Revival!

Revival!

I remember – and you might too – back in the 1970s there was a Christian revival that was referred to as the Jesus Freak movement. It glommed on to cultural expressions of the day, spawned at least two musicals (“Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell”) and inspired many churches and organizations that operated outside of the dominant mainline Protestant denominations. Now a rather venerable institution itself, Calvary Chapel started out as a lot of young people meeting on the beach in Southern California, taking communion with potato chips and Coca-Cola, and spending fellowship time bodysurfing. We were all shocked! Such disrespect! Yet, like the spiritually based services at Taizè, young people were drawn to the Word in droves in order to give their faith a fresh, invigorating expression. But if you think this was the only time a revival shook up the institutional church, think again. The newness of God’s Word has frequently gotten bogged down throughout history by the restrictive and sometimes plodding nature of the institutional church. Even in the earliest churches, it was Paul’s calling to revive them, and save them from constant bickering and in-fighting, by reintroducing an uncluttered vision of the truth of Jesus Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

That’s it. Christ crucified. In each revival movement from the time of Paul onward, revivalists strove to put aside the distractions, whether they be the indulgences the Catholic Church demanded in Martin Luther’s day, or the institutional stultification that inspired the Jesus Freaks. In their own way and using culturally relevant tools, each movement has sought to revitalize worshipping communities, and the individual worshippers therein, by going back to the start. Back to a time before the Gospels had even been written down. Back to proclaiming Christ crucified. Institutions, being institutions, detest revivals, since revivals by their very nature seek to strip away any sense of shamanistic power that the clergy and church leadership may think they have. Certainly, since the time of Martin Luther, revivals have emphasized an unmitigated experience of God. Luther did this by leveraging rising literacy rates and the invention of the printing press to point people to a direct experience of God through the Bible unmitigated by their local priest. John Wesley used powerful field preaching and small, intimate Bible classes to bring Christ directly to the people. The American revivalists of the early 19th century used much the same approach and, like Wesley, leveraged music and inspirational preaching rather than institutional or dogmatic conformity. Who’s to say the same didn’t happen on the beaches of Southern California? We now find ourselves in a similar doldrum. Some institutional churches have not only wandered away from Christ-centered engagement, they has also constructed new dogmas that seem to have little to do with Christ crucified, and then demand conformity. This is happening not only in the mainline Protestant churches, but even in some of the non-denominationals that grew up out of the last revival. The biggest impact of failing to revive the church is not simply in reduced numbers at institutional churches. Those numbers are simply a reflection of institutional survival, yet the Word of Christ has a way of springing up in new and exciting places without any help from us. But along the way there are those who take an institutional failure to mean God has failed, and then not only walk away, but stay away. They become lost sheep, and who is going after them? Institutions fail all the time, but Jesus weeps for each lost sheep. Our first obligation is not to the institution, but to Christ crucified. For, “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

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