Is Wilmore the New Evangelical Mecca?—Thoughts on Asbury, Revival, Evangelism and Repentance
A couple of weeks ago I started seeing social media posts about revival breaking out again at Asbury University. I’ll confess I had some feelings. Not the good kind. More of an eye roll, sure it is, kind of feelings. I’m not proud of the baggage I carry, so maybe you can forgive me.
Before I dig in, you should know that there’s something here for me and hopefully you too. Just in case you think I’m a critic, just keep reading. I’ll get to the good stuff. Promise.
The posts I saw weren’t from anyone associated with Asbury University. They were fellow Christians, excited at young people responding to God. During a routine Wednesday chapel God moved on the hearts of students and they just stayed. All day, all night, day after day. They didn’t want to leave.
Personally, I love church or chapel or Bible study. When I heard about what was happening, I wasn’t surprised. I imagined being with friends singing and resting in God’s presence. It sounded wonderful.
Unfortunately, that option isn’t available. I have adulting to do. Finding space to quiet mental noise feels nearly impossible. But gosh, I love to try.
Commenters repeated the question: is this a move of God or emotionalism? Well yeah, it’s both. Duh. Also, those students don’t need your stamp of approval.
When folks started posting things like, “Believe it, this is real.” I thought, of course it’s real. Please don’t ruin this.
Mega church pastors travelled cross country to report on the experience. Again, insisting that it was real and God was doing something. I found this irritating, as if their high profile testimony held more credibility than young college students.
I sensed expectation from evangelicals. Was this the next Great Awakening? Soon news outlets reported that thousands had come for the experience of God’s presence, as though it were rare or seldom seen.
Yeah, I thought, they are definitely going to ruin this.
What Does Revival Mean?
The word “revival” means different things to different people. For me, it conjures manipulation and fear tactics. For others, I imagine it’s an opportunity for church growth. Setting my cynicism aside, most who imagine revival are longing to see people’s lives changed from an encounter with the divine.
Unfortunately, the ambition to see people come to grace can cause us to lose sight of the human being. I know believers, including even my skeptical self, are stirred by seeing people respond. It reminds us of our own experiences. Sometimes our joy at their response creates a haze, and a danger that we start seeing converts rather than people.
One Facebook post that’s been shared 128 times told the story of a roadside baptism. A group from Springfield, MO headed back from Asbury stopped at Quiktrip and met “a kid from Gen Z.” He told them he’d had a rough night as was feeling a lot of guilt. The traveling missionary explained the meaning of Baptism. The young man was dunked on the spot in the shallow creek under the nearby overpass. He said he felt like a weight had been lifted.
While I believe in the power of God’s grace and mercy for all, what help was really given? Did they stay in Tennessee to make sure he had support? How about relational connection or material resources? With this wonderful sense of forgiveness, did any of his circumstances change? I don’t think so. They didn’t even learn his name.
I’d say the Bible is clear in its criticism of this kind of “faith.” From James 2.14-17, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Hold onto that one. We’ll come back to it again.
I suspect that sometimes alter calls aren’t helpful. Are people responding to God or to the promise that their whole life is going to be magically different if they “repeat after me?” Is it repentance? Or the shame, guilt and fear of hell that we piled on in order to illicit a response? Surely this isn’t what people imagine when they pray for revival.
From all I’ve read, this isn’t what’s happening at Asbury University. That’s likely the reason no one there is using the term “revival.” Instead, they call it an Outpouring.
I can tell Asbury University has worked to be hospitable. Can you imagine having thousands of visitors on campus without any preparation? They’ve opened overflow auditoriums and people are spread out all across campus. You think just because these folks are Christians they pick up their own trash? I feel like we should be sending toilet paper donations. I was thankful for the University’s sake that they decided to conclude services after today.
What Do Repentance and Confession Mean?
One Facebook post from a prominent evangelical who’s been giving reports said that he doesn’t have time to respond to critics. He needs God and he’s too busy repenting. Yes, you really do need to repent, I thought. But then again, shit, so do I. I left a very polite comment, that won’t get answered. I really wanted to know, what does he mean when he says he’s busy repenting?
I thought about that word, repentance. It means a change of mind or direction and is usually paired with confession.
I grew up in the holiness tradition, similar to Asbury. The Baptist-Calvinists believe that we sin every day in word, thought and deed. In contrast, Holiness people believe in what we called a second work of grace—sanctification. Practice has changed since my youth, but essentially I was taught that if you were sanctified, you didn’t sin. No sin, no need for confession. There was a lot of pressure not to sin, or at least to look like you didn’t sin. Seems like the Baptists were the same, they just didn’t call it sanctification.
We talk about repentance, but I can’t recall a time when a public figure volunteered a real confession. For the most part, it seems like they are usually forced into something confession/repentance adjacent. Maybe they don’t need to because they are sanctified?
Most Christian traditions practice repentance. I worked it into our worship cadence as a pastor. I think of Psalm 139.23-24, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It’s one of those times that we stop and practice self-examination. Asking God, how can I be better?
If I’m being honest, repentance usually looks more like some kind of vague spiritual platitude. I need to draw closer to God. I just haven’t been praying enough. As if the problem is my feelings and thoughts toward God, not my actual behavior much less anything systemic.
I was still curious. What was the call to repentance at Asbury University? I read reports that this was different. There was a peacefulness.
Love in Action
I listened to that Wednesday chapel sermon for a second time. The title was “Love in Action” from Romans 12.9-21. Early in the message Rev. Zach Meerkreebs asks, “What are some of the feelings you have this morning?” The crowd calls out: Anxiety, Joy, Exhaustion, Overwhelmed. Yeah, that tracks, I thought. You and me both.
The preacher followed a familiar path. You are called to love those in your community. You are called to love those who persecute you. “Not just those who put negative posts on your social media, but those who hate you. We are called to love our enemies. How are we doing?”
He continued to talk about perfect love. What isn’t perfect love? Hypocrisy, when people wear masks as if to become a different character in a play. He talked about polluted and selfish love, not even worthy to be called love at all. Then he said, “Some of you have experienced that kind of love in the church…” You were welcomed and then hurt.
Gosh, I’ve heard that from so many, I thought. He stopped in the middle of his sermon and prayed. He asked for healing from the hypocritical love that students had experienced from the church.
The sermon wrapped up with the question, “What is your source of love? If your source of love is white knuckling it, to get love in return, that’s not the kind of love we are talking about. Who or what are you coming to in this expression of love? Some of us need to sit in the love of God. If you want to become love in action, you have to experience the love of God.”
And that’s what they did. The band sang and the students sat in the love of God.
I thought about this generation. I don’t presume to get it. But I know that we’ve all been through something.
This isn’t the kind of suffering they are going through in places like Ukraine or Pakistan. No bombs are dropping or buildings falling. There’s also no community gathering together to rebuild. And it’s impossible to really identify the threat, real or perceived.
This is more like being worn down. The kind of fatigue that makes you want to just quit. Full stop. And rest.
In an article titled “On Longing and The Asbury Revival,” Nadia Boltz-Weber talks about watching the live stream services.
Noticeably absent from the front of the chapel are: flashy praise bands, lighting systems, projectors and screens, celebrity worship leaders and people over 25.
There is such a simplicity, and dare I say, a humility to it.
And then there’s the commentary all over the internet about the revival. …I actually wonder if exhaustion from culture wars, purity codes and the idolatry of ideology on all sides have led these young people to seek revival in the simplicity of constant prayer and singing in the first place. Yet it feels like the YouTube comments and think pieces ABOUT the revival are smearing it all back onto them.
Thinking Outside of the White Evangelical Context
One of my favorite pastor podcasters, Brandi Miller, made an Instagram Reel titled RE: Revival @ Asbury where she began with, “I don’t care.” She said that we judge revivals by the results. “If we see results in the form of justice and social change come out of this real white space, great.”
That’s a different lens than the tally of “personal salvations.” While the rest of us were focused on determining if it was God or emotions moving hearts and minds, black Christians were looking at the needs of their communities. They were praying for a different kind of revival.
Instead of focusing on what might be happening at Asbury, Brandi suggests we think about these questions: How can I invest in the kind of spiritual transformation that produces social change in the areas I frequently occupy: my neighborhood, my local church, or my city? Am I experiencing that transformation in my own life? Am I longing to?
Well, shit. That’s a lot harder than flying to Kentucky. It’s more challenging than resting in God’s loving presence day after day. And it’s a lot closer to what God calls us to do.
Black and brown Christians remind us that there’s work to be done. Repentance is about more than being released from personal guilt. Salvation has to be about changing the systems we participate in that create oppression.
I don’t have any comments for the students at Asbury University. Other than maybe, “Go after it! Be love in action.” Also, get some sleep.
For everyone crashing the party: just go home. Sit and wait on the Lord. I promise God is capable of meeting you wherever you are.
For me and anyone else who wants to hear a call to repentance, here’s what I got.
I need to sit with this question: How do I invest in spiritual transformation the produces social change? And it’s time for us to get to work.
One more time from James:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
 https://www.facebook.com/147803100/videos/3375359706016492/  You can listen here: https://www.asbury.edu/life/spiritual-life/chapel/podcasts/  It’s a great post. You should read it here: https://open.substack.com/pub/thecorners/p/on-longing-and-the-asbury-revival?utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=email