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The Twilight of Revivalism and the Future of Christian Witness

I am a campus minister, but I am not going to try to “convert” you.  If you ask me how I “became a Christian,” I’ll tell you I was born into a Christian home and was baptized as an infant.  If you ask me how I “got saved,” I’ll tell you that, at least according to Paul, I am not “saved” yet and neither are you.  If you ask me to tell you what I think the gospel is, I will open my Bible to the Gospel According to Mark and begin reading until you tell me to stop.  And I always have to chuckle a little bit when I see a banner announcing that a church has scheduled a “revival.”


Well, that’s a long story, but thankfully Gordon T. Smith has begun to tell it for me in his excellent, recent Christianity Today article, “The New Conversion: Why We ‘Become Christians’ Differently Today.”   Long story made short, Smith narrates the ways in which evangelicals are finally shrugging off the language, assumptions, and techniques of 19th century revivalism–that form of evangelical piety which is entirely centered on “winning souls,” “getting saved,” going to heaven when you die, praying the sinners’ prayer, and “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior (and/or Lord–depending on who you ask).”

That way of thinking about Christianity lost all purchase on reality for me some years ago as I came to realize that not only was it an approach to Christianity developed only a little over a century and a half ago, it also makes hash out of the language of the New Testament (to say nothing of the Old).  In this respect, the title of the article is unfortunate.  For “the new conversion” for which most post-revivalistic evangelicals (if I may coin a phrase) are looking is not some radical innovation but a recovery of the ancient modes of evangelical witness which were shoved aside and forgotten amid the confused evangelistic hullabaloo of the last century and a half or so.  The patient, quiet, deeply personal work of discipleship was drowned out by the noisy “Crusades,” rallies, and “revivals,” and abandoned in favor of various “get saved quick” schemes.

But that long, difficult work of making disciples still needs doing, and it’s high time we relearned how to do it.  So, please, read Smith’s article.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

(Just as a side note, I think that in the long-run, revivalism has done more harm than good.  It is an inherently anti-ecclesiological, anti-sacramental, anti-traditional, and anti-intellectual framework.  The fact that revivalism has been American evangelicalism’s theological frame of reference for the last century goes a long ways towards explaining the present confusion of the American church.)



5 thoughts on “The Twilight of Revivalism and the Future of Christian Witness

  1. When you add a global ‘contextual’ perspective, it is actually not easy to say that revivalism has done more harm than good. For me (personally) to affirm it as a harm would be to discredit almost all my ancestral history that has led me to be where I am today. I think it more helpful to distinguish true revivals and false revivals, although I know making such a distinction is not easy. Korean Christianity, for one, benefited immensely with this revival theology from the 1900’s to the 1980’s, it is only recently that the adverse affects of revivalism begin to show and I believe that is primarily a function of the recently modernized affluent context of South Korea.

    I must say, I haven’t read Smith’s article yet, so off I go to read.

    Posted by Paul P | April 20, 2012, 10:19 am
    • That’s probably a fair criticism, Paul. In the short run (and in terms of Church history as a whole, a century is a “short run”) revivalism has probably done a fair amount of good. I wouldn’t want to say that Billy Graham’s ministry was a bad thing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to demean the birth and tremendous growth of Korean Christianity.
      I really don’t know much about how the spread of the gospel in South Korea took place. Was it primarily through the sorts of evangelistic techniques that have been so popular here in America (e.g., rallies, revivals, tracts, etc.)? My understanding of missions has been framed mostly by Lesslie Newbigin and Harvey Conn, and their articulations of how mission works do not strike me as particularly revivalist.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | April 20, 2012, 10:32 am
      • Well one of the most important events in Korean Christianity is the Great Revivals of 1907 (it was in actuality a series of revivals). This event was a catalyst for the growth of the church, and most scholars agree that this ‘revival’ was a genuine one that was grounded in repentance, prayer (this is where early dawn prayer comes from!), and deep interest in bible studies. It was very good ‘timing’ as the oppression of the Japanese occupation and the hardships after the Korean war were very fitting for the revivalistic theology. (Harvie Conn was a missionary in South Korea around, I think, the 1960s.) So this is one particular context, and I actually do agree with you, that now in Korea, the theology of conversion and evangelism needs to change. And I actually find Newbigin’s missiology wonderful (that is, ‘church as mission’), although I’ve come to realize his missiology cannot be applied across the board.

        BTW, who is that in the picture??

        Posted by Paul P | April 20, 2012, 3:03 pm
  2. Thanks for this excellent post and for drawing attention to Smith’s piece. I saw it when it came out, but hadn’t taken the time to read it. I agree that it is an important observation and an important conversation we should be having.

    As he says, “More and more evangelicals appreciate that God’s salvation has both a past and future dimension, is about not merely conversion but lifelong transformation, and has both a corporate and cosmic dimension.” Amen to that and as it should be.

    Posted by Bill | April 21, 2012, 6:56 am
  3. From the majority of comments to Smith’s article, I’m gathering it may be ahead of its time. Sigh.

    Posted by nanbush | April 21, 2012, 3:57 pm

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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