Evangelicals recently celebrated the emergence of what they have come to call the Asbury Revival. Outsiders to their culture might not understand the sheer significance of this event, nor understand why they go to such lengths to participate in it and events like it. It helps to know that revival as a concept is integral to their self-image. To understand evangelicals better, let’s examine the concept of revival in evangelical culture.
Joy unspeakable and full of glory
A church in the smack middle of a revival thrums with excitement and anticipation. This is the ancient joy of fundamentalism, the catharsis and ecstasy that offsets all of its burdensome rules and choking authoritarian yokes.
Every person there knows that at some point in the service, things are gonna get rowdy. The pastor, for his part (and it is almost always “his”), probably just hopes he’ll get through his sermon before the chaos breaks out.
Because it always will.
A church in revival is a group operating in synergy, each person’s eagerness and anticipation bouncing off the next, until all that emotional energy just explodes. People visit, sometimes from miles away, to see if they can rub off just a little of that feeling for themselves. Many stay and become members, at least for a little while.
I’ve been there—and if you’re into that kind of thing it is definitely a lot of fun. At the time, I thought only Jesus could possibly have made that feeling—that environment—possible. Since then, I’ve felt that way in many other situations, all of them completely non-Christian. And I’ve learned that many cultures and religions have their own ways of letting loose that look strikingly similar.
Yes, I know better now.
But as a fundamentalist teenager, wow, it was impossible for me to imagine a revival being purely earthly in nature. It just seemed impossible that humans could work themselves up to that level of excitement. Nobody around me at the time told me otherwise.
Situation Report: The Asbury Revival
Asbury University is a small, private Christian college in Wilmore, Kentucky. Though officially nondenominational, its catalog defines the school as broadly evangelical. It has about 1800 students and costs about $16,000 per semester to attend. Its financial aid page claims that every single one of its students gets financial aid or grants. Asbury aligns itself with the Wesleyan-Holiness movement, a style of Jesus-ing that entails the observance of very strict behavioral rules. It also imposes a dress code that sounds similar to Pentecostals’ holiness standards. This movement also explicitly rejects Calvinism.
Asbury University claims a long tradition of hosting revivals. After its establishment in 1890, the school enjoyed its first revival in 1905. The most recent occurred in 2006 and lasted for four days, apparently. So perhaps they felt they were a bit overdue.
Starting around February 8, 2023, students at Asbury University began experiencing a huge surge of piety and devotion during a chapel service. When the service ended, instead of going to class, they stayed to Jesus some more. In fact, according to one Fox News article, they “refused to leave” the chapel. Refused.
Soon, the school’s president sent a message out to the student body to invite them to join these students. After that, the news quickly picked up steam on social media, particularly on TikTok. Evangelicals quickly designated this event the Asbury Revival.
Before long, many thousands of people flocked to Asbury University’s chapel to join the worshipers there. Most appeared to be Gen Z, which makes this gathering huge news for a whole lot of reasons.
By February 20, the sheer number of eager evangelical tourists had begun to overwhelm the facilities of the small school and its small town alike. The school began seeking to move their worshipers off-campus, a decision that seems to have wrecked the movement’s momentum. By the 24th, it was largely finished. That’s also when we found out that an unvaccinated student had attended the Asbury Revival on the 18th while infected with measles, making this event a potential disease superspreader.
Revivals and Great Awakenings are the real goals here
In evangelicalism, a revival is a huge burst of devotional activity that results in many conversions to the church(es) hosting the event. One major past revival was the Azusa Street Revival of 1906.
When this burst of activity lasts for a very long time and results in tons of conversions, then it’s called a Great Awakening. America has had a few Great Awakenings. Its first began in the 1730s and lasted about 10 years. The Second Great Awakening ran from about 1790-1840. Officially, a third one ran from roughly the 1850s to the 1900s. However, evangelicals haven’t quite decided if they like calling it that. Some scholars even think there’s been a fourth one, which ran from the 1960s to early 1970s, roughly during the Jesus Movement. (Personally, I agree. That movement changed evangelicalism forever—and not for the better.)
That said, you can easily find evangelicals openly pining for a “Third Great Awakening.” For ages now, they’ve been certain that it’s coming any day now. Even mere revivals are growing rarer and rarer.
But sometimes evangelicals must settle for these
Most often, the burst of activity does not result in a lot of conversions at all. Instead, it just gets existing evangelicals very excited. They call these a renewal, a blessing, or a refreshing (or sometimes even an outpouring) since that’s how their participants feel.
None of these terms are strictly official. Often, you’ll also find overlap and blurring definitions.
The Toronto Blessing of the mid-1990s, for example, got called a blessing because very few people outside of evangelicalism even knew it was happening. Fewer still converted. However, it completely rocked the evangelical world. Similarly, I’ve seen evangelicals call the Lakeland Revival of 2008 a blessing for the same reasons. Generally speaking, if normies have no clue it’s happening and few new people join up, then it’s not really a revival or an awakening.
Refreshings and renewals don’t tend to get names. They’re fairly mild compared to the other events. However, evangelicals still like to hear about them.
How evangelicals view all of these events
Back when I saw my first revival, these were largely fundamentalist events. Evangelicals had their own version of it, of course, but theirs didn’t come anywhere near that level of rowdiness. Since then, evangelicals and fundamentalists have fused together—imperfectly, perhaps, with a seam that splits and zigzags here and there, but still. So the Asbury Revival, like others of its nature, looks almost identical to what I saw back in the 1980s and 1990s. For our purposes, then, I’ll simply refer to revival-loving Protestants as evangelicals.
Evangelicals believe that their god sparks all of these events and keeps them going as long as it pleases him to do so. But Jesus only pours out his magic pixie dust if those involved with the beginning of the event are obedient to him and properly devoted and fervent in their worship.
Also, even though all of these events work to strengthen Jesus’ churches and his followers’ faith, they must ask him very very intently—often for a while, as well—to grant them a revival. Sometimes, he just doesn’t feel like cooperating.
Whatever the event turns to be—revival, awakening, refreshing, blessing, renewal, whatevs—evangelicals can look forward to a rousing, rowdy good time there. Many feature frenetic dancing, musical performances of all kinds, testimony-giving and -hearing, hopping around, speaking in tongues, racing up and down the aisles of chairs or pews, singing, baptisms, and even miracles galore.
Evangelicals are drawn to revivals for the same reason that they love miracles, bombastic testimonies, and exorcisms. All of these, they feel, demonstrate the veracity of their overall religious claims. As one Free Methodist Bishop put it, the Asbury Revival couldn’t possibly have sparked to life on its own because the chapel’s worship team and preacher were “unremarkable.”
Not with a bang but a whimper, ends the Asbury Revival
Sara Weissman, writing for Inside Higher Ed, speculates that the largely Gen Z attendees of the Asbury Revival might have been seeking a release from the last few years of tumult and fear. In addition, young evangelicals in particular might have loved feeling something they mistakenly perceived as authentically, genuinely divine in their faith system, just as my young Gen X crowd did back in the 1980s.
On February 25, Paul Prather, writing for Religion Unplugged, even wondered if the Asbury Revival could “last 100 years like the Moravian Revival in Germany.” He quickly hedged that bet by pointing out:
Whenever a spiritual visitation such as this arrives, you just never know. That’s part of the excitement.Paul Prather
Alas for Prather and like-minded evangelicals, eventually Asbury University had to offload its revival. It, and its hometown, were getting overwhelmed. Christian leaders in the area swooped in on the action, particularly Nick Hall of a ministry called Pulse. (For a while now, he’s been trying hard to kickstart a revival for Gen Z.)
Like most bursts of catharsis and ecstasy, though, this one expended itself and then petered out.
Of course, none of this has stopped yet another bunch of pandering evangelicals from claiming that the revival is totally linked to their own for-profit endeavor. On February 21, the director of Jesus Revolution said that “there’s a divine hand on the timing” of his movie’s release, since it came out right at the end of the revival. Unfortunately for him, apparently Jesus couldn’t do much about the bowdlerized story’s glaring flaws.
Not all evangelicals agree on the Asbury Revival
And now that the event is over, evangelicals have begun playing another of their favorite games: arguing about it.
One evangelical blogger, Samuel Sey, criticizes the Asbury Revival on several grounds. Sey’s post is a good example of what I’m seeing in evangelical writing these days. To start, he’s concerned that the evangelicals who like the Asbury Revival are attacking those who doubt it was really a revival at all. It contains a number of accusations of infighting about the status of the event.
And an argument can definitely be made there. I’ve heard nothing of the event continuing elsewhere around the area after the school ended their hosting of it. Nor have I heard about any great wave of conversions as a result of it. That lends credence to the argument that what happened at Asbury wasn’t technically a real revival—as powerful as the experience no doubt was for many participants.
Moreover, Sey thinks Asbury University’s leaders and teachers aren’t Jesus-ing correctly at all, and that the revival’s preachers didn’t present “the gospel” correctly or often enough.
(The gospel, when written with a lowercase g, means the evangelical recruitment pitch: Psychically apologize to Jesus and swear eternal to him, or he will torture your ghost forever after you die.)
Those accusations are equally common in evangelicalism. For years now, evangelicals have engaged in an endless game of More Hardcore Than Thou. But Sey adds a very interesting criticism near the end of his post that speaks to evangelicals’ possible motivations in flocking to that little Kentucky town:
It’s concerning, however, that so many of us are seemingly bored by ordinary worship at a local church that produces extraordinary change in one soul. [. . .]
After centuries of Christianity influencing our culture, many of us have now accepted that not only do we live in a post-Christian culture—we live in an anti-Christian culture.Samuel Sey
I think he’s onto something here.
Revivals come and go, come and go
For almost two decades now, evangelicals have been in decline. Perhaps for even longer, they have been asking their god for a really big revival. When I was fundamentalist myself, my church regularly prayed for our god to send us a revival. We scheduled revival weeks, hoping that they’d turn into the real thing. And because of the nature of groups explicitly seeking emotional release, that is generally what happened. I’ve even got a photo of one I attended around 1988:
Everything that Asbury University claims about their revival happened at this one, right down to the claims of magic healing. But this older revival also saw many dozens of new people join the churches that participated.
In fact, I learned a few years ago that at the time I took this photo, two of the men sitting in front of the choir were dealing behind the scenes with a very serious sex abuse accusation against a youth minister in the denomination. And somehow, Jesus still poured out his magic pixie dust upon that revival.
Something something not a TAME lion something something, eh?
Mostly, though, they just dwindle back to baseline
By now, even the internet has forgotten that this 1988-ish revival ever took place. Almost all of the people who joined during it eventually drifted out again. Indeed, Pentecostals got hit with the same decline that everyone in the Christ-o-sphere began facing after the mid-2000s. And somehow, Jesus has seemed completely disinterested in changing anything for his followers. (He seemed similarly disinterested in 2014, when a bunch of his most devoted followers decided to sorta-kinda hunger strike to end equal marriage!)
When Asbury’s situation made the news, evangelicals thought that maybe their god had answered their prayers at last—and that maybe their decline had finally reached its bottom.
That’s doubtful at this point.
The event at Asbury, be it a revival or a refreshing or a blessing or an outpouring or whatever else evangelicals eventually decide to call it, certainly might shore up the faith of a few Gen Z evangelicals who might otherwise have left their churches.
On the other hand, it’s a lot easier for those young evangelicals than it was for Gen X to find out how common these sorts of experiences are around the world, in situations and venues as varied as music, dance, film, drugs, and religion, and through recorded human history. And once they find out that revivals aren’t the only way to fly, so to speak, then they may feel rather deceived, as I once did, to hear evangelical leaders try to claim that revivals are the only real deal catharsis-and-ecstasy source in the universe.
If there’s anything this life has taught me, it’s this: Anyone who tries to claim a monopoly on any aspect of the human experience is trying to sell you something that isn’t good for you.