Hi and welcome back! I’ve had something on my mind now for a while: the lies so many Christians tell about themselves. One popular Christian lie centers on what they call revivals and the importance of these things to their world. Today, let me show you this oh-so-popular bit of Christianese and a few examples of the breed–and then why they’re so indicative of what we see happening in Christianity right now.
(If you need it, click here to see a definition for “fundagelical.” There’s a return link there to bring you back here. Also, yes, I realize that “outpouring” sounds super-lurid. That’s not my fault. That’s how fundagelicals use the term.)
Christianese: Revivals and Awakenings.
Revivals and awakenings share some very obvious traits and characteristics, but subtle differences exist.
A revival, in Christianese, is an absolutely spectacular event: a literal outpouring of Jesus’ power onto a group of his followers. As lurid as it sounds, this outpouring sparks a huge season of growth, dedication, recruitment, and zeal. Theoretically, everybody outside the sheepfold notices that outpouring–and they get very curious about the Jesus Auras on display. If a revival catches on, the pastor of that church becomes a rock star in fundagelicalism.
An awakening focuses more on the followers than on evangelism. Followers increase their own fervor and zeal, and they rededicate themselves to devotions, but there’s a lot less interaction with the outside world. (A less-spectacular awakening sometimes gets called a rededication.)
Both of these phenomena tend to happen in the more demonstrative Christian groups, notably those of hard-right fundagelicals.
So revivals emphasize adding to church numbers. Awakenings seem more to emphasize solidification of doctrinal beliefs and an increase in fervor. These boundaries are not set in stone, however.
We begin with the First Great Awakening itself. It was spearheaded around 1730 by big names like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. In time, this movement spread through Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. It also left an indelible stain upon Protestantism itself.
Christians at the time argued a lot about the movement. What else is new, right? Some welcomed it; others opposed it. The theology involved, as well, divided Christians. Edwards and his pals taught a very Puritan form of Calvinism that stressed the importance of emotional engagement with conversion and devotions.
As you can tell from the movement’s name, other awakenings followed. Some Christians think we’re up to about the Fourth Great Awakening (1960-1980). (Some of them call this the “Jesus Movement.”) This last one encouraged churches to become way more combative, conservative, and politicized.
Some Christians even think that we’re heading into a Fifth Great Awakening. This time, the fun mostly occurs online. I’ve seen that sentiment echoed by hardline Catholics as well as fundagelicals. This “awakening” stresses ideological purity, obstinance and belligerence, and even more increased politicization. Yep. Since all of those strategies are working so well, I predict nothing but Jesus-flavored success for them. (/s)
Christians have both big huge revivals and more localized smaller-scale revivals.
Local revivals happen all the danged time. Most of the time, a church (or small network of them) organizes them well in advance. When I was Christian, I used to wonder how anybody could schedule our god’s outpouring. But what did I know? My first Pentecostal church held them a few times a year–and our denomination held really big ones annually.
One of the biggest modern-day revivals is likely the so-called Azusa Street Revival. It remains a screamin’ big deal for Pentecostals. It began around 1905-ish, starting in California and moving out from there to much of the world. It’s when a lot of the wackier Pentecostal practices (like speaking in tongues) got solidified as mainstays.
The Jesus People Movement itself sometimes gets called a revival. It ran from the 1960s to the 1980s. In it, tons of mainline Christians dipped into the more fundagelical side of the pool. Participants sought to recreate Original Christianity–both in doctrine and practice. But they began with a totally incorrect view of the earliest forms of Christianity. Thus, the rest of the festivities couldn’t help but be completely wackadoodle.
The Toronto Blessing is an amazing and wild ride. It occurred in the 1990s, lasting into the 2000s. From Benny Hinn to Tony Campolo, everyone voiced an opinion about it. Any fundagelical under the age of about 40 likely had their entire understanding of Christianity shaped by the Toronto Blessing. One of these days I need to tell you all about it!
(I left out quite a few–the Brownsville Revival, the Pensacola Revival, the Florida Outpouring of 2008 that spawned this disgusting incident. This is the song that never ends; it just goes on and on, my friends…)
Phenomenal Cosmic Powers…
Those all sure sound like super-duper-important events, right?
Just look at the Toronto Blessing! What a spectacular bunch of years that was! Just think about it! A real live god reached down his hand, poked through the barrier between his realm and our own (or however Christians conceptualize it nowadays), and revealed his power and majesty in absolutely undeniable ways. Miracles abounded; Christians acted supremely goofy and thought it was cuz of divine attention; and outpourings of piety and bizarre posturing became as common among participants as foggy cat-footed mornings in San Francisco.
Years later, I bet I couldn’t throw a small rock at a Southern mall without hitting a dozen middle-aged Christians who still love to remember the Toronto Blessing.
Not that I would, mind you.
Just that I could.
One Christian fake-news writer, Paul Strand, thinks the Toronto Blessing was the “greatest thing that’s happened in the church in the last 100 years.” Another story claims that the revival continues even today.
And yet most non-fundagelicals have never even heard of it, nor of the other super-important revivals fundagelicals have had!
…Itty Bitty Living Space.
Most non-fundagelical folks might be passingly familiar with at least the first couple of Great Awakenings, just because those movements form such a big part of early American history.
But unless you’re way into fundagelical-spotting or were fundagelical yourself at the critical times involved, or at least had fundagelical family or friends passing on news you didn’t care about, you’ve probably never even heard of any of those revivals.
These Christians think a real live god showed up and did a naked Dazzler-style fandango in their churches. They consider revivals to be PROOF YES PROOF of their many claims.
And yet almost nobody outside the tribe has ever noticed any of it happening.
What a far cry fundagelicals have come from pillars of smoke and fire in the sky! What a pittance of picayune, penny-ante ZOMG MEERKULS they’ve sold their lives to gain!
Worst of all, it’s not hard to find ex-timonies from people who tangled with the Toronto Blessing–and came to realize it was just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Usually these folks seem like they were deeply involved. I’m guessing they got a little too close to that green curtain.
It just blows my mind that all these awakenings and revivals have come and gone in the past few decades, and yet nothing much has changed for the fundagelicals throwing themselves into all these movements. A while ago one of us mentioned that he just had to laugh at how pompously participants behaved about this stuff, and yet how little actually ever changed.
That observation was true even in my day as a fundagelical.
Maybe it’s because I was a new convert and not a lifelong fundagelical Christian, but yes, I did notice how often our god seemed to move in ways that didn’t produce lasting changes for anyone or anything–not even for ourselves. All those words from the Lord tended to be simply rah-rah and demands that we stay the course because OMG y’all, something big was coming our way. Or it’d be vague warnings of future persecution we’d face, so we’d better be getting our Jesus Meters up into the green. That way we’d have enough oomph to survive the Endtimes with our faith intact. (This idea probably derives from the Thief in the Night movies.)
But then things always went back to normal. Nobody could maintain that energy level forever, not even with Jesus Power, apparently.
When that rush inevitably passed, we were always right back where we had been.
Looking At the Wrong Meter.
After a while, it became apparent to me that people loved revivals and whatnot because it gave them a shot in the arm of euphoria.
I probably first became dimly aware of that truth one Sunday evening at that first big Pentecostal church I attended. That night, Biff and I arrived very early. Someone entered the sanctuary, some guy who hadn’t been attending long. He stood near where we sat. From there, he took in the view of the slowly-filling-up sanctuary pews. And he wore the broadest, happiest smile ever on his face. Catching sight of me nearby, he greeted me by saying, “I’ve been needing tonight all week long!”
I laughed and agreed. We “amen”-ed and “praise Jesus”-ed as expected. But the comment got me thinking.
Suddenly, I remembered all these other people saying the same thing: they needed these rowdy church encounters and engagements. A night of wild catharsis gave my tribemates the emotional strength to muddle our way through another awful week in the world.
(On the heels of that realization: realizing that that might well be why they all seemed concerned and distressed that I just didn’t speak in tongues or get rowdy much at all. I wasn’t getting that euphoric catharsis on a regular basis to cloud my perception. By contrast, Biff enjoyed that catharsis every Sunday night without fail. And he probably still does. When I deconverted, he brought up that concern almost immediately.)
The Sitcom Cycle.
Sunday evenings were when my churchmates let down their hair and got rowdy.
Ah, those heady Sunday nights! That’s when you could expect to see dancing, running through the aisles, and words from the Lord–and more besides. Biff claimed to have been totally “exorcised” at a Sunday night service. That detail is not incidental to the story. Had he shown up at any other time, he’d likely have been tossed out on his ear for that performance. On Sunday nights, though, people kinda expected weirdness.
In essence, Christians in my end of the pool imagined that our god was especially active and interactive during revivals.
And yet nothing whatsoever changed.
Every week ran like a sitcom.
And even by sitcom standards, this was a bad one.
This cycle just repeated forever. We kept thinking we had this massive impact on the universe itself–and especially on the world. What a flattering way to think of ourselves! But really, all we were doing was blowing sunshine up our own skirts. We might as well have been talking to ourselves for all the impact we really had on anybody else.
Up and down Christianity’s groups, we were all absolutely ineffectual and impotent. But you’d never have known that to listen to us talk about our efforts.
Second Verse, Same as the First.
Dorothy couldn’t forget what stood behind that curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Similarly, my observation became something I couldn’t un-see.
Whatever happened in our church services and prayer groups, no matter how amazing it seemed or how big a coincidence occurred at some point afterward, none of it mattered. Soon enough, everything always went back to how it’d been before that massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit and all those reported miracles. It didn’t even take that long for this shift to occur, either. Nor did we always get the big feels or the wacky coincidences. We’d be left feeling empty again soon enough–which is also something that is never, ever supposed to happen, ever, for TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
That’s why that guy at my church needed a hot beef Jesus injection every Sunday night without fail. He’d conditioned himself to need this catharsis–and nothing else would do. I guess it’s like masturbation in that sense. For a lot of people, once they get used to self-soothing in a particular way, they don’t really want to change things up. Old Reliable works great. Why mess with it?
Ya know, maybe that’s why the people who joined up during revivals tended to leave soon enough afterward. Whatever they found in our groups, it couldn’t compare to their Old Reliable, whatever it was.
Moving Past Religious Narcissism.
But just try telling TRUE CHRISTIANS™ any of this stuff.
I guarantee you they’ll immediately insist you just Jesus-ed all wrong cuz they never, ever, ever feel like their god just doesn’t exist and all those revivals don’t matter at all.
You won’t hear the truth until and unless they deconvert.
They’re selling membership in a group that boasts of having a real live god on tap to answer prayer, perform miracles, and give out free hugs. They’re not gonna mess up that con by admitting that feeling emptiness is all but universal in their groups. (Some sources: here, there, everywhere. This, that, the other.)
The message is always perfect, in a broken system.
This fib serves them in other ways. Generally speaking, fundagelicals ain’t exactly the top of the ladder in any environment they’re in. I guarantee you that guy in church, like Biff, didn’t have much else going on in his life. But in church, both guys could have their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game and act like they were the literal sons of a real live god–as well as bigtime spiritual paladins wearing
the armor of God imaginary plate armor.
But remember: non-Christians are the prideful ones. Right?
The Hail Mary Pass.
I strongly suspect that the further Christians fall in dominance, the more of these displays we’ll see out of fundagelicals.
Like their kissin’ cousins moral panics and culture wars, revivals and awakenings don’t happen in an environment where the movement’s leaders feel content with their power levels. These movements function more like Hail Mary passes for a once-dominant group that’s finally noticed its decline. They’re a blatant and concerted attempt to seize attention, regain numbers, and reshape the religion to better suit the group’s leaders.
Maybe that’s why there’ve been so many of these beasties in recent years. One big Christian site featured an article lately that proposes that these increasingly-common revivals point to “the Third Great Awakening.” (I guess he doesn’t buy into the idea of a fourth or fifth one.)
That sure wouldn’t be my first guess for why they keep proliferating.
But there’s a silver lining to be perceived here.
The more untrue claims Christians make, the more likely it is that one will catch the attention of exactly the right person at exactly the right time for that Faith Pool of theirs to start draining too quickly to be replenished. Call me optimistic–but that’s pretty much how I began my own deconversion.
So let them claim all the revivals they want!
NEXT UP: Fundagelicals welcome everyone! Except not really. Actually, at all. Here’s how they fib and fudge facts to make this popular lie work. See you next time!
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Disambiguation: In this post, I use the term “fundagelical.” A fundagelical is a Christian who is both evangelical and fundamentalist. When I was Christian, evangelicals and fundamentalists hated each other and actively competed for recruits. Evangelicals thought fundamentalists were dangerous cult zealots. Fundamentalists thought evangelicals were like TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ Lite. Imagine my surprise when I began paying attention to Christianity again and realized the two groups had merged! Now they are indistinguishable. However, the term isn’t mine. In fact, definitions for it go back to at least 2004. Christians themselves appear to have invented and/or popularized it. I think I first saw the term around when I began blogging. It was so perfect that I had to adopt it. I do not consider it pejorative.(Back to the post!)