, or why. But for whatever reason, a handful of students chose not to leave the chapel after the service was officially over. Instead, they continued to sing, pray, and meditate together. Then one of them, a young man, said he wanted to share his testimony of how God had delivered him from suicidal ideations a few years prior. A girl who was there said for her this marked a turning point, when the gathering crossed the line from “overlong worship service” to…something else. Soon, students were pounding the pavement, summoning their friends back to chapel to experience that “something else” for themselves.
Granted, these students were in a very particular denominational context that had primed them to, if not exactly expect “something else,” at least earnestly pray for it. Asbury is a school in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, the source of Great Awakenings past. Smaller awakenings have been known to occur at the school itself, including a particularly significant week-long “outpouring” in 1970 that’s still talked about to this day. Pictures comparing then and now are strikingly similar, except that all the girls were wearing dresses then. This is not to brush away the idea that God could have been specially “doing a work,” merely to note that it didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Of course, Christians couldn’t help talking among themselves about whether the Holy Spirit was, in fact, orchestrating all this. As hours became days became weeks, and as tens of worshippers became hundreds became thousands, there was no shortage of Takes, from every conceivable angle. For those of my readers who aren’t Christians, it’s hard to convey just how many possible ways there are for Christians to dissect this sort of thing. Very broadly, you have your charismatics on one side, and you have your curmudgeons on the other. If the charismatics are getting excited about something, the curmudgeons are ready with 101 reasons why the thing is not all that exciting, actually. I say this in love because, as I’ve mentioned, I am a curmudgeon. I’m in a precarious position, however, because I’m also a teacher. This makes me a curmudgeon-with-an-incurable-soft-spot-for-anything-that-involves-kids.
And these are really sweet kids. I mean, really. Simply listening to their firsthand perspectives was by far the most enjoyable and encouraging way to get a true sense of the geist of this thing. That geist was overwhelmingly earnest, humble, and hopeful. As has been pointed out multiple times, there are many things that a large group of young under-25s could be doing with their time. For days on end, this group chose to spend it making music, reading the Bible, praying over friends and strangers, and reconciling with their enemies. However one explains it, it’s hard not to see this as a net good.
Of course, these particular under-25s are nice Christian college students, who in the normal course of events would have been spending much of that time sitting in class or doing homework. Christian satire site The Babylon Bee couldn’t resist some gentle fun, “reporting” that revival had just happened to break out the night before a huge group project was due. In fact, one student later said there was, indeed, a huge group project due the next day, and he had spent the first hours of the revival wandering around campus in mounting annoyance that he couldn’t find the rest of his group. But once he found his way to the chapel, it was all good. Presumably his professor recognized the move of the Spirit and adjusted due dates accordingly.
Much credit in all this should go to those adults in the room who quickly read the moment, made a plan, and worked around the clock to maintain some kind of order amid potential chaos, especially as the town became so overrun with “revival tourists” that at one point there were literally more people than bathrooms. Curious celebrity Christians were politely told that the stage was reserved for the student worship leaders. For a while, the chapel was open to all ages, but eventually it was limited to under-25s only, with large screens set up on the grounds for everyone else. Inside, pastors and teachers were on hand to quietly vet requests to “share a word,” then gently signal when it was time for someone else’s turn. When kids jumped up and down in the old balconies, they were politely asked to transfer their jumping to the ground level. And when it came time to start landing the plane and closing the chapel at nights, it was patiently explained that “Jesus and the Holy Spirit will still be here.”
Of course, strange things still happened, because strange things are bound to happen in this sort of situation. A young man who was sharing about his financial struggles suddenly found himself showered with cash after an older man said he felt the Spirit “prompting” him to fling down the first fistful. Another clip went viral purporting to show an exorcism of some poor woman who looked like she was having a seizure, then let out an unearthly scream just as we are informed the demon left her body. I find myself unable to pronounce intelligently on this incident either way. I generally prefer to have more source material than under a minute of distant, blurry video before I try to make intelligent pronouncements on such things, personally. Meanwhile, a father reported that he had a vision of an angel coming down behind his young son as he knelt praying at the altar. The boy later said that he’d felt someone touch him on the shoulder, only to turn around and see no one there. I hope I don’t seem impious if I say I’m not convinced.
I likewise hope I don’t seem impious if I hesitate to automatically accept alleged healing reports, for ailments ranging from sports injuries to a “strawberry-sized” tumor. It’s not that I doubt God could heal a young student athlete’s Achilles tendon if He wanted to. I’m just in no position to confirm that He did. And when such reports cross over from the relatively minor to the serious, like cancer, I begin to fear what might transpire if some poor soul got home only to discover that his cancer was still very much alive and well.
This is precisely where charlatans tend to swoop down and find their mark, of course. Notorious shyster Todd Bentley flew himself in to mingle and take some selfies, though he was kept off the stage, and we can hope his effect was minimal. Still, some have wondered why he was allowed in at all, and why the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t make him squirm in his seat once he got there. The fact that he wasn’t squirming caused some curmudgeons, myself included, to do some curmudgeonly beard-stroking about whether this whole thing was a Real Revival, really.
I wonder, though, on further reflection, if this was the right metric. After all, if God did bring about this revival, He didn’t bring it about for the benefit of men like Todd Bentley. He brought it about for the benefit of people like the young woman with two alcoholic parents who stood up to confess that she felt like “a ghost” on campus—invisible and desolate. Just the week before, she said she had contemplated jumping off a bridge. In response, dozens of kind-hearted young women surrounded her with tangible comfort and prayer. One of them later said that she had in fact already been praying for this particular girl for several months, thus suggesting she wasn’t actually “invisible.” But in times of despair, one can exaggerate, and one can forget. And God, in His mercy, remembers.
Mental health struggles were a recurring theme throughout the gathering, as student after student confessed to battling anxiety and depression. One tender soul said she “was sick of crying” every time she logged onto social media. Perhaps this sort of thing is only to be expected in a room full of college students. Yet it was reported that visiting kids as young as 11 or 12 were standing up to share the same thing. There are doubtless a multiplicity of factors at work in any such case. I think my friend Ben Sixsmith was onto something recently when he suggested Gen Z’s mental health crisis can be partially attributed to unprecedented struggles with incoherence and uncertainty—incoherence of identity, uncertainty of the future. One might assume Christian young people are somewhat fortified against both of these things, but alas, it isn’t always so.
What is unique to a Christian environment, though, is the manner of hope that can be held out to young people in this kind of distress. I think this was missed in the generally sympathetic and respectful coverage of the revival by Olivia Reingold for Bari Weiss’s podcast. Reingold, a daughter of atheists, frankly confesses she felt out of her element in the chapel, though she interviewed her subjects with a genuine professional curiosity. She got in at a time when a variety of ages were allowed, which provided her with some lovely bits of people-watching: a man with an oxygen mask, guys in cowboy boots and muddy jeans leaning against a stained-glass window, a mother and baby quietly breastfeeding. She sincerely wanted to know what all these people were experiencing that she wasn’t. This was her first time even encountering sincere Christian believers, let alone setting foot in a chapel. She couldn’t say she felt a supernatural presence there, per se. What she did feel was the power of “good old-fashioned human connection” — the natural warmth and love that radiates from many human beings gathered in the same physical space for a common purpose. At the very least, she sensed “human kindness and optimism and gratitude for the essentials of what make a good life.”
Far be it from me to downplay the natural revelation of incarnated community, especially in a post-COVID world where some pastors take it for granted that “zoom church” can do for it. Yet this does rather neglect the fact that these young people were singing about something, that they were praying to Someone—or so they sincerely believed, whether or not Reingold does. Many students confessed sins to each other, sins which perhaps by other people’s measures might be part of “a good life.” One young woman, when asked if she could specifically pray over her anxious and depressed fellow students, prayed that they would live in relationship with a personal God who created them, loves them, and died for them. God had chosen them first, and her prayer was that they would “choose Him back.”
This sort of stuff is not just therapy by a more spiritual name. This stuff has weight, and stakes, and consequences. It may bring comfort, but it may also require sacrifice. It may bring life, but it may also feel like a kind of death.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened at Asbury. I’m a bad Anglican/high-church Baptist. I’m the Wrong Person to Ask, here. I think my fellow curmudgeons especially had a point about “revival tourism,” about there being something odd in the floods of people desperate to get to this specific place in order to “encounter” the Holy Spirit. When Reingold interviews a girl who says this may be the only time in her life that she can “access” a revival, I wince a bit. The Babylon Bee again stings gently, reporting on this strange new “revival” that somehow occurs every Sunday in multiple locations around the country.
I also feel some concern when Reingold interviews a woman who’s struggled very recently with addiction but is currently in a better phase and eagerly standing in the long line outside. How many men and women like this had spent time and money to be there? No doubt they received a kind welcome from the good people of Asbury, and no doubt this was meaningful in itself, but the more important question is do they have good pastors and churches to go home to? Were they seeking a sense of community they didn’t already have? What does this say about our atomized society?
These are legitimate questions to ask. At the same time, I just keep thinking about the suicidal girl. I wonder how many students were in a similarly precarious place at the time, and perhaps wouldn’t still be here now. If nothing else, they are still here now. And that’s not nothing.
We would also be foolish to underestimate other long-term ripple effects of something like this. If a butterfly can flap its wings in China and start a war, all manner of things can be started here. The proof will be in the pudding, but the repeated refrain as things drew to a close was that this should be a beginning, not an end. I fail to see how this can be a bad thing.
“Sing over your family,” a young woman says in the video below, with a kind of poetic simplicity. “Sing over your friends. Sing over the ones that are lost.” I don’t even like the song they proceed to sing. But then, nobody asked me.
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